Advancing years brings few benefits and I feel I should register the onset of a most insidious newcomer to the list of ailments and woes that maturity brings. In short, I now dribble!

To be accurate, I have yet to dribble in the vertical position. Maybe that is just a matter of time?

Mercifully the manifestation of this hideous affliction only occurs when I adopt the prone position in bed. At the conclusion of my solicitous goodnights to my wife, when I have reviewed my achievements or otherwise of the day and murmured a few words of prayer for a modest result in the Lottery…

It is then that it strikes…

As I doze on the very edge of consciousness, the medicinal late night whisky dancing a light fandango with my senses, I feel the need to move my head out of what appears at first to be, a small pond of water. We are not talking damp patches here. We are talking at the very least of the need for the pillow to be reversed or replaced!

What is going on? Can I die of this? Do I tell the children?

As we know, our continental colleagues across the water take bodily functions very seriously.  On a recent shopping trip in Spain my wife was to be found sifting through cotton dresses on one side of a rather smart shop, when on an adjacent aisle I was rather taken by the colourful design on a pair of gentleman’s swimmers. I hailed her tentatively across the room and enquired as their suitability to set off my old ‘stilton pillars.’

She does not care to be disturbed when spending, so I was taken aback somewhat when she raised her head and said

‘Yes not bad. Try them on’.

I shuffled off to the back of the shop and with some difficulty removed my trousers in what was, a very small, very hot, heavily curtained changing room. The action of slipping the new swimmers over my trusty jockeys was completed without incident. I could hear my beloved prowling around outside and so throwing back the curtain, I made my entrance…

‘What do think of these then?’

The two elderly Spanish Senora’s who were subjected to this greeting were not at all pleased.

Later, my wife explained that my appearance may have unnerved them. Something to do with an old Englishman in socks, ancient underpants visible below the bright swimming costume, an unbuttoned shirt exposing a fulsome stomach and a straw hat.

She had the grace to say that it was just her opinion.

Back at the hotel I studied my new acquisition with mounting  excitement.  The labels secured with nylon hawsers all with a one ton breaking strain were finally removed with the assistance of the room’s fruit knife.

Reading the brand name of my new swimmers revealed.

‘Capri Dandy’

I knew it straight away. These were made for me!

Further reading proved most rewarding…

‘Swimming trunks made with a double seam for greater strength’ Very wise.

‘Inner pants in cotton for greater comfort and hygiene’

Cleanliness as we all know, is next to godliness. But here is the clincher…

‘Rear drainage system’

So the Spanish have got their problems too? And have invented a clever and hygienic answer?

I looked inside them. No obvious clues in the material that I could see. So how do they do it?

I am still trying to work it out but it was already clear to me the Spanish are already miles ahead of us.

Marks and Sparks, are you listening? Get a grip!!

Rear drainage is the next big thing!

Now I just need to find out what they can do about dribbling?


Sounds like a rock band from the seventies doesn’t it? Johnny Chick was one of life’s great characters. He died last year and his passing was a shock to a great many people. Over the years he was the landlord of a number of Oxfordshire Pubs and it was impossible to visit any one of them one and not have a great time!! So much so that today, anyone speaking of him invariably has a story to tell.

So it is with me. Except I have many! Here is one fond memory.

Sometime in the late seventies or early eighties I had a weekly slot on Radio Oxford. I think it was called ‘the Roving Chef or Chefs corner.’ Mercifully I cannot recall the exact title. The brief was that I could either write a piece on food related matters or take one of the stations recording devices and head off into Oxford or the countryside and interview someone.

Johnny and I both loved foraging and discussing locations of new ‘free foods’ from the wild. River crayfish were one such attraction. Very few people even knew they existed and I decided that an outside broadcast to capture a pan full, might work? A follow up programme could then be done on cooking and serving these awkward to shell, but nevertheless delicious little treats. Johnny did not take a lot of persuading to head up an expedition and I duly borrowed one of Radio Oxford’s very heavy reel to reel recorders and a microphone.

