An English railway journey back in time

Harry Pearson
·6-min read
bluebells below roseberry topping - Getty
bluebells below roseberry topping - Getty

The Esk Valley line transports pilgrims to a Yorkshire town made famous by its crop of giant gooseberries

Covid-19 has done what two world wars could not – caused the cancellation of the Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show. It’s a minor casualty of the pandemic, for sure, yet to those of us for whom an array of prize “goosegogs” is as much a symbol of summer as the song of skylarks, the scent of sweet peas and England batting collapses, the news provoked a pang of melancholy.

I grew up in a village on the edge of the North York Moors, 20 miles west of Egton Bridge. To us the annual gooseberry show, held since 1800, had a legendary quality. The fathers of many of my schoolmates had gooseberry bushes in their gardens or allotments (after all, how else would Yorkshire babies have been made?) but while their berries might turn up – stewed, in crumbles, or as jam – on village tea tables, the thought of entering the Egton Bridge show would have sent a shudder down the spine of even the most confident local gardener.

The growers of the Egton Bridge Gooseberry Society – the Harrisons, Harlands, Ventresses and Welfords – had a fearsome reputation. Their pruning techniques had been refined over centuries, their powerful plant feed – a mix of horticulture and alchemy – made fruit swell like juicing body builders. They were as dedicated as monks. It was rumoured that, in the days before the show, they sat out among the bushes shielding their fruit from the sun with umbrellas to prevent it over-ripening and bursting.

No wonder they were invincible. Every August it seemed a world record tumbled. Even the maiden category (not for unmarried ladies, but for those who had never won a major prize) attracted berries the size of pullets’ eggs. The thought of striding proudly into the famous exhibition room in St Hedda’s School, only to return home broken and humiliated, deterred all but the bravest exhibitor. No man wants people sniggering at his gooseberries.

Egton Bridge is still a place of world beaters. Last year Graeme Watson’s champion fruit went straight into the Guinness Book of Records. But Britain is less insular, people less fearful. These days exhibitors turn up from across the North Riding and from as far afield as East Anglia. A few years ago a party of gooseberry fanatics arrived from Sweden.

egton brige - Getty
egton brige - Getty

The last time I went to the show, I caught the train from Middlesbrough to Whitby. The Esk Valley line is one of the loveliest rail journeys in England. Even Paul Theroux enjoyed it. In August the train is full of day-trippers and holidaymakers bound for the coast.

Families with B&B bookings, their suitcases stowed in the racks, mixed with OAPs in beanie hats, their string bags stuffed with knitting and malt loaf, cradled on their laps. Groups of anorak-clad rail enthusiasts were bound for Grosmont, the interchange with the North York Moors steam railway, and a cherished encounter with the Sir Nigel Gresley.

Among this chattering, colourful mob were pallid Goth couples with matching black nail varnish and copies of Byron, making a gloomy pilgrimage to the town where Dracula came ashore.

After the suburb of Nunthorpe the train rattles into open country, past Great Ayton and conical Roseberry Topping, the mini-Matterhorn that stands sentinel at the northern approach to the moors. It’s such a beacon to returning natives that even thinking of it makes Teesside hard men snuffle.

At Battersby Junction, among hanging baskets and African marigolds, the front of the train becomes the back. The driver hops out of his cab and saunters down the platform. Passengers keen to face in the direction of travel switch seats with a clatter of buckets, spades and cricket bats. Ten minutes later the train sets off again.

esk valley - Getty
esk valley - Getty

Kildale nestles in a woods-fringed bowl; the steep hillside’s softly merging colours (the lime of bracken, ash-blond grass, magenta heather, muted green bilberry plants) unfurl like a roll of tweed. At Castleton I looked down on a cricket field through a fringe of dog roses. At Danby there were mauve-and-white acanthus spears and pointillistic balls of midges hovering over the slow, green river Esk.

At Egton Bridge I walked down a tree-lined street to the school. There was great activity and a snaking queue for the raffle, the prize a glistening York ham. Old ladies in blue berets and pastel twinsets, and sturdy men in crisp shirts and moss-coloured ties examined the exhibits and spoke quietly in North Riding accents, their mouths barely opening, the words coming out with the characteristic local creaking twang, like a plump man sitting back in a favourite leather armchair.

In Victorian times, when gooseberry shows were common across the north, there’d been a lot of hoop-la surrounding the Egton Bridge show – additional attractions, coconut shies and rides. Now it had been pared back to its simple essence. On long trestle tables covered with pristine white cloths sat the star attractions, perched on bottle tops in fours, pairs or singles, opulent jewels of fruit in shades ranging from creamy yellow to deep red. The biggest were the size of golf balls.

Around the walls wooden plaques carried the names of winners through the centuries. Nearby stood the famous Egton Bridge scales, oil- damped, twin-panned. The judges had first used troy ounces, but now employed the avoirdupois system of grains and drams. The rules are simple: the berry must have an unbroken skin and, well, that’s it. There’s no complex scoring such as that at a leek show. Size is all that matters here.

When the hall closed for the judging I walked down the main street, past gardens filled with lupins. Giant orange ornamental thistleheads waved above seas of red valerian. I hopped across the stepping stones over the tinkling Esk to the Horseshoe Hotel.

For 60 years the gooseberry show had been held in a hut in the garden of the pantile-roofed, sandstone pub. Now the great contests here were the battles in the Danby Quoit League. I drank a pint on the lawn in the shade of pine trees.

Later I’d catch the train back west among the returning Whitby day trippers, sunburned and snoozy, the smell of coconut suntan lotion and fish and chips. The Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show will be back next year. I think it might be time to go again.