Summer 2005

Celebrating 2000 years of a special delicacy.

Reg Yorke, Chair History and Archaeology Task Group

This is a proposed joint project with National Trust, Sefton Coast Partnership, Formby Civic Society and other Community Groups for which an application for Heritage Lottery Initiative funding is about to be submitted. The project will be centred on the National Trust, Formby but will include other areas of Freshfield and Formby.

How did asparagus farming begin?
Asparagus farming was a family eventThis coastal area was, until the mid-nineteenth century, regarded as a "sandy waste", useful mainly as rabbit warren. Following the construction of the Liverpool, Crosby and 'Southport Railway in 1848, considerable supplies of fertiliser in the form of 'night-soil' from Liverpool became available (A sewer system had not yet been completed). This enabled local farmers to "improve" and bring into cultivation the previously uncultivated rear-dune area, particularly suitable for their chosen crop - asparagus. This subsequently developed over some 200 acres and became a very important local product, the quality of which made Formby well known nationally. Cultivation decreased after WW2 and is now continued only on one small holding situated within the National Trust Property. There is a strong association between the NT Property and some of the well-known 'asparagus families', notably the Lowes, Aindows, Jennings and Brooks.

What will the project do?
Early Asparagus farmerThe project will highlight an important aspect of the life of this local community in the past; the gradual exploitation and cultivation, by certain local families, of the barren and exposed rear-dune landscape not previously cultivatable. It will also illustrate the way that the need for sewage disposal in mid 19th century Liverpool was used in a manner beneficial to the adjacent rural community, at a time before the development of the later methods of sewage disposal at sea. Formby Asparagus became, for a period, national renowned and won prestigious trophies at such centres of excellence as the Vale of Evesham. Atlantic liners leaving Liverpool offered this regional delicacy to their passengers, during its 6 week season.

The over-all aims of the project are to:

  • preserve local knowledge of this interesting tradition
  • find out more about its history
  • record the surviving cultivation ridges and landscape of the area concerned
  • produce a leaflet and DVD/Video on the tradition
  • create an interpretive trail round an important part of the area.
  • prepare a publication, detailing present knowledge of the asparagus tradition.
  • run a programme of guided walks
  • develop an 'extended' trail around some of the more distant asparagus locations and perhaps develop communication links with Merseyrail, etc.

    The survey data and historical records will be of ongoing historic and archaeological significance. They will provide better understanding of the development, community history and culture of this coastal area and lead to greater public awareness of an almost forgotten aspect of our local heritage. The NT is willing to maintain access routes and associated onsite interpretation. The NT has already reintroduced a small area of asparagus cultivation as a experimental/demonstration project.

    Asparagus competions were popularLocal people will be informed and involved in the development of the project, through the NT Newsletter, the Civic Society Newsletter and Coastlines. About thirty local groups with possible interest have been identified by Sefton Council for Voluntary Services. At present there are about 320,000 visitors to the NT property each year who we hope will embrace our local heritage.

    Other benefits.
    It will help ensure preservation of the surviving cultivation ridges and 'pieces', not at present recognised as field monuments. This project also highlights the historic human contribution of Thomas Fresh, who was central to the supply of 'night-soil' from Liverpool. Fresh was one of the three original pioneers of sanitary reform in Liverpool following the Sanitary reform Act of 1849. The others, Dr. Duncan the first MOH and first City Engineer, James Newlands are better remembered but Thomas Fresh was the man, who promoting the establishment of Formby's second railway station, gave his name to the new 'Freshfield' and as its 'founder', we feel deserves to be commemorated. Particularly perhaps at the Freshfield Hotel with an Asparagus Supper!

    The cultivation of Asparagus in the past…….

    …………according to Columella, ca AD 1.
    (Columella (Lucius Iunius Moderatus) of Gades (Cadiz) lived in the reigns of the first emperors to about AD 70. His 'On Agriculture' (De Re Rustica) is the most comprehensive, systematic and detailed of Roman agricultural works.) "The seeds of garden asparagus and what the country folk call corruda (wild asparagus) take almost two years to prepare. When you have buried them after February 13th in a rich, well manured place in such a way that you place in each little trench as much seed as your three fingers can hold, usually after the fortieth day the plants become intertwined and form a kind of single mass, and the little roots thus attached and collected together the gardeners call "sponges." After twenty-four months they should be transplanted to a sunny, well watered and manured spot. Furrows are then made a foot distant from one another and not more than three-quarters of a foot deep into which the little sponges" are pressed down so that they may easily spring up when the earth is put over them; but in dry places the seedlings must be placed in the bottom of the furrows, so that they remain as it were in little troughs. On the contrary, in swampy ground they must be placed on the topmost back of the ridge, so that they may not suffer from too much moisture"