At dusk one late summers evening in Johnny’s convertible MGB we pulled up at a secret spot on the banks of the Windrush river just north of Witney. Our traps were actually redundant bicycle wheels complete with spokes but minus the tyres, the surfaces covered with chicken wire. A few days earlier Johnny had purchased and punctured some tins of cat food and left them out in the sun to mature. These were attached to the chicken wire in the centre of each wheel.

With a microphone under his nose Johnny explained that when lowered onto the riverbed with a series of lines, the essence of the rotting cat food seeping out of the cans downstream would become an irresistible lure for the crayfish who would hopefully canter upstream to discover the source and pounce on it!!

So it proved but to a degree that even Johnny could not have anticipated. There must have been fifty on the first wheel we raised, all huddled around the source of that delicious aroma. We tipped them into the zinc bath, placed a damp cloth on top of them and proceeded down down stream to the next trap. A further bonanza emerged from the dark waters and went straight into the bath.

It was a ‘wrap’! The recording levels were good and the evenings events were secure on tape. Plus we had caught well over 100 of these four inch mini freshwater lobsters and flushed with success motored back towards Oxford to enjoy a well earned late night curry in Turl Street with our catch safely stowed in the bath on the back seat.

An hour later, suitably nourished we returned to the car to find the floor, the back seat and two front seats alive with crayfish!! They had escaped by climbing up the cloth!! The zinc bath was empty and our crustaceans were vainly trying to locate their lost watery home. Only one thing to do, with both doors wide open and the pair of us on our stomachs in the road, we desperately scrabbled under the seats to retrieve the painful little nippers. Liberal use of swear words seemed appropriate and this together with our thoroughly suspicious behaviour was sufficient to attract the attention a patrolling policeman on his beat. He must have felt he had made the arrest of his career, namely two n’er do wells in the very act of dismantling a sports car in the middle of Broad Street Oxford at the dead of night.

We started to explain but quickly realised he, like many people had no idea what a river crayfish was, or looked like! When confronted by one of the little blighters he leapt backwards in fear and horror. We were not arrested and on regaining his composure the officer helped us recapture the remaining few, giggling with delight and then anger as he got nipped. We wrapped up one in a paper napkin for him to take back to the station to show his colleagues and headed home triumphant.


Stocktaking is a very important part of a landlords life.

The stock or indeed the inexplicable absence of stock in many cases, is a phenomena that drives most landlords to drink, should they seek a reason. Stock shortages usually occur when you move from doing all the work yourself, to employing people to do it for you.

A typical scenario is as follows. The smiling stocktaker might tell me at the end of a quarter that, 3 gallons of bitter, 6 gallons of lager plus 4 gallons of premium lager, one bottle of champagne 14 bottles of Sauvingon, 8 bottles of Rioja, half a bottle of Southern Comfort and 2 litres of Vodka did not go through the till and is therefore, by definition, absent without leave.

Well thank you very much. I don’t remember that night?

“It is quite simple you see”…he always feels obliged to point out to you…

“It was delivered, because you signed for it, its not here now and it didn’t go through the till. So your staff drank it or they gave it away and that George is why you have a deficit of £1526.”

Of course, in the old days before computerised tills, stocktakes tended to be far less detailed and whilst you could get a pretty accurate stock result, a major stock shortage required further detailed investigation.

Many years ago, I was introduced to a Landlord of one of those vast East End London Pubs, whose name was Wally.  In those days a number of Landlords like Wally were recruited from the forces. Many had seen action. They had stories to tell, they were respected and they were as a band of men, tough.

When I first got to know Wally, he was on the verge of retirement and for some reason he liked telling me stories about life behind the bar in the East End. He viewed his role then as a confidante, money lender, everybody’s friend and if necessary on rowdy nights, an enforcer! He explained to me that it was essential he knew everyone in the Pub, as it was the centre of the community and hardened criminals would often be mixing socially with unsuspecting customers. But all in all, life had been good to Wally. A new car every year and holidays to a little known island in the Mediterranean that Wally called Majorrrka!

His Pub had a massive bar with several tills and lots of bar staff. Wally was happy to be there at lunchtime but in the evenings he wanted to take it easy and often employed a Manager to run things for him.

