Country diary: strawberry fields, gone for ever

Lifestyle

Spring advances fastest on the southern edge of this parish, in sight of the tidal river at Halton Quay. The 1840 tithe map shows Brentswood and Halton Wood as oak coppice, but from 1880 until 1914 trees were “ripped” (often with dynamite) to grow some of the earliest outdoor strawberries in the country, commanding high prices at Covent Garden in London and in northern markets.

These “adret” slopes, facing south with a warm microclimate, continued to be worked labour-intensively until the 1960s, growing an intricate patchwork of flowers and soft fruit interspersed with sweet cherries grafted on to tall rootstock. Soil creep was partly counteracted by crops grown diagonally across the vertiginous slopes, and slumped earth was winched back uphill. The steepest land is now engulfed in mature conifers, zigzagged with graded tracks for accessing pheasant shoots; no shooting parties this year because of lockdown, but a few escaped stray cocks run across the adjoining ground of trampled flattened soil, which is littered with husks of maize, planted as shelter and food for these managed game birds.

Close to the narrow lane, neglected daffodils dazzle in the afternoon sun. Flopped blooms, already faded and past their pick-by dates, sprawl among brassy celandines on the roadside bank where they were thrown out in favour of newer sorts. Upslope, clumps and rows grow among the weeds, rough grass and cut eucalyptus bushes, successors to the shelter belts of pittosporum, previously popular for florists’ foliage.

At the old hedgebank, which separates this relatively warm land from more exposed agricultural fields, drifts of primrose spread downhill across this former cultivated market garden, and hardy narcissus varieties like the slender ‘Princeps’ and long-stemmed, fragrant jonquil naturalise among the wild arum, bluebells and ivy. Shards of china, revealed by burrowing rabbits, recall former intensive cultivation when this early land was fertilised with smelly “dock dung” (street sweepings including human waste, brought upriver on barges from Devonport).

Today, a tracked earth mover consigns cut-off, unwanted pittosporum trunks to a bonfire; grey billowing smoke blends with leafless, wintry trees across the little tributary – Hornifast Wood, facing north beneath Mount Ararat – all in the cold shade apart from the topmost, lichen-covered branches.