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Decline in visitors fells top leek show

THE GREAT North East’s tradition of prize leek growing has been dealt a blow with the scrapping of one of the country’s biggest shows.

Bill Rutherford, leek
Bill Rutherford, leek

THE GREAT North East’s tradition of prize leek growing has been dealt a blow with the scrapping of one of the country’s biggest shows.

For the last 28 years, the world open leek championship and world heaviest onion challenge at the Northern Club in Ashington, Northumberland, has attracted entries from across the UK.

Prize money of £7,500 was up for grabs in the Newcastle Breweries-sponsored show, with £1,300 for best stand of leeks and £1,000 for the weightiest onion.

As smaller club and pub shows have fallen by the wayside, the showpiece event at the Northern Club has helped continue the social and cultural tradition of leek growing going back more than 150 years.

But now the club has decided to axe the show, due to be held next month.

Ashington grower Bill Rutherford, who started the show, said: “It is an absolute bombshell. People used to come from all over the country and the whole leek world is shattered.”

Tony Cuthbert, from Warkworth in Northumberland, won the onion title two years ago with a 14Ib 14oz monster. He said: “It’s a disaster. It was a lovely weekend, but now the carpet has been pulled from under us.”

Dick Atkinson, former secretary of the Northern Club and the show itself, said the club could no longer afford to contribute to the event. He said: “We regret having to call off the show, but from our point of view it is not viable.

“We could not justify the outlay because although the level of entries remained good, not enough people were coming through the door to view the show. We were not getting enough back on beer sales to recoup our money.”

The club has 1,500 male and 500 female members, but Mr Atkinson said business had been badly hit by the smoking ban and rising prices also had an impact.

He said: “Petrol, utility and food bills are going up. People haven’t got a bottomless pit of money and it is hitting drinking. Pubs are closing every day and a lot of clubs are struggling.”

Mr Rutherford said the show had continually set new standards, with winning leeks more than double the size of 1980 and the top onion nearly three times heavier than the original winner.

He said: “I don’t think leek growing can recover from this. It is a really sad affair because it was a phenomenal success for many years. One of the problems is that younger people are just not interested.”

Mr Cuthbert said: “Once you would have had to queue to get into the show, but lately you could just wander in.

“Although allotment gardening is booming and there are waiting lists, it isn’t spilling into shows, and in the next five years I foresee a big decline.

“Serious growers use equipment like poly tunnels, and it costs me £600 a year to heat greenhouses. It is too much if you can’t get decent prize money.”

Mining heritage

SHOW leek growing has its roots in the region’s mining culture.

After a hard day underground, the garden or allotment offered pitmen fresh air, contact with the natural world and produce.

The aim of show growers is to produce a stand of two or three leeks combining size, uniformity and quality.

According to leek historian and grower Bill Rutherford, the first recorded show in the region was in Swarland in Northumberland in 1846, while in Ashington in the 1930s there were around 35 shows.

The science of leek growing has its own body, the National Pot Leek Society, which holds its annual show in the North East.

But many shows have closed, including the big joint Northumberland and County Durham Club and Institute event.

Turning the tide

TWO Northumberland leek growers have launched new shows to try to turn the tide.

The Blyth Comrades Club show on September 13-14 is the third to be organised by David Clough, with a prize of £1,000 for the best stand of leeks.

Of the Northern Club show decision he said: "It has been a bolt from the blue and it is shattering."

Four years ago, Rob Hall launched a new Northumberland Open Show at Netherton Social Club in Bedlington.

 

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