A Forest of Dean Tradition.
“In order to protect the guilty no actual names of (Bream) Sports Club members have been used in this article”.By Bryan Nemes
As you do the heritage walk you may begin to notice rows of sticks appearing in gardens adjoining the route. Bryan, a member of the Bream Heritage team, has written the following article to explain this Forest tradition - GD
It’s that time of the year again, and as the garden is cleared and tidied for the coming winter gardeners in the Forest will be swapping stories regarding the past season.
Some crops will have been a success and this will be due to the skills and green fingers of the persons concerned. Crop failures will be blamed on the weather or infestations of blackfly and slugs. Pigeons and sparrows will have played a part – as will blight and caterpillars.
I know this from experience since caterpillars and pigeons view my garden much as some people view the Costa Brava – a summer holiday destination.
No other crop will be discussed as much as the humble runner bean and it is fair to say that a keen gardener measures the seasons by either thinking about them, growing them or, better still, eating them. I have to confess to being as guilty as anyone on this score.
Around January only brief thought will be given to them. Are more sticks needed? Where to plant them? Last but not least – what variety of bean?
Thought becomes more concentrated in February and discussions and arguments will take place over pints of beer at the Sports Club. What brand of beer is a point of contention that I will leave to another day.
One person will start things going by commenting that he’s bought his seeds for the coming season, including his bean seed. Invariably these will be considered the wrong choice by everyone else.
“Enorma’s the best,” I might say.
“Can’t beat Scarlet Emperor,” says someone else.
“I’m going for them white-flowered ones,” says yet another. “Keeps the birds away.”
At the mention of birds, the discussion will abruptly change. Blue tits will get a mention. I will blame pigeons, even though they seem to prefer lettuce. Most of the blame for failed crops will fall at the feet of the humble sparrow. This tiny bird is to the grower of runner beans what the locust was to the ancient Egyptians and I will return to them later.
In early March the debate begins to become more heated. Rows of sticks will appear in some gardens. The most hopeful will even have planted a few beans.
I am guilty of this since no time is too early for me once March is upon us. I favour the plastic sheet method of protection even if it does require constant patrols to keep it in place on windy days.
“Too early,” is a typical comment regarding my impatience.
“A late frost ’ll kill the lot,” agrees another.
“You can’t beat the seasons,” says another.
“I haven’t even put my sticks up yet,” voices another.
Another abrupt change of topic will occur at the mention of sticks. In earlier times there were only two choices – fir poles or hazel sticks. If the Forestry Commission was thinning trees the former would be the ideal choice. Hazel was the second choice but were not so long-lasting. With the advent of the garden centre bamboo canes became easy to obtain and garden twine is sometime used. As is usual the various choices available provokes dissent.
“Beans don’t like twine,” says one person. “Can’t get a good grip on it.”
“Canes aren’t much better.” says another. “Too thin.”
“What do you tie yours with?” asks another, provoking yet more argument.
The choices used to be fairly simple – string or wire were mostly used. The arrival of Rank Xerox at Mitcheldean gave gardeners a new choice – the cable tie.
Within a few years of them starting their photo copier production there was hardly a bean row to be seen in the Forest, if not the whole of West Gloucestershire, that wasn’t tied with neat rows of plastic ties. The Buyers at Ranks must have made a special allowance for purchases of ties or production would have ground to a halt.
All things must pass and with the demise of Ranks we are now back to wire and string – unless we part with hard cash to actually purchase cable ties.
I favour canes for my beans, which I securely tie with twisted wire, so well-constructed that no wind speed on the Beaufort scale will cause the slightest flicker in the row.
In late May the rumours start. A garden is seen in Aylburton with bean runners at the top of the sticks. Another is seen in Lydney. As is usual the Club debate soon heats up.
“Lucky that late frost didn’t have ‘em,” says one expert.
“Killed a few of mine,” remarks another.
“Should have covered ‘em in plastic,” I say smugly. “Mine are over half way up the sticks – and starting to flower.”
“Birds’ll have ‘em,” says the Club’s resident pessimist.
This is the cue to return to the topic of birds. Someone will swear by netting the bean row. Others will recommend the hanging of silver foil or strips cut from plastic bags. Cut-outs of cats or birds of prey will have been tried. Were it not for the neighbours some have considered exploding bird scarers.
“All a waste of time,” says the Club pessimist.
“You’re lucky you haven’t got rabbits,” says a committee member, although one not renowned for his gardening skills.
In late June the race is on. There are reports of flowers dropping off, followed by the appearance of minute beans. As the month changes to July these become longer and longer. There are complaints about the price of the first beans seen at Tesco.
No matter what is occurring in Bream and the rest of the Forest, one thing is certain: as night follows day, the first beans will be picked in Aylburton.
“It’s the Severn,” says one sage. “Salt air.”
“You’re right,” says a second sage. “Never get any frost down there.”
“Or snow,” says another. “Always starts at the bend by the Leech Pool.”
At the mention of frost the topic might change to the late frost of ’eighty-three or some other such date. It will be generally agreed that Parkend had the worst of it, followed by Whitecroft. Invariably the eldest of those present will comment on the winter and spring of ‘sixty-three.
In a good season beans will be picked during July and will be prolific in August. Our Club pessimist will now feel the need to remind everyone of the year when there was not one bean entered in the Flower Show.
“Bad weather?” someone will ask.
“Bad? Like bloody winter,” is the reply. “Worst Flower Show ever.”
“What about ‘seventy-six?” asks the eldest member. “Hot as Hell, it was. All my beans dried up.”
In a good season August and September are the plentiful-time for the runner bean and the conversation turns to the topic of the best way to eat them.
For once there are no arguments – it has to be with new potatoes and bacon – with bacon fat drizzled on top. I also favour fried tomatoes with mine. By late September I will have eaten beans with every cooked dinner.
You may have thought that there were no more possible arguments to be had regarding such a humble vegetable. You are wrong, there is one that is hotly debated – what to do with the surplus crop? The obvious answer is to freeze them. How to do it is the question.
“Waste of time,” says our Club pessimist.
“Only one way,” is one reply. “Cut ‘em up and put ‘em straight in.”
“Like eating wet blotting paper,” answers our pessimist.
“Blanch for two minutes, into cold water and then in the freezer,” suggests another.
“Too long, one minute is long enough,” replies another.
“Still like eating bloody blotting paper,” is the pessimist’s response.
The eldest member then gives a lecture on the art of salting them down in glass jars – just as his mother used to do. The pessimist almost chokes on his beer at the thought.
“Cooking them is the secret,” says a bystander. “Straight out of the freezer and into boiling water.”
Another voice is heard from near the bar. “What about chutney?”
“What about it?” retorts our pessimist. “My missus made so much one year that it filled a cupboard. Couldn’t even give it away and then it went mouldy.”
On and on it goes and so many methods of freezing and cooking will be covered that they would fill a small book. There are those who will half-fill their freezer with a surplus of beans. I am with our pessimist on this one – they will taste like soggy, dark-green blotting paper, whatever the method.
We now reluctantly come to the end of the runner bean season, usually in late September or early October, although I have picked beans in early November. It’s time to take down the sticks and put them away. To dig the ground and to compost the old plants, to remove dried seeds for next year’s crop and, last but not least – it’s time to bring up the topic of brussels sprouts.
P.S. Does anyone fancy some runner bean chutney?