I found myself at the bar one lunchtime chatting and joking with him  about Pub life. In a moment of seriousness and a little out of character he interrupted our chat to confide in me that he had a few problems. His Bar stocks in the Pub he told me, were consistently down by around £500 a week. He told me he was going to have to bring someone in to sit at the Bar, watch the staff and try and spot the one that was stealing. On my next visit about a month later he told me what had transpired.

Apparently a private investigator had been hired and spent his first Saturday in the Pub and then reported back to Wally.

“I don’t know what to say Sir” the investigator had said to Wally.

“I sat at one end of the Bar. I drank lemonade all night and never saw a thing out of place. I watched all 5 tills very closely and I never saw any of the staff doing anything suspicious .”

“Fine” said Wally. “Thank you very much for your time, Here is your money. I will not be needing you again.”

The private eye took his money, confused as to why he was being dismissed and somewhat mystified, took his leave.

The next morning, the Manager was found outside the back of the Pub with two broken arms and a shattered till by his side. There were no witnesses.

Wally you see, only had 4 tills! The naughty manager brought his own till in from time to time to syphon off the takings!


As we all know big boats cost a fortune and for some reason boat owners refer to these prized possessions, as female entities. I have checked this out. They really do!

“There she is!”, our host proudly exclaimed, as we sauntered down the jetty in Mahon harbour.

“Lovely lines hasn’t she?” I thought it prudent to agree.

Safely aboard, I marvelled at yards of shimmering varnished mahogany, beautiful upholstered seating, big comfy chairs and an array of high tech gadgetry devoted I was told later, to telling us where we were and where we were going.

Comfortably out of my depth nautically and drowning financially I said to our host Tim that I could not see the engine? Hadn’t we better get one strapped on and could I help?

I thought it a serious question but it was taken by my host as an excuse for levity. “You are standing on them”, he said laughing and pressing a button the majority of the stern floor rose up. I fully expected a Wurlitzer to rise from the depth with a Catalan Nigel Ogden hammering away at the ivories but no, our host pointed into the newly created void.

“Twin 220 Penta diesels George. Pretty impressive eh? Would you like to go down below and have a closer look”, he suggested.

“That is very kind Tim”. I said nervously “but I am not very mechanical”.

With engines started, we chugged sedately out of the harbour where we hung a left and headed up the coast. From my vantage point alongside the Bar, I was able to assist Tim with timely nautical observations whilst teasing the ring pull off numerous iced beers. And thus it was. We cruised up the coast, anchored in a picture book bay, swam, ate an excellent lunch and snoozed under the shade of what I think is called a Bimini sail on the top deck. Heaven.

When the time came to make our way home our host pressed another button, the anchor miraculously appeared from the depths and we headed back to harbour.

Safely tied up I reluctantly finished my wine, packed my book away, untied my swimmers that had been acting as a windsock on the stern flag pole and went in search of my wife. I found her stretched out on the upper deck, face smothered in white ointment, her eyes covered with slices of cucumber. She looked like a burnt offering to the Inca gods. A gentle nudge was enough to gain her attention and I informed her it was time to take our leave and that I would now deliver a few lines of fulsome thanks to our host, intermingled with lavish praise about his boat and how ‘She’ had handled exceptionally well.

Confidently and reluctantly we approached our host to bid him adieu.

There then followed a very strange incident. I had long assumed that Tim having lunched around the City for some 40 years, was you know, comfortable? Not so it would appear, for as we attempted to walk the plank onto the safety of the quayside, we were handed firstly, a hosepipe and then a shammy leather each. I stared at my wife and her eyes had a sad vacant look of incomprehension. A bit like the monthly stewards inquiry on the credit card statement.

Our host then had the temerity to instruct us to direct the hose onto the superstructure and polish, yes polish the shiny bits!! I suppose I was too shocked to react. Should have told the swine there and then, that if he could not afford the staff to clean it, why buy the boat?

What is the world coming to? What would you say if you cadged lift up to town with a chum and he threw you a bucket of water in St James Square and asked you to give the car a sponge shuffle?

Drenched in sweat we finally took our leave. The wife was not at all  happy. A terrifying spectacle and I kept well out of handbag range.

I knew that it would also be some time before Tim and I spoke again. Not his fault he had run out of money, I suppose?

Expensive things, boats?


We love living in the countryside.

