Saints and gooseberries

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by Heather Elvidge

Enticing visitors is big business these days and an area has to exploit all its assets. It was simpler in medieval times – all you needed was a local saint.

Saints worked miracles, offering protection against all ills. Any town that had a saint, a few relics, or even a vague connection, was in for a bonanza. Lucky Ripon had Wilfred, and he was a very popular saint.

In 686 Wilfred was taken ill in Ripon and wasn’t expected to live. But after five feverish days he recovered. He’d had a vision of a great procession, with people singing. Wilfred said this was a promise of peace: the locals were thinking of an annual procession, attracting lots of visitors.

Now every year, St Wilfred leads the procession on a white horse. On August 2 the parade of floats will pass through crowded streets to Ripon Cathedral, where a short service is held.

Wilfred, as Abbot of Ripon, attended the Synod of Whitby in 664. This was held to sort out the dating of Easter, among other liturgical matters. Wilfred had been to Rome and he spoke forcefully in favour of the Roman way, as opposed to the Celtic tradition of churches like Whitby or Lindisfarne, where he’d trained. He won the day and was made Bishop of Northumbria.

Ripon’s Feast Procession has traditional fare. Wilfra Tarts are made with almond and lemon; Wilfra Pies are apple pies, baked with slices of cheese inside.

Green monsters

Okay, they’re not all green – gooseberries can be white, yellow, pink or red, hairy or smooth-skinned, dessert or cooker. Whatever your fancy, be sure to visit Egton Bridge, near Whitby, on August 5. You won’t want to miss the oldest surviving gooseberry show, first held in 1800.

Shows like this were an 
obsession in the 19th century when everyone had a gooseberry bush. Goosegogs, feaberrys, or grozers were easy to grow and a cheap source of fruit. Hundreds of societies formed to share growing tips, so many that they gave a name to the annual dull patch in the newspapers.

With news in short supply during the summer, editors filled their columns with tales of giant marrows and champion gooseberries – the Big Gooseberry Season.

Those champion goosegogs were varieties developed by enthusiasts. A few were delicious; most were not. But some of the tasteless varieties had an unexpected quality. They were capable of producing huge berries. Gooseberry societies, including Egton Bridge’s, took up the challenge.

Raising a heavy, unblemished berry takes commitment. It starts with the right variety, which is grown as a single-stem cordon. It’s pruned ruthlessly and force-fed a secret brew – the old boys swore by wood ash and sheep droppings.

Then there’s the pampering. Bowls of water placed under berries to prevent split skins; nets to keep birds away; jam to divert wasps; an umbrella for when rain threatens.

That’s the kind of thing the members of Egton Bridge’s Old Gooseberry Society have been up to.

They dream of producing a champ and we can see if they’ve succeeded when the Chosen Ones go on show in the schoolroom of St Hedda’s Church. It’s closed in the morning for judging. Then at 2pm, for a small fee, the public are welcome to admire the saucers of perfect gooseberries.