The rhubarb triangle…..of Kent

“….yeah you know, near the rhubarb caves on the Graveney Road?” I overheard during a meal at a friend’s house last Spring. I was at the other end of the table and couldn’t hear the rest of the story or its context but with that snippet my interest was piqued. Why so interesting? I am fascinated by the food, farming, and produce of the area where I live and pride myself in sniffing out the small growers, butchers and fishmongers, artisan makers and unusual produce and this one had totally passed me by. True rhubarb aficionados will know that there is a place in England that has gained protected status for its rhubarb and that’s the Yorkshire ‘rhubarb triangle’. In 2010 after several years of petitioning the EU, the rhubarb which is grown between the towns of Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, finally received the European Union’s ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ classification “Yorkshire forced rhubarb”. This status recognises the unique quality of forced Yorkshire rhubarb which has been grown in this way since the late 1800’s and sets it alongside Parma ham, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Jersey Royals as an indicator of its quality and unique nature.

There were said to be over 200 hundred growers in Yorkshire during the peak of production, when the triangle was between the towns of Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, but now only around 12 remain. In order to have caves you would expect there to be hills. So if I reveal that Graveney is not in fact in Yorkshire, nor indeed hilly, but is in fact a tiny village on the North Kent coast a little to the west of Whitstable and not far from the market town of Faversham (home to England’s oldest brewery) in landscape second only in its flatness to the Fens, you will understand a little better my surprise at hearing ‘caves’, ‘rhubarb’ and ‘Graveney’ in the same sentence.

And so I turned sleuth. First I tracked down and asked the utterer of those words if indeed I had heard him correctly, where he had been referring to and whether he had any more information. Bizarrely he set me onto my first contact, a maths teacher at the local secondary school, he knew about the apparent oddity having visited the company who now occupy the farm. He gave me their details and after a couple of slightly odd conversations with the company secretary I found myself in the reception of a scientific instrument manufacturer shaking hands with the very friendly owner. He ushered me out of the single story prefab where their specialist business is located and we walked the short distance across the car park and down a gentle slope into a dip at the edge of a wheat field. The change in level was slight and gradual but sufficient to have provided the depth needed to create a mini hillside.

A garage door set into two brick archways indicated the way in, and much as I loved the romantic idea of caves and wish it was true, when we entered we were in a series of fours brick lined, manmade tunnels. Just above, at the top of the slope, was a tumbledown brick structure which I later discovered had housed the boiler used to heat the water to warm the tunnels. We talked about what might have caused there to be such a dip in the otherwise flat land and wondered if the brick making industry that once thrived in and around Faversham might be it, or given the chalk beneath our feet, perhaps a disused lime quarry? And given that these were not huge tunnels, the production could not have been vast and yet they had been specially built. We wondered aloud how they came to be and whether there were more nearby, but by then we were just making it up and my friendly guide had run out of information, just giving me one more helpful hint. The family who had farmed here and owned the land previously, still lived nearby and one of them worked as a volunteer guide at the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale, very apt. And so my final stop was with Michael Austen, whose family had worked the farm, first as tenants from 1863 to owners in 1990 but who sold up in 2002 when it was no longer viable.

I have always loved maps and charts, the way they change in scale and hierarchy thorough time and the stories that they can tell. As I sat and spoke to Mr Austin he laughed a little at my naivety when I asked if the dip in the land had been a by-product of local industry and he spread out a wonderful chart from 1628 which clearly showed the feature in the landscape and labelled the dip ‘Hunnyhole’ and I wondered to myself if Winnie the Pooh might have liked to visit? Alongside the maps he had detailed notebooks showing the amount and variety of the crops that the farm produced over the years and the number of labourers employed.

In 1863 when his ancestor Thomas Austen took over the tenancy it was mostly just arable and cattle grazing, but in the early 1900s hop production had increased, helped by the national demand but also to supply the family owned brewery in Ramsgate. In this time too a market garden replaced nearly all of the cereals and grassland and a small dairy herd was established with butter and cream delivered to the nearby town of Faversham. The farm thrived and the hop production increased so that a larger oast kiln needed to be built and other improvements to the farm were made. The brick fields and factories nearby produced a good quantity of reject bricks which whilst not serviceable for housing were perfectly satisfactory for farm buildings. And so coinciding with the increasing demands of Edwardian and Victorian kitchens for the delicate pink stems of forced rhubarb, the tunnels were built. Four brick lined tunnels, two long and two short, with a small coal fired boiler heating water which travelled around cast iron pipes, were cut into a bank near the farmhouse.

Growing rhubarb in this way is costly and immensely labour intensive requiring the crowns to be grown out in the fields for two years before being unearthed over winter in their dormant state and left on the surface to be frosted. In January they were packed into the tunnels, well manured and the gentle steady heat applied until in March the first crop of pale slender and straight stems would be harvested. The tunnels needed to be kept at a steady 50 degrees and totally dark, as they do still in Yorkshire, the rhubarb would be harvested by candle light. No other light can be allowed to come in if the perfect pink stems are to remain that way. However demand for this expensive delicacy fell away by the 1940s and rhubarb production and the intense labour costs made it uneconomical. The tunnels were re-purposed and used briefly for mushrooms and then during the war and afterwards as chicken sheds for egg production, but ultimately their true purpose was no longer viable. To quote Michael Austen “they lie empty, a monument to Victorian ingenuity and taste”. Not a folly as I first thought they might be but a monument. I wonder whether our growing interest in food production might ever bring them back into use, their current owner has certainly been keeping them well maintained. The boiler has gone but perhaps new technology could be brought to use, or shall we just leave it to the Yorkshire men and women and their hard won Designation of Origin?

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