On the trail of Formby asparagus
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 August 2014
There has been a revival in Formby asparagus and it's being celebrated with a new trail. Martin Pilkington reports
Ranger, Rob Matthews, and volunteers, Martin Shackleton, Duncan McCue and Mike Grek working on the National Trust Asparagus Trail at Formby
National Trust Asparagus Trail at Formby
National Trust Asparagus Trail at Formby
The traditional way of tying asparagus at Larkhill Farm
The National Trust's Countryside Manager, Andrew Brockbank (right) with Roger Brooks at Larkhill Farm
Sculptor, Simon Archer, creating works for the National Trust Asparagus Trail at Formby
Formby’s National Trust land is known for its defiant red squirrel colony, but another story of survival in the face of inferior imports is coming together on land adjoining Tufty & Co’s pinewoods. Historic asparagus fields are thriving there again, with a trail commemorating the trade and those who pioneered it nearing completion.
These days, the sandy fields are fertilised with good clean cow muck, and the results are indisputably delicious – about ten times tastier than certain South American versions. The original fields owed their creation to a rather different fertiliser. NT Countryside Manager Andrew Brockbank explains: ‘In the mid-19th century, after the Southport - Liverpool Railway was built, Thomas Fresh petitioned the Blundell Estate for a manure siding in what is now Freshfield.
‘He was the Inspector of Nuisances in Liverpool, improving health and sanitation. Fresh [something of a misnomer perhaps] was allowed to ship in vast amounts of “night soil” from the backstreets of Liverpool on condition that he brought a large area of land into productive agriculture within a five-year period.’
Dunes were flattened with little more than horse and cart and hand tools. ‘About 200 acres of duneland were cultivated at one time, which shows considerable endeavour,’ he adds.
That the enterprise was a success is undoubted. ‘At Evesham in Worcestershire in the 1930s Lancashire’s Jimmy Lowe, the most famous name among the asparagus farmers, won the champion asparagus grower title on six occasions, quite a statement as Evesham was and is the main asparagus-growing centre in England,’ says Andrew. Liverpool’s then booming Atlantic liner trade bought large quantities, and markets in that city plus Manchester and Preston took much of the rest – though it sold in Covent Garden too.
A handful of families dominated in Formby, an activity that endured until 1996. Their names still ring with local resonance: Aindow, Jennings, Lowe and Brooks. David Brooks, a third-generation grower, said: ‘The crowns are a year old when they go in, and it’s three years before you can cut any. It’s a long term investment, but we hope to crop for 12 years once they start. It’s a mixture of hybrids to spread the season, some early and some late strains. We use the traditional Lancashire knife to cut a couple of inches below the surface, which helps to stop it bleeding.’
David established his first crowns five years ago, so now in the brief April to June season the five-acre field leased from the National Trust sees swathes of green and purple spears bursting through what to the uninitiated looks like little more than dry sand. That is, however, deceptive as Andrew Brockbank explains. ‘The old farmers chose the areas to prepare and grow asparagus by looking where black root or black willow grew. The asparagus finds it own water, its roots penetrate as much as six feet so it draws goodness from a depth, and the nutrient is provided by farmyard manure spread in readiness for planting.’
The marginal land has its advantages, the gulf-stream drift and warming influence of the sea meaning few late frosts threaten the crop, though strong winds can be damaging.
In 2009 the Trust felt the story merited commemoration, one of a series of projects on this splendid coast celebrating its hidden heritage, and the following year Lottery funding was won to help finance the work. Volunteers are now laying paths using tough grass covered with mesh that link the area to the nearby woodland, interpretation boards will be added by the end of the year. Andrew hopes everything will be complete by December and Formby-based sculptor Simon Archer is creating artworks that will help bring the tale to life, with David’s field at its heart as both a contemporary business venture and a reminder of those earlier days.
‘I’ve done three giant spears in sycamore, and am working on three more,’ he says: ‘And I have three huge pieces of oak out of which I’m to carve some more pieces – one maybe a bench with a representation of Jimmy Lowe.
‘The spears will be dropped into the ground and bolted together to keep them safely in place. I thought about painting them but decided against it - when it gets blowy the sand can be very abrasive.’ That probably says something about how resilient the growing asparagus is, and likewise the people who began the trade, creating the fields out of shifting sands. People and product deserve to be remembered and celebrated. Those of us lucky enough to find a supplier for whom local seasonal perfection truly matters can do that next year by tucking into a bunch or two of the sturdy Formby spears.