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Saturday, 25 October 2014

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Tricks in the trenches keep leek competition going strong

BLOOD, sweat and tears are quite literally the formula for keeping the popular pastime of leek growing alive.

Hxshireleek
Generation game: Freddy Wilson with his grandson Mathew, who is growing leeks and won the last Shire leek show following in the footsteps of Freddy and father Clive.

In Hexhamshire, on September 15, the local leek club proved the horticultural pursuit to be as popular as ever with the celebration of its 50th anniversary.

With nearly 60 members to its name, it is just one of the groups defying the trend of the disappearing leek club.

In fact, competition is as rife as ever, with almost every home in the Shire housing the precious growing trench.

And where there’s horticultural rivalry, there’s plenty of passion and tall tales to be told.

“There’s more lies told about leeks than anything else,” explains chairman George Carr.

“On Saturday morning all you can hear is cursing as they dig up their leeks and find the ones that’ve gone to seed, then you’ll see the wheelbarrows with the big ones being pushed along to the hall.

“Everyone who does it tries their very best, but you don’t know until you get the leeks out of ground what they will be like; that’s all a mystery.

“There is a bit of mystique to growing leeks. Feeding them a bit of gin – we all have different ideas of what works best. It’s a great talking point.

“No doubt there’s the occasional dead lamb stuck in the bottom of a leek trench, but I’m not saying it’s common practice – there are that many mysterious stories.”

Among the tales told are ones of missing cats and other deceased animals, or leeks so big they had to be dug out by a JCB and chainsaws.

For those on the outside, a traditional horticultural pursuit inspiring such stories seems rather strange at best.

But the leek has got quite a strong fan base, dating back thousands of years.

Leeks – or Allium porrum L – have rather exotic origins. Deriving from a native south west Asian plant, they were a favourite of the Egyptians.

Some believe it was the Romans who brought the plant to British shores – and they were even popular with the Emperor Nero, who supposedly ate leeks every day to make his voice stronger.

The first leeks may have reached Northumberland via the Romans building Hadrian’s Wall, but they are more widely associated in modern times with coal mining communities, with the manure from the pit ponies providing the right nutrients for good growth.

And it was the leek- growing efforts of the pitmen in Tynedale, with clubs already in Prudhoe, Mickley and Slaley, that inspired Hexhamshire locals to form their own leek club in 1961 when they gathered in the local pub, the Fox and Hounds in Whitley Chapel, following a visit to a nearby leek show.

Their first show followed the next year, and while the pub in question is now long gone, the club is very much alive and part of the community.

One of the founding members, Freddy Wilson, still participates and is proud to have three generations of his family also growing leeks.

Dedicated to his garden and greenhouse, at the young age of 83, he still ventures out each day of the year to tend to his beloved crops and flowers.

He knows the ins and outs of leek growing like the palm of his hand – from pod, to seed, to ground – and has seen all sorts go into the leek trench for the plant to be a competition contender.

“We started off with a limit of 40 members, but people were jumping to get in,” he said.

“There were three of us who bought leeks from a fellow in Hencotes for half a crown for ten. It’s expensive to grow leeks when you get down to brass tacks.

“You can now pay £4 each for a plant which is not even the size of your finger.

“I’ve entered every year, digging the trench out every winter. In April and May you plant the leeks, leeks only get 15 weeks’ growing life from planting.”

Between Freddy, his son, Clive, and grandson, Matthew, they have won the coveted Presidents’ Cup for best single leek in show eight times between 1972 and 2011 – a pretty good haul for the competitive pastime.

His dedication to the club also sees him out on the Shire two weeks before show day stamping the leeks to match them to their trenches.

The act of stamping is to avoid anyone claiming leeks that are not theirs, and while the club denies any underhand goings on, there is a lot of secrecy in the leek-growing world.

“It’s quite competitive, but never criminal,” Freddy added.

“But people get up to all sorts of tricks. You can stick needles up leeks to stop them seeding and put all sorts of formulae into the trenches.

“Years ago used we used to get silage off a bloke down the pub and brewers’ grains when there was a big brewery in Newcastle.

“Fish bone meal is great stuff, you can still buy dried fish blood and put in a handful here and there. Mind you, hen manure is vicious stuff; you can only have a handful here and there otherwise it will burn right through the plant.”

On the morning of the show the leeks are brought up and, if they haven’t “gone to seed” or perished, are washed in milk or cream – which is better to clean the plant than coarse water – wrapped in a wet towel and taken to the village hall for judging.

Two professional judges then measure the leeks from ‘button’, the start of the leaf, to ‘beard’, the roots, to make sure they are no more than six inches long, before choosing their champ.

Whatever the truth behind getting the perfect plant, there’s no doubting that the club is still going strong where others have failed, with more members than ever benching leeks this year.

The current committee says annual fundraising events – such as dances, trips and casino nights – have helped its appeal, and nowadays new members may have joined for the social side of the club, with leek growing as an aside.

But there’s no doubting that, after a while, the competitive spirit and hunt for the perfect plant has got them well and truly into the mysterious world of leek growing.

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