Back in the 1930s, Mum’s granddad lost his office job when the mill where he worked closed down. Times were hard then and jobs were few, so to make ends meet her gran opened a small shop and her granddad took on whatever little jobs he could find. One of these was as secretary to Morley Smallholders – and, as Morley was in the centre of what is now called The Rhubarb Triangle, there are no prizes for guessing what their main crop was!
Mum’s granddad kept this job going throughout World War II. Then, as his health started to deteriorate, her mum (who I called Granny Betty) took over from him and, as my mum got a bit older, she was sometimes taken along to the meetings as well. But, while most business people held their meetings in boardrooms, offices or even pubs, Morley Smallholders met in a rhubarb shed and, instead of plush chairs, sat on old wooden boxes or whatever they could find.
Granny Betty’s job was to take minutes, write letters and collect the rents to be paid to Lord Dartmouth’s estate, which owned much of the land the rhubarb was grown on, and take the money to the Dartmouth Arms. She also once had to explain to one of the elderly smallholders why he couldn’t pay his overdraft with a cheque from the same account.
When my mum started school, however, Granny Betty got a full-time job and my mum thought she’d never set foot in a rhubarb shed again. Sixty-five years later she was proved wrong as she went with her lovely friends from Red Bus Days Out on a trip to the Rhubarb Festival in Wakefield, starting with a visit to Oldroyds the rhubarb growers in Carlton, near Rothwell.
The tour began with a talk all about rhubarb – of course! – and, although it involved sitting on a hard wooden chair for an hour, me and Mum were completely spellbound as we learnt all sorts of new things about rhubarb. For example, it first grew in Siberia and went from there to China where it was used mainly for medicinal purposes. Later it was traded from China to the Middle East and eventually to Europe, where it was eaten as a food and its medicinal purposes were largely forgotten.
We found out that, although rhubarb is treated as a fruit and made into pies, crumbles and jam, it’s actually a vegetable.
We also found out that its leaves contain oxalic acid which, even in quite small amounts, is toxic enough to kill a human. This confirmed a story that Granny Betty used to tell about someone in her class at school in the 1930s whose family had no money for food and so cooked and ate rhubarb leaves and at least one of them died as a result. Fortunately the stems are quite safe – and delicious! – to eat, though I couldn’t help wondering how many people got poisoned before they found that out!
We also found out why the small area of Yorkshire, known as The Rhubarb Triangle, had the perfect conditions for forcing the rhubarb, which makes it produce tender new shoots early in the year, rather than in the summer. Not only were the soil and the weather conditions perfect, but there was also a plentiful supply of local coal to heat the forcing sheds, plus the local woollen mills provided a ready supply of waste wool – known as shoddy – which fed the rhubarb during the time it was being forced. There was also good rail transport which could get the rhubarb to the London markets within hours of it being picked.
Some of these conditions have changed over the years, but the growing methods are the same, with the rhubarb growing in the dark at a rate of four inches a day. This was a bit scary for a little bear who’s not grown much more than that in all his life so far!
From the farm, we went on to nearby Wakefield where the annual three-day Festival of Rhubarb was taking place. Gathered around the Cathedral were about 60 temporary wooden stalls – rather like a German Market – selling rhubarb in every way imaginable and some you might never have thought of. As well as rhubarb itself, there was rhubarb wine, rhubarb gin, rhubarb jam, rhubarb marmalade, rhubarb chutney, rhubarb salad dressing and even pork pies with rhubarb.
There were Morris Dancers, groups of singers, balloon modellers and face-painters to entertain the crowds.
One of the things Mum really wanted to see, however, was the inside of the Cathedral which she’d never visited before.
And above all she wanted to see a statue of the Madonna and Child as, at one of her temporary jobs many years ago, she’d worked briefly with the young woman who’d been the model for the Madonna. Carved in Cadeby Limestone in 1986 by the Yorkshire-based sculptor, Ian Judd, this is now in the Lady Chapel and is said to represent the universal nature of motherhood, as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary herself.
After that, it was time to come home. And, though we were a bit disappointed not to have seen the four-metre-tall rhubarb sculpture in one of the Wakefield parks, we had plenty of the real stuff to put in the freezer for a future date.
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