The concept of a competitive gooseberry show, in which one entry vies with another in an attempt to achieve victory with the greatest bulging gooseberry, the heaviest by weight, seems to us rather comical.
And yet the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Show is an integral part of local history. No account of Egton would be complete without some mention of it.
The show has a long and honourable history, having been apparently established around the year 1800, if not before. Surviving archival ephemera for the show survives from the mid-1820s.
For more than 200 years, the show has continued to hold its fascination for competitive entrants. The gooseberry show is run by an august organisation named the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society, which traces its origins back to a period in history when the display, weighing and judging of gooseberries was very much a fashionable pastime.
We learn that during the first half of the 19th Century, there existed more than 100 of such societies devoted to the curiosity, most of them based in the northern industrial towns of England, such as those in Lancashire and in Yorkshire’s West Riding.
In contrast, there are today only two areas in the whole of the nation where the pastime still flourishes: one is at Egton Bridge; and a second is a series of small shows based in and around a village with the appropriate name of Goosetrey near Macclesfield.
This marked decline in national gooseberry enthusiasm gives us some concern for the future of the show at Egton, especially as the typical age for those growers and competitors taking part is steaily advancing.
In addition, it cannot be said that the gooseberry is exactly a ‘fashionable’ fruit: a younger generation, especially those without rustic roots, appear to have little or no knowledge of, or interest in, the species. Let us hope that our awareness of Egton’s near uniqueness in the field of gooseberry evaluation, will help to ensure the show’s survival.
As a curious oddity, the show can certainly be regarded today as a Yorkshire treasure. At present, a gaggle of around 50 gooseberry competitors take part each year, some of them local but others arrive with their berries fram as far afield as Lincolnshire, Newcastle or Cheshire.
For the past 70 or so years, the annual show has been consistently held on the first Tuesday in August (which reminds us that the me that the monthly Egton Fair days were customarily held on Tuesdays), although this has not always been the case: from time to time, the show is known to have been held on a Monday. The year’s show will be held on Tuesday the 7th August.
Shortly after the opening of the Esk Valley railway in 1865, the show became briefly based at the Station Hotel (now the Postgate) at Egton Bridge (1869-71), and then moved on to the Tunnel Inn (now the Station Hotel) at Grosmont.
Since 1872, the show has been consistently held at Egton Bridge, from the 1860s becoming regularly based at St Hedda’s Schoolroom.
Curious visitors attending the weighing in ceremonies are provided with welcome refreshments and can relive any threatening gooseberry boredom by enjoying musical interludes performed by those stalwart supporters of the show, the Stape Silver Band.
In order for the judging to proceed, there needs to be an entourage of five officials in attendance each year: two weighmen, whose role is to carefully weigh each gooseberry entered, using a s et of time-honoured apothecary’s scales dating back from 1937, then there are two more invited guest judges; and finally a recorder or clerk, whose job it is to note down in a logbook all the details of the gooseberries submitted for the weighing test. In the 2009 show, a gooseberry entered by Mr Bryan Nellist of Egton Bridge stunned the gooseberry fraternity by gaining an outright world record for any gooseberrym weighing in at a staggering 35 drams (just over two ounces).
The competitors’ gooseberries are grown out-of-doors (not in greenhouses), but they have to be protected from squirrels, birds and such like by a netting covering set in place during the growing season. The secret of cultivating a bountiful, yielding, gooseberry bush, according to Mr Nellist, lies in carefully preparing the ground well in advance before planting and digging in a plentiful, well-rotted manure at the same time. The gooseberries then so planted must be chosen from a dependable and reputable stock, often obtained from a specialist supplier.