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Words: Glynis Fox
Photography: Mick Fox
Featured in the March 2014 issue

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Herbalist Hannah Sylvester’s passion for making people feel at ease is immediately obvious as I am received with a warm welcome, swiftly followed by a piping hot cup of tea – of the rose, vanilla and camomile variety, of course!

Born in Lincoln, Hannah has really found her niche as a practising herbalist and she is not only happy to treat people, she is also generous enough to share her knowledge. But strange as it may seem when you meet her today, setting up as The District Herbalist three years ago wasn’t part of her original career plan.

In fact, Hannah – who once considered becoming a journalist – took up a place at Reading University, but eventually decided to return home having had a change of heart. Perhaps the seeds of her growing enterprise had already been sown because Hannah had used herbal medicines to treat herself for minor ailments for a long time.

The only other explanation seems to be that the roots of her business had simply lain dormant, biding their time, ready to surface just at the time when Hannah was seriously wondering what to do next.

But it was a quick chat with her sister Rachael, whilst Hannah was surfing the Internet, that brought everything into sharp focus.

“I can’t really remember how it came about, but Rachael and I were on the telephone and talking about the fact that neither of us had found our vocation in life,” said Hannah.

“At the same time I was looking at the University of Lincoln website where I spotted a BSc course in Herbal Medicine. That was my eureka moment. I thought ‘this is what I’m going to do.’”

Hannah has always loved the natural world and, whenever she has been struck down with a cold or the flu, her first instinct has been to reach for natural remedies. Historically, she had also visited health food stores for natural remedies and the more she treated herself the more she had become convinced that “there is something in this.”

Hannah’s growing fascination with the world of herbs led her to buy books, mix her own blends of tea and devise recipes for herbal infused oils for use on her own face and body.

But when it came to getting qualified, she was unsure whether her school results were good enough to enable her to get a degree in Herbal Medicine.

“I decided to email the course leader at the University of Lincoln and ask if I had the appropriate qualifications for the course. I had achieved GCSEs in biology, chemistry and physics, but not A Levels. However, I had background knowledge of this subject,” said Hannah.

She was thrilled to be accepted on the course and returned to the classroom in 2007.

“Launching myself into full-time education was really hard work, but also a huge amount of fun. The course was really intensive,” said Hannah. “The course at Lincoln (now offered by Lincoln College) is quite unusual, as it is heavily based on medicine,  anatomy, clinical diagnosis, pharmacy and chemistry. We learn a lot about herbs and how to use them.

“The course content really exceeded my expectations. My class was made up of a very mixed age group, from eighteen years old to sixty-five, which was great because everyone had something to share. We worked very well together.”

After three years of hard work, Hannah emerged as the proud recipient of a BSc Hons (First) degree and she immediately decided to launch The District Herbalist. Today she is based out of the Chien Clinic at North Greetwell, near Lincoln, but also works within the community.

“I thought of the name The District Herbalist because I felt it would be a really nice thing to do, going out and visiting people within their homes as well as working within a clinic setting,” said Hannah.

She was lucky enough to benefit from help from the Enterprise Inc scheme in Lincoln, which gave Hannah the necessary funding to allow her to equip her dispensary with the essential medicines and diagnostic equipment for her work.

“Going into business was a big learning curve for me, but I love it and my client base has been building up through word of mouth recommendations,” said Hannah.

Her patients may be suffering with anything from stress and anxiety-related problems to immune system, dietary or musculoskeletal issues. The majority are usually offered a course of treatment. They may include patients who are looking for help to supplement treatments which they are receiving from their GP or hospital.

However, Hannah is doing much more than simply treating her patients through one-to-one consultations.

“I like getting out and about and doing things, including giving lots of talks, which helps people to see me as a person and understand better what I do,” said Hannah. “I do half and full-day workshops, where people might learn anything from how to make lip balm, or herbal ointments to the use of herbs for bathing.”

Hannah can also construct and deliver corporate team-building events, based on her knowledge and expertise. But one of the most popular things she offers are Urban Herb Walks in the Bailgate area, where people can enjoy a stroll around the Cathedral Quarter and learn about different medicinal herbs, flowers and trees and how these species can be used within the home for cooking, first aid or medicinal purposes.

“Nowadays, people think of herbal medicines as something bought from health foods shops, because they have lost the connection with when people used to go out, gather their own herbs and mix their own products,” said Hannah. “People don’t realise that things grown in their gardens and in the fields or woods may have health-giving benefits.”

Of course, Hannah, who is one of 2,000 registered herbalists in the UK, is the first to say that safety is paramount. People need to tread carefully and know what they are doing. That is probably why she is enjoying so much success in her drive to maintain a tradition which dates back centuries.

HERBALISTS HAVE THEIR OWN INSTITUTE
Hannah is a member of The National Institute of Medical Herbalists – an organisation with a proud heritage and tradition, which was founded back in 1864.

Members of the Institute, who can use the initials MNIMH after their name, are required to carry out Continued Professional Development after qualifying, and commit to a career-long learning programme organised by the Institute’s Post Graduate Training Board.

The Institute says that patients of all ages, from infants to the very elderly, can get something from herbal medicine, which may be prescribed for digestive, circulatory, stress or sleep problems, as well as hormonal imbalances and numerous other conditions.

When you visit a herbalist for the first time, you should expect them to take a detailed case history of your current problems and wider medical history, lifestyle, diet and other circumstances. Medical herbalists make a diagnosis based on their findings but, where necessary, they may refer patients on for more tests.

Herbal prescriptions can take the form of tinctures (a blend of herbal extracts in an alcohol/water base) or tea, capsules, tablets or creams, lotions and oils for external use.

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