One of the first recordings that Ann Heeley made for the oral archive was of Arnold Thomas, a strawberry grower in Cheddar. This took place in 1979 when the local industry was already largely in decline.

Strawberries began to be grown in Cheddar in the latter part of the nineteenth century and one of the first in the field was a Mr Stanley Spencer who grew the variety known as Royal Sovereign which had been raised by Laxton & Sons. This variety had an excellent flavour and produced heavy crops. The berries were exceptionally large, with a weight of two ounces being quite common; Arnold’s uncle once won an all-England competition with a berry that weighed in at over four ounces. Royal Sovereign held its prime position for many years but it was susceptible to viruses and gradually lost favour until by the 1950s it had become very difficult to grow. Soon after the war the Cambridge Institute began experimenting with new virus-free varieties and one of the best of these was the Cambridge Vigour.

One of the problems experienced in the early days was that of finding suitable containers in which to send the fruit to market. A local basket-maker produced some wicker baskets which held twelve pounds each but these were not very successful and, being returnable, the growers often had to wait for them to come back until they could pick the next crop. Later a local firm of builders in Cheddar developed the chipping machine and they made four pound chip baskets for the growers. Unlike the large wicker baskets these were not returnable so they always had a good supply ready in their barns. Gradually much smaller amounts were packed in punnets and nowadays strawberries are mostly sold in plastic containers.

Another problem was that the strawberries used to get muddy because in wet weather the rain splashed on to them. The first solution was to cut heather and bracken and place it between the plants but it was hard work and difficult to get enough. Sparta waste grass from St.Cuthbert’s paper mills was tried and was quite successful for a time. But then they tried straw, which was provided by farmers, and found it to be the best.

The strawberries were sent to their destinations by passenger train and were on sale in shops all over the country the next day. In the beginning they would be taken from the small-holdings in baskets, two layers high, to the station, and Arnold remembered the long lines of carts waiting there. The Cheddar line closed in the early 1960s and for a while the railway provided huge vans to take the strawberries to Bristol for distribution by passenger train all over the country. But when that stopped everything went by road.

In the early days the strawberry season was very short, usually no more than three or four weeks or less in a very hot summer, and everybody in Cheddar, including children, would be frantically busy during this time. Growers had to make enough money in that time to last for a year and a late frost could spell disaster. About 1952 cloche-growing was introduced and this extended the picking season for up to seven or eight weeks. Later still polythene tunnels came on the scene which gave a much longer season but the spread of these is now controversial. And with the advent of huge imports from the continent, chiefly Spain, it is now possible to buy strawberries for most of the year but these varieties, though hardy and good travellers, do not have anything like the delicate flavour of their old English forerunners grown for so long in the Cheddar soil.

Mary Vidal

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