    …….According to Gerard;
    (from 'Gerrard's Herbal' edited by Thomas Johnson 1636). Gerrard is thought to have belonged to the family of Gerrard of Ince in Lancashire and became a licensed Barber-Surgeon in the reign of Elizabeth 1st.

    "The manured or garden Sperage, hath at his first rising out of the ground thicke tender shoots very soft and brittle, of the thicknesse of the greatest swans quill, in taste like the green bean having at the top a certaine scaly soft bud, which in time groweth to a branch of the height of two cubits, divided into divers other smaller branches, wheron are set many little leaves like haires, more fine than the leaves of Dill: amongst which come forth small mossie yellowish floures which yeeld forth the fruit, green at the first, afterward as red as Corall, of the bignesse of a small pease; wherein is contained grosse blackish seed exceeding hard, which is the cause that it lieth so long in the ground after his sowing, before it spring up: the roots are many thicke soft and spongie strings hanging downe from one head, and spred themselves all about, whereby it greatly increaseth".

    From 'The Diary of Nicholas Blundell;1702- 1728 - Nicholas Blundell was the Lord of the Manor of Little Crosby.

    "20 March 1711; I planted the third Bed of Aspargus by the long Brick wall with Sets of one year old. 24 May 1727; I Mesur'd one Aspargus which was in Circumference 3 Insh & 1!/8".

    From Ministry of Food and Fish Bulletin (60) 1969;
    - On Asparagus cultivation at Formby.

    "At all stages the soil consists of almost entirely of blown sand with a small amount of organic matter in the surface layer. The beds usually become exhausted after about 15 years. Weeds which often particularly troublesome are horsetails, thistles and bindweed. When a reclaimed area ceases to be profitable it is usually allowed to revert to its natural state.

    At all stages of growth, wind and wind blown sand can cause severe damage to the crop. Pine words give protection on some holdings, and often the fern is left over a winter to check sand shifting; it disintegrates by spring and is worked into the soil. To protect small seedlings from sandblasting, low wind breaks are formed between rows of seedlings by laying leaves of Marram grass between rows of seedlings and forcing them into the sand with a spade so that the ends stand erect".

    Asparagus is not an easy crop to grow but it is particularly easy to eat! Tasteless droopy asparagus is flown in from Chile, Peru and other far away places all the year round. The best value is by buying local asparagus in season, Early May to June.

    ASPARAGUS BOILED. (Asperges au Naturel)

    (Recipe adapted from Mrs Beeton's , 'Household Management', New edition 1861)

    Ingredients; 1 bundle asparagus, salt, water, toast. (She assumed each bundle would contain about 100 spears or 'heads')

    Method; Scrape the white part of the stems, beginning from the head, tie them into bundles of about 20 each, keeping all the heads in one direction. Cut the stalks evenly, and keep the asparagus in cold water, until it is time to cook it. Have ready a saucepan of boiling water, add a heaped teaspoon of salt to each quart of water, put in the asparagus and boil gently for about 20 minutes, or until tender. Dish on toast, and serve with Hollandaise, white, or other suitable sauce or, if preferred, oiled butter.

    Time.-About 20 minutes. Average Cost, (1861) from 2s. to 3s 6d per 100 heads.

    Today; 20 spears of English Asparagus will cost about £2.

    A simple but effective recipe for cooking Asparagus.

    The season for English asparagus lasts from mid April to Midsummer Day, 21st June. The thicker asparagus spears are best gently cooked and eaten as they are. Trim off the woody ends and put trimmed spears into a pan of boiling water. Simmer for six minutes or until tender; (try for tenderness with a skewer). Drain and serve on hot plates with melted butter or hollandaise sauce. Eat with your fingers dipping into the sauce. Napkins and/or finger bowls are useful!

    Bundles of very thin spears or 'sprue' can be cooked and then used in a flan or quiche and served hot straight out of the oven for full flavour or added up to omelette. Owing to its full flavour a little asparagus can go a long way.