Recently some friends who live in Montana USA came to stay. They really do live in the countryside and depending on the time of year have hungry grizzly bears regularly knocking on their back door looking for a human lunch!

We have yet to visit Larry and Barbara but have listened to tales of fishing for steel head trout from the bottom of their garden, hunting trips for all manner of game and thousands of acres to ride out. That would be a bonus and a thrill if I could ride, but I cannot.  Never mind, it all sounds like a very frontiersman existence and I felt I had to find something for them to remember during their short stay with us, in good old England?

After a welcoming bite at the pub I considered tramping around Blenheim but decided that we would save that for another day and as it was a glorious summer sunday, chose instead to call in on a game of cricket being played in our village.

Neither of our guests had ever seen a game of cricket and the moment I mentioned watching a game, both became quite animated at the prospect and on arrival at the ground, we sat down by the pavilion alongside assorted groupies there to support the athletes on show. The game was in full swing and I felt some explanation was required as our guests were a little surprised at the range of girths on display.

I explained that although it was preferable the players should be in peak physical condition, as these protagonists were amateurs their endeavours in this annual inter village confrontation was a semi serious affair.

They got the message and entered into the spirit of the occasion.

Larry quickly absorbed the information that one side batted and the other side fielded. He became quite enthused by the tactics of the game with the changes in bowlers from fast to slow and the positioning of the fielders. So much so that his heavily accented cheers of encouragement such as ‘way to go baby!’ when a batsman struck a four or six, started to draw strange looks from the modest crowd of seated onlookers, certainly from those who had managed to stay awake during the cut and thrust.

Such was Larry’s commitment to the game that I have no doubt if asked, he would have padded up and gone in to bat for America. So it was a considerable disappointment to him when at a seemingly critical stage of the match, the Umpires abruptly removed the bails and both sides walked off the field. The time on the pavilion clock was precisely 4.15pm.

“What happened” he said.

“Nothing Larry, its tea time” I commented as I prised myself out of the folding chair.

“What do you mean? Tea time?” he spluttered.

I seized the moment!

“Larry it is called tradition. Throughout what is left of our Empire, civilised people stop for tea at this time. Tea is taken and whilst standards have slipped a little over the decades I have no doubt that if you were to enter that pavilion right now, you would find tables groaning from the weight of plates of cucumber sandwiches, huge pots of tea, sponge cakes and a genial backslapping atmosphere at odds with most sporting contests in your country.

“You’re kidding me “ he said

“Be my guest” I said gesturing to the steps of the pavilion. He wandered up the steps and I prayed the tea ladies would not let me down.

He returned shaking his head.

“You Brits really take the biscuit George.”

“Yes Larry perhaps we do in this respect. But as Americans you have much to be admired for, your ‘can do mentality’ and your refusal to accept the principle of entitlement in any form. We on the other hand have really only our tradition left. Centuries of knowing about form and bad form. ‘Manners maketh man’ beaten into us from a young age. But our most treasured asset is of course, the gift for pomposity, the envy of the world and which some of us have carefully nurtured into an art form!”

“Come on” I said

“Where are we going?” Barbara asked

“Home of course Barbs” Larry growled. “Its tea time”!


Why can’t a woman be more like a man?

Professor Higgins asked Pickering this question in My Fair Lady.

A birthday lunch with the children in London beckoned recently and to my surprise certain selected items of clothing were presented folded on the bed for me to wear including an unfamiliar wooly garment. I enquired about the presence of this particular wooly garment.

‘You know what it is George. The children bought it for you for Christmas.’

I clearly recall asking for an Aston Martin for Christmas but my offspring failed to respond to my request and chose instead to collectively purchase this wooly garment. That, if I am not mistaken, is one present short of the wooden overcoat.

‘Look.’ I said. ‘It is just not me. I don’t like zips on cardigans’

‘George, it is very fashionable and it makes you look younger’ my wife lied. ‘You could wear it just once for the children. It is not much to ask, is it?’

I smiled at her. She is such a dear old soul. Always the matriarch. The thinker of good thoughts. Furthermore it was her birthday, so I resolved not to burst her balloon and to let her down gently.

