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Combe Martin from Silver Mining to Strawberries

How Combe Martin Silver Mining Segued To Working Strawberry Fields

Paraphrased from an article about Combe Martin agriculture, in Agriculture magazine, September 1962. The original author was Devon Horticultural Advisory Officer P. Allington, B.Sc. (Hort.), of the National Agricultural Advisory Service (N.A.A.S). 

 

 

Modified on Dec. 18. 2023

In September 1962, P. Allington, B.Sc. (Hort.) of the National Agricultural Advisory Service, reported that Combe Martin locals used to work in their silver mines until the nineteenth-century. 

"When the Old Combmartin Mines shut down, many local workers and entrepreneurs switched to growing crops, especially strawberries, in the valley's sunny plots and fields" (Allington, P., Agriculture magazine, Sept. 1962).

These plots, along with the small farms and horticultural gardens, formed Combe Martin's market gardening industry seen in 1962. It stretched two miles inland, and about four hundred yards up the sides of Combe Martin Vale facing south.

Around the same time that Combe Martin silver mines closed, nearby Ilfracombe became a popular holiday destination for the wealthy. And as Ilfracombe thrived, so did the demand for fresh produce.

Combe Martin was in the fortunate position to supply this demand. Strawberries were a successful crop, but soon the local market was saturated and they looked to South Wales as the main buyer.

Allington wrote that Combe Martin strawberries were packed in baskets of 12-25 pounds and shipped by steamboats - such as Combe Martin's own SS Snowflake - from Ilfracombe to South Wales, for four pennies a basket.

This trade lasted until the Second World War, and in the late thirties they also sent some by train to the English Midlands.

Allington describes how, in the Victorian era, Combe Martin grew a small strawberry that was probably similar to the wild one: the old growers fondly called them “Pinkies”. Between the two world wars, the most common strawberries were Joseph Paxton and Royal Sovereign.

And in the 1930s, the Madame Lefebvre variety became popular because it was early and productive. Even in 1961, ‘Phoebe’, as it was known locally, was still the main early variety, though they had tried almost every new variety since the last war.

For the main crop, Cambridge Favourite and Redgauntlet strawberries were the most widely grown varieties. Rearguard strawberries were the most popular late variety, and they also grew Talisman strawberries in smaller quantities.

In the early 1900s, a man and his family could make a living from a market garden of one acre. These men bought their land when Combe Martin's 19th century Buzzacott Manor was sold with its estate, in 1919.

Allington stated that buyers "paid between £300 and £500 an acre, often bidding against themselves in fear of losing their land". 

The same prices applied in 1961, but only land which was suitable for building was preferred. At that time, only holdings of 4 acres or more seemed to survive; smaller holdings were either part-time or abandoned.

General Market Gardening by 1961

The situation in Combe Martin during 1961 was similar to what it had been for the previous twenty years. The holdings were still small, most of them between 2 and 4 acres, with very few at 6 or 7 acres. Each holding was split into small fields by earth bank boundaries, typical of Devon.

These fields were usually about an acre, but some were as small as a quarter of an acre, and few fields were bigger than 2 acres. These fields were designed for hand labour and were hard to work with machines. Therefore they still did most of the work by hand, such as forking.

Strawberries were still the most important crop in 1961, but they shifted from specialised production to general market gardening for local North Devon demands, as they did in the nineteenth century.

By 1962 the only really specialized early strawberry holdings were limited to the sunniest slopes, near the sea. The rest of the holdings became diverse, growing maincrop and late strawberries.

There were also early potatoes, spring cabbage and other vegetables, anemones and various flowers. These latter holdings got most of their income from local trade, and sent some of their strawberries and anemones to other places.

[Sea anemones entered the diet of impoverished, postwar communities near the Spanish Andalusian seaside during the 1940s. Eventually, they came to be used in high-class gastronomical culture].

Combe Martin's specialist growers of the early 1960s, dwindling in number, depended on markets in the Midlands and South Wales for their sales. The holdings varied gradually from one end of the valley to the other, rather than having a clear distinction. 

