Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Strawberry memories…

We didn’t get many strawberries this year. The plants have done well though, shooting off runners with two or three potential strawberry plants on each, over thirty in total, plenty of new plants for next year if I can get them to root and grow.

I’ve potted them up in loamy compost, each runner held in place with two wire ‘U’ pins, one each side of the developing plant leaving the runner attached to the parent. I’ll cut the new plant free from its umbilical chord in a few weeks time, then pot them on into larger pots and put them in my cold frame.

I can remember when and where I first propagated strawberries from runner. It was at Waterperry Hall in Oxfordshire - a horticultural college for young ladies, and I was fourteen. I was working there in the school holidays. It was the most glorious summer of pricking-out tomatoes, Dutch hoeing lettuce beds, potting up runners in the strawberry fields - the soft undulation of the Oxfordshire countryside all around me. I couldn’t do it today, eight hours of bending – these days my back won’t stand eight minutes without screaming at me to stop. Forty years on and forty years ago - a good strong back, a deep-brown tan, and girls -- what a glorious way to spend an Oxfordshire summer.

And what a summer it was. Hot and humid, two days of sunshine, followed every third by a thunderstorm, in a cycle, repeated over and over. Me working in the fields, wandering beside the high walled, brick backed, herbaceous borders during lunchtimes, sheltering from the rain in the old wooden barn (the one that was used in the TV series ‘Cromwell’), watching the girls in their T-shirts and leggings; digging, hoeing, laughing as they worked – running from raindrops that exploded on the yellow gravel paths.

I remember queuing to collect my wages from the open window at the big house each Friday afternoon, old Miss Havergal reluctantly handing over the shillings and pence, but thanking me with a handshake and a gruff ‘thanks my boy’ all the same. Just a single downward shake, and that yellow gravel voice - sitting by the open window, a rug over her kilted knees, keeping off the cold of old age in that sweltering, steamy, summer.

Beatrix Havergal, principal, opened Waterperry residential horticultural college for women in 1932. She was a woman of her time - Curchillian almost, a force to be reckoned with, but crippled by arthritis when I shook her hand. She was known as the ‘Strawberry Queen’ of Chelsea, and for years she won the gold medal for her Royal Sovereign strawberries at the show. She retired in 1971, the same year I learnt how to pot up strawberry runners at her school. I wonder if my newly potted runners are Royal Sovereign.

Forty years on and forty years ago, summer and strawberries - I can hardly believe it.

Thanks my Boy’- and me almost a man.


  1. Andy Bickerdike commented on Facebook:

    I want memories like these...

  2. We went there last year to buy some plants. Part of it is a garden centre now. The old barn is an art gallery and the house is a conference centre I think. It's very nice.

  3. Alan Spence e-mailed:

    'Ah' Strawberries, Innocence, long, lazy summers.

    Beryl as a young girl would cycle from Style village to the Strawberry farms near Tatton Park. She would pick strawberries all day, hence the red hair. She would go with her friends Wendy and Janet and they would return to their families with punnets of Strawberries. Her parents were not remotely
    concerned that she and her friends had ridden their bikes all the way to Knutsford and back.
    How times have changed!