‘You just don’t get it do you? 40 plus years of marriage and I find myself living with a total stranger! Zips are vulgar. If it sported a fine row of elegant buttons I would have no hesitation in wearing it proudly. But it doesn’t. It has two rows of metal tracks right up the middle of my not insubstantial gut.’

I pressed home my point.

‘How many cherished personal items do I own with a zip’ I challenged her. ‘Go on. Name me one!’

‘Your washbag?’ was her measured response.

‘Ok! ‘ I said. ‘One it is then. But I don’t wear it do I? I don’t say to you. Look old girl, I am going to a rugby club dinner. I really think I should wear my washbag on my head. Be an angel and run the iron over it, will you? I really want to look sharp!’

I think I may have been flying on autopilot at this stage because she looked at me and muttered something before turning on her heel and taking her leave. I could not catch what she said, as I was jumping up and down like a Masai warrior but it sounded like floss or flosser. Anyway, as she returned to her boudoir, I reminded her by way of a parting shot and in my moment of debating triumph, that standards have to be maintained. We are not savages! Her door closed rather too firmly for my liking but I headed for the bathroom mirror and a quick flossing before departure.

Firmly discarding the wooly garment, I chose instead an old favourite, a powder blue v neck pullover. As I carefully removed it from a drawer, I noticed it carried a few large stains, heroically acquired no doubt due to a misdirection of assets.

It would only be a problem should I choose to wear it. And that was not going to happen.

Such is the intense love I have for this personal item and showing the cunning of a top couturier, I chose instead to casually drape it over my shoulders in a provocative, yet manly Roman way? One final check in the mirror, a brief adieu to the dogs and I presented myself at the car.

Mercifully, the journey was conducted in total silence. Mrs Dailey chose to berate me on departure for what she described as my outburst over the offending wooly garment. Leaving me no option but to resort to defiant silence. I was issued with a further warning over my future conduct at the up coming lunch. This I took to be simply a reaction to my brilliantly argued stance on zipped cardigans and was therefore happy to drive silently eastwards, towards Shepherds Bush and the breaking dawn. As the Professor Higgins put it so eloquently….

One man in a million may shout a bit.

Now and then there’s one with slight defects;

One, perhaps, whose truthfulness you doubt a bit.

But by and large, we are a marvellous sex!


I used to be able to bowl a Chinaman. I probably still could, given time and considerable physiotherapy.

In simple terms, a Chinaman is a ball in the game of cricket that is delivered by the bowler with the fingers and wrist indicating to the batsman the way the ball is going to turn on hitting the pitch. In fact when delivered correctly, it spins in the opposite direction and creates devilish confusion. Another word for the Chinaman is the Googly. The Chinaman is a Googly delivered by a right arm bowler. A Chinaman delivered by a left arm bowler is indeed and remains, a Chinaman. I hope that is clear?

It is not in itself a particularly important fact. Nevertheless It ranks proudly in my list of personal achievements, along with how to get a broken cork out of a bottle of good wine. You see that despite advancing years I pride myself in the openness of my mind, to further learning.

I was a little unnerved the other day, when mid porridge, my wife enquired in a gentle lilting tone, what I had planned for the following day?

I instantly smelt a trap.

Breathing deeply to overcome my racing heartbeat, I racked my brains for a suitable excuse. Anything.

But my early morning brain was still locked in second gear and I mumbled something like, ‘nothing too major’

‘Good’ she said. Then we are going to listen to Andrew Marr recording Start the Week for Radio 4 in Oxford.

Whew! Anythings better than gardening?

We chipped up at one of those Colleges tucked away in the back streets of Oxford, At first glance, I felt I had come upon an obscure prayer meeting. These hunched penitents all sported grey shoes in plastic or leather. Anoraks appeared compulsory. We exchanged smiles with those who agreed to meet our gaze. Mostly they stood heads bowed, mumbling strange verse.

So I took the time to study the runners and riders.

Andrew it appeared, was to host a discussion along with three noted writers, about the life and times of one Vasily Grossman and the republication of his book ‘Life and Fate’.

