TIt can involve weighing and sorting diamonds, or chunks of gold or cocaine, that’s the seriousness and obvious accuracy with which the process is carried out. Instead, they’re great gooseberries, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
“It would be great to win something,” says Marguerite Benson, on her way to the annual Egton Bridge gooseberry show in North Yorkshire. “Especially this year because we’ve suffered everything you can – sawflies, wasps, birds that got into the cage a week ago. Talk about tension. These little berries that we have cherished are just like our… children.”
Egton Bridge is the UK’s oldest gooseberry show, held every first Tuesday in August since 1800, with the exception of forced breaks due to foot-and-mouth disease and Covid.
Benson and her partner Dr. John Snape, who takes care of the berries, have been disappointed for years, but are optimistic this time. “We have a shot,” she says of the berries, carefully shipped in a Marks & Spencer shortbread tin with a homemade label, the word “scones” crossed out and replaced with “gooseberries.”
“It’s just such a fantastic tradition and it’s important, it’s part of our heritage,” says Benson. “With the weather we have, it’s a challenge to keep berries until August 1, because they ripen too early. But we’re crossing our fingers.”
Julia Bennison has been coming to the show since she was a baby. She can pick out her great-great-grandfather Linus Bennison from old photographs on display. Her father, Bob, is president of the association, and she and her siblings all come in.
Her gooseberries are grown in Newcastle, where she now lives and works as a nurse director. “I’ve got some good gooseberries this year, the bushes are taking a while to settle in and they’re good. I think I’ve got a good twin and I’ve got a heavy green one too. I’m happy this year, maybe I’ll win one price.”
Like other growers, she says there is no big secret to growing large gooseberries other than care and attention, although she has memories of the fertilizer her father used when she was a child. “We used to go to Osmotherley for a day and spend all day collecting sheep manure,” she says, maybe joking, maybe not.
No one knows why the passion for growing giant gooseberries started, but there is evidence that it was a hobby in industrial areas of England in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
The Egton Bridge show started in 1800 and is still going strong, this year held for the first time at the luxurious Egton Manor, a venue for weddings and events. Many of the old traditions have been preserved, with all gooseberries carefully weighed on an oil-dampened two-pan scale that has been in use since 1937.
Graeme Watson, the association’s president and a sort of master grower and gooseberry guru, says growing them is a labor of love. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong over the course of a year, so the better you take care of them, the bigger they get. There’s gooseberry sawfly, mice like her, someone’s had rats they attacked in an allotment… blackbirds love it, wasps.’
It’s important to keep the show going, he says. “We are the custodians. Our job is to preserve it. It’s not everyone’s thing, but we’re trying to encourage more growers to want to do it.”
Everyone The Guardian speaks to says they enjoy the taste of gooseberries. If they are bitter, they are not ripe enough.
The pride and competitive spirit on display during the match is evident, although no one does it for the glamour. Leek shows in the North East of England once offered thousands of cash prizes. In Egton Bridge, near Whitby, prices range from plastic watering cans (in four colours) and wellies to tins of biscuits and tea bags.
The show attracts gooseberry lovers from far and wide. Chris Jones, a 70-year-old retired truck driver, came over from Goostrey in Cheshire, “the epicenter of gooseberry cultivation,” he says.
He participated “because it is allowed, it is an open competition. Moreover, it is a good excuse to come and talk to like-minded growers and see the differences in cultivation.”
Like others, he has no growing secrets. Or so he says. “Honestly, my only tip is: buy some good trees, a good stock … that’s all you need.”