The main crops did not follow a fixed rotation, although anemones or strawberries often came after early potatoes, and brassicas usually succeeded strawberries.

As the production became less intensive: the crop rotations also became more flexible, with some gaps between crops.  Historically, Combe Martin strawberries required a lot of farmyard manure, and local lime to sweeten the land.

By the 1960s, organic manure was in short supply. Instead, a high potash compound fertilizer was applied before planting, and again every spring. In dry seasons, crops with low humus content suffered more than those on well-fertilised land.

Strawberry planting happened whenever the land was ready, from August to November. Sometimes it was postponed until the next spring. The runners were usually taken from existing beds, and often sold informally. Lately, more growers became interested in Ministry certified plants.

The earliest planted runners produced fruit in the first year, otherwise no fruit was harvested that season. Plant spacings ranged from 1 ft x 2 ft on the steepest slopes to 1 ft 3 in. x 2 ft 6 in. on the deeper soils at the bottom of the slopes.

Every winter, the Combe Martin strawberry plots were lightly forked over, using a long-handled fork. This laborious task killed weeds by burying them. Very little straw was used, because of its high cost and the fact that the clay-rich shale soil reduced the need for it.

The crops were kept as long as the grower thought they would be productive the next season. This meant that most beds were removed after the fourth season, but sometimes older beds were seen.

Spring cabbage was planted in September at 1 ft x 2 ft spacing. No fertiliser was applied before planting, but a nitrogenous top dressing of 5 cwt per acre sulphate of ammonia or Nitro-Chalk was given in February. The variety grown was Wheelers Imperial, and harvested as a mature cabbage.

Spring cabbage and early potatoes were not very popular, because of the heavy weight and volume to be carried from the small fields. The early potato crop was dug up by hand.

Anemones were a valuable income source in the winter months. Corms of 2-3 cm were planted in 1 ft 3 inch rows, with two corms every 4-6 inches. This meant up to 200,000 corms were planted per acre.

Compound organic fertilizers were often used before planting, which, along with the high corm density, resulted in a very leafy crop with long-stemmed flowers of medium quality. The crop was picked once a week, except when growth was stopped by freezing conditions, as in the winters of 1947 and 1961-62.

Almost all of this crop was sold in the midland and northern markets. Very few growers moved to Combe Martin from other areas in the 1960s. They all tended to adopt the traditional Combe Martin methods rather than bring in new ideas, perhaps reflecting Combe Martin's valley’s isolated location.

About ten men left full-time horticulture in Combe Martin each year, but few holdings were being sold. Instead, they were cultivated less intensively, as a supplementary income for the owners.

Uncertain Future in Combe Martin (1962)

The influx of retired people and the holiday industry maintained the prosperity of Combe Martin, despite the declining profitability of market gardening. If horticulture in Combe Martin continued to shrink at the current rate, it could have vanished within ten years.

A few growers remained to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to locals by 1962, and Allington noted that “it should always be remembered that North Devon’s isolation is as much a hindrance to importers as to exporters in the district”.

Market Gardening Prospects Diminished in Combe Martin

In light of this hindrance, small producers supplying local demands could have found wider markets for their produce, long after similar-sized holdings had disappeared from around the large cities.

A prosperous market gardening community could have existed in Combe Martin for many years, if larger units of buying, production and marketing were formed. They could also have taken advantage of more mechanization.

Equally, Combe Martin's market gardeners could have grown only those crops able to compete on the open market, with produce from other areas. 

Yet there was little evidence of such intentions in September 1962, and Allington felt that neither the prospects nor efforts towards commercial horticulture in Combe Martin seemed encouraging.

 

© Author J.P. - paraphrased from an article by Allington in Agriculture magazine (Sept 1962). Originally published for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1962.

P. Allington, B.Sc. (Hort.), N.A.A.S. was the Horticultural Advisory Officer in Devon in 1962.

The National Agricultural Advisory Service (N.A.A.S) was created to give assistance and technical advice to those seeking to obtain a living from the land.

Combe Martin North Devon, photo of ewarly gardens near the sea. Combemartinvillage.co.uk