In the area around Blackden, growing gooseberries the size of hens’ eggs is serious matter.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century gooseberry societies flourished in England. The societies organised annual shows where the heaviest berries won prizes such as copper kettles and brass pans.
From a peak of one hundred and seventy-one shows registered in 1845, only nine have survived. Eight of these societies are in Cheshire and have formed the Mid-Cheshire Gooseberry Shows Association. In Yorkshire, the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society continues to flourish.
There are several classes within individual shows. The variety of each berry that wins a place in each class is recorded. Gooseberries come in four colours (red, green yellow and white) and there are different varieties in each colour, each with its own name. If a grower is not certain of the variety of his berry, the older and more experienced growers will consult and agree which it is. Differences between varieties can turn on subtle detail such as patterns of veins or the shape of the berry.
Gooseberry growing is not a pastime for anyone with a short attention span. Breeding a new cultivar can take years, and what once was almost a rite of passage among the gooseberry growing fraternity has largely become a pastime for older people, mostly men.
One of the aims of The Blackden Trust is to reacquaint the public with its gooseberry-growing heritage. To honour this culture, the Trust houses some of the records of the Cheshire societies and has embarked on a project to collect an oral and visual record of gooseberry growing in the area (see ‘Just Betty’ below).
In parallel, the Trust celebrates the memory and achievements of the legendary gooseberry grower, Frank Carter (see below), who developed more new cultivars during his lifetime than anybody has since.
For more, see Competitive Gooseberry Growing
Frank Carter is famous among gooseberry growers for developing sixteen new gooseberry cultivars. All were grown from seed on Blackden soil, many of them in what is now the garden of The Blackden Trust.
Frank Carter was born in Toad Hall at the beginning of the twentieth century. He lived all his life in Blackden and worked in the experimental gardens of the Biology Department of The University of Manchester at Jodrell Bank. When he retired he continued to develop new cultivars. Their names chart aspects of his life and reflect the date of the naming: Montgomery, Prince Charles, Firbob, Blackden Gem, Just Betty, Christine, Montrose, Mr Chairman, Bank View, Blackden Firs, Roots, Woodside, Millennium, Newton Wonder, Bellmarsh, and Crystal.
Frank’s cultivars still grow the heaviest berries shown today.
To celebrate his achievements, in 2008 the Trust inaugurated the Frank Carter Memorial Plate which is awarded annually for the Premier Berry at Goostrey Gooseberry Show. The plates are made by the potter, John Hudson; they record the year, and the names of the grower and the berry, making every plate unique.
In parallel, the Trust is home to the Frank Carter gooseberry collection, a gooseberry pen containing all of his cultivars. Cuttings are being taken from the trees and grown on. Once we have established our nursery of trees, visitors to the Trust will be able to have specimens of Frank’s trees to continue and spread his legacy. We already have a few trees to sell.
Just Betty is a project to record and publicly share the heritage of Cheshire gooseberry growing in the area around Blackden. It will include film of key tasks and stages in the growing of prize-winning gooseberries, an introduction to berry identification, and raise awareness of the skills of growing and the archive of records and objects held by the Trust. The project has been made possible by generous support from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust.
The project’s name comes from one of Frank Carter’s cultivars. The story behind it is that Frank originally wanted to name this berry after his mother, Betty. However, he confided to Marjorie Garner (Alan Garner’s mother) that he was not happy about naming it ‘Betty Carter’. Marjorie suggested that ‘just Betty’ would be fine, so Frank named the berry Just Betty.