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‘They’re like our children’: gooseberry growers compete at Yorkshire show | yorkshire

They could be weighing and grading diamonds, or lumps of gold or cocaine, such is the seriousness and obvious rigor with which the process is carried out. Instead it is big gooseberries, and it’s not for the faint-hearted.

“It would be amazing to win something,” says Marguerite Benson, on her way in to the annual Egton Bridge gooseberry show in North Yorkshire. “Especially this year because we’ve suffered everything you can – sawfly, wasps, birds got in the cage a week ago. Talk about stress. These little berries that we’ve been nurturing, they’re like our … children.”

Egton Bridge is the oldest gooseberry show in the UK, running on the first Tuesday of every August since 1800, apart from enforced breaks due to foot and mouth and Covid.

Benson and his partner Dr John Snape, who tends the berries, have had many years of disappointment but are optimistic this time. “We’re in with a chance,” she says of the berries, carefully transported in a Marks & Spencer shortbread tin with a homemade label, the word “scones” crossed out and replaced with “gooseberries”.

“It is just such a fantastic tradition and it’s important, it’s part of our heritage,” Benson says. “With the weather we’re having, keeping berries until the first of August is a challenge because they are ripening too soon. But we’re crossing our fingers.”

The event has taken place on the first Tuesday of every August since 1800, discounting enforced breaks. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Julia Bennison has been coming to the show since she was a baby. She can pick out her de ella great-great-grandad Linus Bennison from old photographs on display. Her dad de ella, Bob, is president of the society, and she and her siblings de ella all enter.

Her gooseberries have been grown in Newcastle, where she now lives and works as a director of nursing. “I’ve got some good gooseberries this year, it takes a while for the bushes to get established and they’re good. I think I’ve got a good pair of twins and I’ve got a heavy green as well. I’m happy this year, I might win a prize.”

Like other growers, she says there is no big secret to growing big gooseberries apart from care and attention, although she has memories of the fertiliser her dad used when she was a child. “We used to go out for the day to Osmotherley and spend all day gathering sheep muck,” she says, possibly joking, possibly not.

No one knows why the passion for growing giant gooseberries started but there is evidence of it being a hobby in industrial areas of England in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

A grower's gooseberries
A grower’s gooseberries. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

The Egton Bridge show started in 1800 and is still going strong, held this year for the first time at the plush Egton Manor, a weddings and events venue. Many of the old traditions remain, with all the gooseberries carefully weighed on an oil-damped, twin-pan scale that has been used since 1937.

Graeme Watson, the chair of the society and something of a master grower and gooseberry guru, says growing them is a labor of love. “There are lots of things that can go wrong over the course of a year, so the better you look after them, the bigger they’ll grow. There’s gooseberry sawfly, mice like them, somebody has had rats attacking them on an allotment … blackbirds love them, wasps.”

Keeping the show going is important, he says. “We are the custodians. It is our job to preserve it. It’s not everyone’s thing but we are trying to encourage more growers to want to do it.”

Everyone the Guardian speaks to says they enjoy the taste of gooseberries. If they’re bitter then they’re not ripe enough.

A gooseberry enthusiast at the event
A gooseberry enthusiast at the event. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

The pride and competitive spirit on display at the contest is obvious, although no one is in it for the glamour. Leek shows in the north-east of England once offered cash prizes in their thousands. In Egton Bridge, near Whitby, the prizes on offer range from plastic watering cans (in four colours) and wellies to tins of biscuits and teabags.

The show attracts gooseberry enthusiasts from far and wide. Chris Jones, a 70-year-old retired truck driver, has traveled over from Goostrey in Cheshire, “the epicenter of gooseberry growing”, he says.

I have entered “because we’re allowed to, it’s an open competition. Plus it’s a good excuse to come and talk with like-minded growers and see the differences in growing.”

Like others, he has no growing secrets. Or so he says. “Honestly, my only tip is to get yourself some good trees, some good stock… that’s all you need.”

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