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The Bubble goes in search of Formby asparagus

A sunny 10 am start on Sunday 11th June. Fifteen asparagus hunters, ready to dig and delve to get the full story. The leader is Andrew Brockbank, National Trust Countryside Manager. We follow the well signed trail to the present sheep field, once a growing area to learn about Thomas Fresh. As Liverpool’s Inspector of Nuisances (a rather different meaning then), he had the inspiration to open a manure siting on the railway line close to where he would later build his home by the present Freshfield Station.

The ‘Night soil’ provided a ready supply of fertiliser for the asparagus growers to ‘improve’ land for agriculture, a great example of early recycling success.. This was essential to give the sand the nutrients needed for the asparagus to grow. By the early 1900’s There were approaching 200 acres of asparagus under cultivation, and the Formby dunes were a hive of activity between the end of April and the summer solstice when traditionally the asparagus season ends. The railway which brought the night soil in the early days was also the easiest way to get the crop to market in Liverpool and further afield.

Vote for Jimmy Lowe, the man you know!

The next stop is by the Jimmy Lowe statue. Here we heard of his successes in winning the top award at the Evesham Show six times in the 1930’s. With his huge family involved, we saw photographs of a virtual village by his fields to accommodate the team at harvest time. With 50 acres, he was almost certainly the leading grower and a well-known local personality.

Sandfield is a short step away, where the Brooks family are now the only growers of the genuine Formby asparagus. This season’s harvest is almost over after an early April start. Alongside is the investment for the future, a part field that had ‘gone to fern’ - (spears have not been harvested in its early 2 -3 years to allow the crowns to establish themselves before harvest can begin and then can run to 12 years or even more.

Old photographs on the interpretation panels tell the story but we also saw pictures of a modern tractor that had been used for the deep dig and delve to get the field ridges and furrows in shape.

Over then to Larkhill field, once fully cultivated with remaining traces of the ridges and on to the statue seat commemorating John Brooks, grandfather of David. It is one of Simon Archer’s four chainsaw sculptures around the trail. At Larkhill Farm, today’s machinery does much of the trimming and cleaning, topping and tailing after the spears have been hand cut in the fields. We saw todays crop, ready for buyers.

"It was once the food for toffs", explained David Brooks, "and the family would have eaten the waste." NT Life Member John Taylor, who at 85 had memories of visiting his grandfather in Formby in pre-World War II days, asked what a bunch would have cost then. David said it was then sold for 1/-* (5p). The crop provided useful cash for local farmers and employment for their families, as it was highly labour intensive. How good it is now that further planting has begun! But remember, cutting will have virtually ended for the season as you read this. Be patient, you must wait until at least mid-April 2018!

*1!/-(5p) an hour was a standard agricultural wage in the mid 1930’s, so it would have taken an hour’s work to buy a bunch. Today’s equivalent is £7.20 so that very roughly, it would take 24 minutes to earn enough for a £2.60 bunch today!

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