OPINION: Reflecting on the fruits of Norfolk labour

Blackcurrant pickers of all ages ready for another ambush or two along the bountiful Norfolk rows

Blackcurrant pickers of all ages ready for another ambush or two along the bountiful Norfolk rows - Credit: Keith Skipper Collection

One of the most poignant encounters of my character-gathering career as press reporter, wireless presenter and travelling mardler featured a chirpy old son of the soil reflecting on fruits of his Norfolk labours.

Riddled with arthritis and nursing weather-beaten limbs, he refused to look back in anger. Main regrets were poor returns for long hours and failure to make the most of schooldays. “I never got the hang o’ book-larnin’” he confessed with half a smile.

He served as valuable all-rounder on village farms and, in later years, around a busy local fruit-picking scene. “It was great fun tryin’ ter keep up with them mawthers. Some onnem dint half scrap up an’ down them rows!” he chuckled. ”They dint bother ter stop for fourses”.

I asked what he missed most from all those years linked to the land. Rheumy eyes twinkling and weak arms slowly spreading, he painted a pastoral picture of taking refreshments under a favourite headlands tree and peering down on the only home patch of his 80-plus years.

“Allus had a bottle o’ cold tea and Oxo tin full o’ corned beef sandwidges for my wittles. Bit o’ cearke wuz a bonus. I dint mind sittin’ there by merself. Even in the country, yew need a bit o’ peace an’ space ter weigh it all up ….”.

That old boy’s satisfying sense of time and place came a bit late to ease me along long rows of holiday endeavours in the name of contributions towards new school uniforms. I did a deal with several head-scarved women whose flying fingers put my irritable fumblings to shame on the strawberry fields.

They paid me a small fee to take their loaded baskets to the weighing and paying stations. So I plodded instead of picked, ate as many as possible without feeling too sick to travel and went home with just about enough money to spare total embarrassment.

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For all my blatant ineptitude on the growing and collecting fronts, I did cultivate deep respect and gratitude for creative creeds of others. Better than being eaten up with envy when it came to harvesting strawberries, blackcurrants, plums, cherries, apples, beans and raspberries.

That shameless compromise began when father and useful members of his gardening corps banished me to dark corners of the shed to find a tray of King Edward seed potatoes wedged between a pile of old rubber boots and the green pram that me and others filled on early state visits round the village.

I found a rat and a perfect excuse to rush indoors for a quiet read. Although the foreman may have smelt a rat whenever I came up with another excuse for missing digging, planting, watering, weeding and harvesting duties, it was generally agreed my absence was far more likely to enhance productivity than develop the plot.

Our home-grown rhubarb, christened “bloodshot celery” by jealous neighbours, enjoyed an enviable reputation among those ready to barter with produce from their own fertile gardens. I like to think I played a small part in father’s glow as tributes were paid and exchanges made.

His bucket-and-spade sessions after visits to our outside family seat clearly boosted quality of our generously-leafed quota. It was a proud team effort. Even I knew rhubarb could be forced, usually by placing an upturned bucket over the new shoots. Another sound use for the good old family pail …

I still prefer it neat, stewed with a drizzle of sugar, although I have been tempted into adding an odd downpour of evaporated milk for a Sunday tea diversion. Crumbles, pies and tarts are never turned away, while rhubarb merged with other fruits can produce an outstanding variety of jams. Don’t forget to add root ginger or pectin where necessary.

Of course, the very word “rhubarb” is often used by actors talking quietly to one another on stage to simulate real conversation since it contains no harsh-sounding consonants and is hard to detect. Perhaps some of our elected representatives ought to follow suit when it comes to dispensing verbal fruit in parish council chamber or House of Commons.

While rhubarb is normally considered a vegetable, a New York court decided in 1947 that since it was used in the United States as a fruit it should be counted as a fruit for purposes of regulations and duties. One of the side effects was a reduction in taxes paid.

Skip's Aside: When I was a lad, anniversaries meant a packed chapel, visiting preacher sporting dinner -plate button-hole, recitations on crumpled paper behind your back in case of emergencies and handsome collection towards the annual seaside outing.

We had the odd Coronation street party, Jubilee tea, thanksgiving supper to mark end or start of a new blackberry picking season and birthday party to put on a blindfold and pin the tail on the donkey.

Generally, though, we sauntered along as willing hostages to the rolling seasons, calling “holdgee!” at harvest time, “hold hard!” at closing time and wondering why we couldn’t find the white snowplough when winter winds blew and cut us off from rest of the world.

We had to make our own amusements – hence a penchant for white snowploughs, loosely-tethered goat on the green, inkwells alive with frogspawn, collapsible bicycle seats, swivelling signposts to confuse the Vikings (and intruders from beyond Litcham) and a smoking Tortoise stove in the chapel to shorten sermons

Oh yes, there was the odd slice of tomfoolery to welcome Jack Valentine when parcels attached to bits of string were whisked away from the step as soon as the intended love of your village life opened the door.

Harmless rural fun to complement regular rhythms of a Norfolk largely at ease with itself. Many communities were small and closely-knit, tied to the land and eternal secrets of bountiful hedgerows.

Genuine satisfaction resulted in knowing where the fun came from. No question of the wrong person finishing up in the stocks or barrel of rotten apples behind the pub. Banishment to a disused hut on the old aerodrome simply got you out of chores for a whole day in summer.

Times change. Country life has lost much of its spontaneity while demands for it to be revived are on the increase. New villagers, often drawn by ancient tales of rustic rituals designed to keep indigenous folk amused before satellite dishes, orienteering and real ale. are digging up anniversaries by the cart-load.

I hear Arts Council backing is being sought for revival of Soak The Suffragette Day, a big favourite at Edwardian country-house gatherings. Drench the Wench Week at the church fete can’t be quite the same