The short version of Vasily’s time on this planet, involved him being a very successful Soviet War Correspondent during the 2nd World War. He survived the horrors of Stalingrad but then lost the plot when after the war, he embarked on writing a rather ‘too near the bone’ yarn that simply rubbished the post war Motherland. Understandably, publishers were not exactly queuing up to throw their weight behind dear old Vasily. Add to that, writing his tome had cleared out all his supplies of ‘folding’ and he was broke. To top it all, when things could not get possibly get any worse, he died.

Fast forward 50 plus years and these anoraked groupies were gently gliding past us to greet others in the queue. It was not too long before I realised that the position we had taken up near the front of the queue had been compromised. We were now, at the back of the queue.

I remained calm. But was then bundled aside by a new queue basher who greeted the lady in front of me with a ‘Hermione darling, how lovely to see you.’ How he noticed her, escapes me. She was very small, encased in grey and camouflaged perfectly against the flagstones.

‘I knew you would be here. How is Gerald? Yes, well I do hope he gets better soon. The Prostate is such a bore! But like you, I just had to be here today. Vasily’s day in the sun is long overdue.

‘Yes Crispin’ said Hermione ‘Vasily’s Life and Fate in english is indeed rewarding but I still prefer to read him in french.’

My wife and I were instantly bonded, welded in the grip of inadequacy. We realised in that moment, that we were the only two people in that grey line, who had never read so much as a sentence of Life and Fate in English, let alone in French.

As the queue shuffled forward, I resolved that this was one of those occasions when we men, have to be men. Putting a strong comforting arm around my wife’s ample waist, I smiled reassuringly at her and whispered, ‘Don’t worry, I bet none of this lot knows how to bowl a Chinaman!’


‘Hello Mr Jones, how good to see you again. Would you like to order?

‘Two set lunches? Perfect. Some fizzy water and a bottle of the Red Infuriator? Of course.

Would you just like to review your order on my pad and tick the box in the right hand corner to signify you have read and agree to our terms and conditions?’

‘No, nothing too drastic. Just the lawyers normal meat and gravy issues, no responsibility if you contract salmonella, beri beri, swamp fever or react to any allergies known or unknown as a result of eating our lovely food.  But you will be pleased that now, just by ticking the little box allows you to use one of our really sharp steak knives without the need for those tiresome and long winded waivers used by our competitors. Thank you by the way, for confirming your booking with us today by email. By now your inbox will contain a number of carefully selected offers from companies whose products we feel you really need.’

My apologies if that appears to be a clumsy pastiche? Hopefully it will never come to pass in my Industry but not reading the T&C’s can be costly and this is no time to be an innocent.

I purchased a new Japanese SUV some three years ago and took out an extended warranty and service plan. At the end of the initial two year deal I was invited to extend the warranty and thought why not? Imagine my surprise this morning when slipping smoothly into top gear half a mile from my house, merely a week after a major service, all manner of flashing lights appeared on the dashboard display and the car began performing like an east german Trabant in need of a complete engine change.

I limped to the main dealership and the car was duly plugged into various diagnostic machines. Eventually a grim face gentleman emerged from the service department to deliver the news that the XYZ filter or similar acronym, was knackered.

‘Oh! I said how annoying. Well I do have some meetings today but I can be picked up. Perhaps you would like to crack on and replace the filter? ‘

‘I am afraid it is not covered by your warranty Mr Dailey. These filters are £1200 not including VAT and fitting and furthermore we do not have one in stock.’

The copy editors at the Oxford Times are a heartless bunch so there is insufficient space here to fully describe my reaction to this news. Lets just leave it that the Service Manager and the General Manager were summoned and sure enough, had I read the T&C’s I would have noticed that the aforementioned filter was not covered under the warranty along with several other bits of machinery with strange sounding names.

By now my heated discussion had galvanised the attention of a number of clients in the Service lounge all awaiting the return of their vehicles and you could sense these hirelings were keen to see the back of me.

There was a lot of shuffling of feet and what do you want us to do Mr Dailey? Go and boil your heads was the first thing to come to mind but instead I informed the smug company disciples in a loud voice that I would not be continuing with their worthless warranty and they would be hearing from my solicitor. On the way out I pondered that I do not actually have a solicitor but dismissed this concern as a mere detail. The fresh air gave me hope and I knew I would not miss their appalling coffee. But not reading the T&C’s was going to prove expensive as well as having to cope with the strong smell of being legged over and to cap it all, I was now driving a Trabant.

