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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Gently, and with a delicate skill honed over decades, Bill McClymont lifts one of the lowermost leaves of a giant leek in his greenhouse.

“That’s where the slugs hide,” he says, pointing a leathery index finger to the space beneath the leaf, right next to the plant’s shaft.

A burst of heavy rain begins to loudly hammer the plastic roof of the greenhouse. The cloudburst illustrates neatly what may have been the biggest impediment in recent years to dedicated gardeners like 76-year-old Bill – the apparent demise of our once glorious British summer.

Like many of the competitors who took part in this year’s World Leek and Onion Championships at the Lifeboat Inn in Maryport, Bill has found his efforts frustrated by too much rain, and nowhere near enough sun.

As in previous years, Maryport briefly on Sunday became the UK capital for monster sized veg, with the winning onion weighing in at a seemingly impossible 17lb 2oz.

This year’s lousy summer weather has tested the competitors’ skills to the limit.

Whether it’s a worrying symptom of climate change or just a blip in the weather will no doubt preoccupy experts for years to come, but for now gardeners like Bill are coping as best they can.

“I’ve been growing leeks for 40 years and we used to grow them outside,” explains Bill.

“Now we do it under plastic tunnels. They haven’t done as well as we’d like because of the lack of sunlight.

“There’s also been too much rain. I suppose we’re going to have to adapt because the weather has definitely changed in my lifetime.

“It’s always rained, of course, but it used to be a nice gentle rain, that did a lot of good. Now it comes down in bucket-loads.

“This summer it was so savage the guttering on houses couldn’t take it. It was just running over the top. I’ve seen a lot of bad weather in my life, but not to the extent that we have it now.

“It was just as bad last year and the year before.”

The leeks that grow in regimented rows in Bill’s 30ft long greenhouse are impressive nevertheless, a testament to his dedication and skill. He also grows very large onions, “tatties,” and has a front garden crammed with begonia flowers – a dazzling display of vibrant yellows and reds.

Nurturing and protecting his vegetable crop is a full-time job, says Bill. It also involves a huge amount of know-how, built up over a lifetime of gardening.

His skill and hard work has twice earned him the top ranking in the World Pot Leek Championships, in 1989 and 1990. He was also the first gardener to grow a pair of leeks with more than 200 cubic inches of girth in 1998.

In Maryport on Sunday, he clinched a third place with a leek that reached a girth of some 212 cubic inches.

What advice would he give to anybody who wants to follow his example and grow legendary veg?

“It’s all about perseverance, and experience, but don’t go at it daft,” he says.

Bill acknowledges that some veg gardeners have taken their passion for the hobby to extremes.

Some years ago, on a wild and windy night, a thief stole into his greenhouse and carried off – no doubt with some great difficulty – one of his prize-winning onions.

Bill speaks also of folk in the north east whose efforts to protect their crop have included using trip wires linked to loaded shotguns.

“Everybody tries their best to be perfect but you have to enjoy it.”

At the Lifeboat Inn, George Kemp, the lifelong gardener and publican who organises the World Leek and Onion Championships, speaks with pride of the friendly atmosphere among competitors, and of their astonishing horticultural achievements.

“It’s true that there hasn’t been enough sunlight, but we’ve had some very impressive entries.

“Peter Glazebrook, from Nottingham, won this year with an absolutely enormous onion. Last year, he broke the world record with one weighing 17lbs 15 ½ounces.

“He’s always showed at Maryport. This year, we had 160 people from all over the country and it was a very friendly atmosphere. It’s fair to say that there are annual vegetable shows in most towns at this time of the year.

“But the people who exhibit at Maryport are the best: they’re the elite among the UK's vegetable growers.”

They include many renowned growers – Mr Glazebrook; Peter Holden, from Durham (now rated one of the best leek growers in the country); and Maryport’s very own former world champion onion grower Joe McKenzie.

But George, 56, himself a time served gardener and national pot leek judge, stresses that the accolades do not just recognise the size of competing vegetables.

It’s also about quality: factors such as firmness, symmetry, and colour.

Asked why he remains so passionate about gardening, he replies: “It’s a lovely hobby. I’ve always loved getting out into the garden.

“But when it comes to the championships, the biggest thing is that 99 per cent of the people who take part, at whatever level, tend to be lovely genuine people.

“There are always plenty of people who you can turn to for advice. We had some people come up from Sheffield to enter the Championships and they stayed with us for the week.

“To be fair, they didn’t have the best exhibits, but they were great crack.

“It shows how gardening brings people together.”

In full agreement with that sentiment is 78-year-old Ernie Ridley, who has been secretary of the Aspatria Leek and Onion Club for 47 years.

“I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink but I spend my time gardening,” he says.

“I enjoy it because you’re always doing something, and it’s good exercise.

“You’re not just sitting there watching the television; and you’re always getting out and about and meeting people. And my family and plenty of my neighbours get fresh veg.”

As for the changing climate, it will probably have to get a lot worse before it can even begin to deter Cumbria’s devoted army of giant veg growers.


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