Country diary: strawberry fields, gone for ever

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St Dominic, Tamar valley: Land that once produced highly prized outdoor strawberries is now home to mature conifers and neglected daffodils

Spring advances fastest on the southern edge of this parish, in sight of the tidal river at Halton Quay. The 1840 tithe map shows Brentswood and Halton Wood as oak coppice, but from 1880 until 1914 trees were “ripped” (often with dynamite) to grow some of the earliest outdoor strawberries in the country, commanding high prices at Covent Garden in London and in northern markets.

These “adret” slopes, facing south with a warm microclimate, continued to be worked labour-intensively until the 1960s, growing an intricate patchwork of flowers and soft fruit interspersed with sweet cherries grafted on to tall rootstock. Soil creep was partly counteracted by crops grown diagonally across the vertiginous slopes, and slumped earth was winched back uphill. The steepest land is now engulfed in mature conifers, zigzagged with graded tracks for accessing pheasant shoots; no shooting parties this year because of lockdown, but a few escaped stray cocks run across the adjoining ground of trampled flattened soil, which is littered with husks of maize, planted as shelter and food for these managed game birds.

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