There are few noticeable benefits to achieving senior status but possibly   a lifetime of experience is one? I know a lot of people who do a lot of things, most of them legal.  So a tearful grovelling call just now to my local garage man who operates out of a shed in the middle of a field and who before I purchased my smart new SUV faithfully serviced and kept a series of wrecks on the road for me, came up trumps.

‘Bring it round George and lets have look at it. I can order a filter overnight and could fit it tomorrow for £900 all in, if that’s OK?’

His terms are that I pay him when he has done the job and his conditions are that in future, he services the car.

I love it!


Whilst we labour valiantly to shrug off the cloak of winter, there is still a chance to enjoy one of our more unusual seasonal speciality vegetables and one with a rather interesting history. Forced rhubarb.

You may want to take issue with me on this but yes, rhubarb is indeed a veggie and apparently, from the same family as sorrel. The first recorded mention of this ancient plant occurred around 2500 BC when it was admired for its medicinal properties in helping to treat stomach and bowel conditions.

In short, it was a most effective purgative.

The season for plain old field and garden rhubarb is April to September and with sugar from the Indies, its part in the 18th and 19th century English diet was secure but when fate offered a chance to extend its seasonal availability, it was game on!

Folklore being what it is you will not be surprised to learn that there are several versions of how the process of ‘forcing’ was discovered.  The version I like is that in 1817 someone in the Chelsea Physic garden uncovered some crowns of rhubarb that had been buried under loose soil for several weeks. On removing the soil, to everyone’s surprise, beautiful long pink stems of rhubarb were revealed topped with the trademark yellow leaves. The taste was infinitely superior to the field grown variety and it did not take long for the commercial opportunities to be realised.

The loose Chelsea soil in the Physic garden must have been high in nitrates for that is essential to producing good rhubarb. In the early 19th century this mineral was secured by the liberal application of horse manure and the charmingly named ‘night soil’. This euphemism was of course human fecal material, diligently collected in wagons from privies and outhouses by ‘nightmen’ the forerunners of the lavender wagon operatives of my youth.

But as the plant originated in Siberia not only does rhubarb require nitrates, it also likes its weather on the chilly side.

London growers did produce forced rhubarb for a few decades but the Capital was not consistently cold enough and in 1877 large scale production of this new delicacy moved north to an area encompassed by Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, which quickly became known as the Rhubarb Triangle. At the foot of the Pennines it was a wet and noted frost pocket but unlike other areas, it could also guarantee a new and  endless supply of nitrate.

In the 19th Century right up to the second World War, Rag and Bone Men were a regular sight trolling the streets of our cities and villages collecting unwanted household goods and metal often riding atop a horse drawn cart. Rags found their way north to the vast Yorkshire woollen mills in and around the triangle, where they were mechanically shredded and reusable wool retrieved. The waste product from this process high in natural nitrates, was called Shoddy.

Ah! So thats where the word shoddy came from! Well I never knew that.

Rhubarb roots destined for forcing are left in the fields unharvested and covered with shoddy for two to three years. The nitrates in the shoddy being soluble in water, leach down slowly over time and feed the root systems. Then shortly after they have been subjected to two or three late autumn frosts, the crowns and roots are dug up and replanted in dark warm purpose built sheds. To get an idea of how tricky this operation is, some roots can weigh 50 kilos and require two men to lift them!

The shock of the frosts followed by their new warm home convinces the rhubarb to explode with new shoots and these stems known as Petioles grow rapidly, desperately seeking daylight.

Apparently if you stand quietly in these sheds you can actually hear the stems creaking and popping as they grow!

At the height of production around the late 1930’s, trains called Rhubarb Specials left the triangle every night destined for the London markets carrying 200 tons of this colourful plant. And that was all they carried, no passengers, just the rhubarb.

Now this beautiful forced pink delicacy is making a big comeback and top chefs are marrying this seasonal treat with everything from game to fish as well as my favourite pudding, rhubarb crumble.

I can’t force you but as the season ends March 31st maybe give it a try?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s