One Hundred and Twenty Year Old Rhubarb

Genesis 6:3 could not dent Wigan's Rheum Rhabarbarum
February 3, 2023

Either side of a congested road lie two rows of terraced houses. Enter dad’s front door and you go through a vestibule, into a front parlour and through that into a back kitchen. Beyond this lies the yard: A hard surface of paving slabs, three-feet wide and twelve-feet long. Either side a brick wall, high enough to mark a boundary - but still allowing for neighbourly morning greetings and grumbles about the weather, or less commonly updates of births and deaths and shenanigans between the two.

The Backs

The washing line cuts a diagonal swath across and in warmer weather than today, would obscure any passage with billowing sheets or towels hardening in brisk winds and infrequent sunlight. At the opposite end of the yard is a red wooden gate, when unlatched it allows passage to the backs, a strip of dirt that runs the length of the fifty or so terraced houses on the street. In winter, a mucky rivulet runs the centre of the backs and ruins football pitches, cricket wickets and shoes picking their way to leave bins for collecting. Across this strip of winter slush and summer dust is an arrangement of random fencing, crafted from reclaimed wood, de-industrialised gates, old signs and mismatched trellis. And beyond this ramshackle boundary lies another world.

The world of The Pens has existed as long as the houses, the earliest block built for farm labourers. The pens are strips of smallholding, fenced from the agricultural land beyond them. These pens offered subsistence: not gardens for pleasure but for food, a space to swap waged labour for graft paid in root vegetables, fruits and leaves.

The terraces grew tenfold to accommodate the reapers of a three-hundred-million-year-old harvest in subterranean fields. Coal brought new inhabitants. From the surrounding fields, from Wales, Lithuania and Poland, to hew the rock formed in ancient sunlight and cloud.

Living Their Best Lives

Within the pens, these slivers of dirt, open to the skies, allowed more than food on plates. Disappearing lives, histories of land and season, agric, hortic and cultivation were kept as tiny cultures, traded and passed between generations. Cultures from the East and West, dunked in darkness together during the waged week, created spaces to share as they grew. Miserable wages meant feasting came from the abundance this freed labour brought. A liberation of tilling and heaving, caring and nurturing that partially fended of the poison of the pits and the brutal practices of paid work.  

The mines have long gone, the slag heaps of the Wigan Alps now themselves returned to a greener today. The flooded pits a lake sanctuary for birds, the millions of tons of rock dragged from its resting place, now a series of ash forests, meadows, bird hides. These three sisters of tortured earth now bringing a wildness that masks the muscle-ripping endeavour, the mile-below explosions that stripped men of life and limb. The gentleness as the earth reaches again to the sun and forgets the pulse of humanity that brought us here. 

In the pens, some legacy remains of these unfolding communities of families and their struggles to survive. Here, in the pen, we continue to grow. If less now - different now.  More of the land beyond the still trembling fences is given to lawn. Furniture to recline on. Trampolines, flowers and inedible plants. Bird tables offer pet warehouse grain and seed to replace the seasonal abundance lying amongst tilled soil, crawling about leaves and bark.  

Lost now are my own gnarled childish hands, black from digging the spuds patch, weeding, scratched by nettles, soothed by docks. But by that old potato patch, now mowed - not struck with spade, is a strip of the past. Fifty golden crowns that shock a history of another world and remind us of the fleeting nature of our own. Rhubarb.  

In a strand of earth that runs the length of the pen, this leafy waist-high forest was the first thing our octogenarian neighbour showed us as he passed on the pen. In the mid-1970s, Mr Davis, a miner for fifty years and grower for all those and more, waved his arms about these veined swathes of greenery. ‘Russian Gold’ he told us. Flourishing when he took the pen on in the 1920s, bursting with late summer growth now as he showed scant regard to the rest of the plot. As we took in the fruit bushes, the onions laid out, the cold frame made from some demolished house windows decades earlier, we came back again and again to the rhubarb. Into the shed, then as now a series of old doors and one grimy window, dominated inside by an oil-soaked sleeper bench, the air rich with oil and of wooden handled tools worn smooth by never-ending activity.    

Mr Shukie And His Rhubarb

It was to the window we went, ‘great view of the rhubarb’ he said. These crowns were the touchstone to a whole lost history, of dipped stalks in sugar, of Mrs Davis’s crumbles and pies, of ruddy coloured wine and summers sipping away a sunset. He talked of trading these riches, wrapped in newspaper, a prize from the East. He told us of stalks in a jackbit tin, consumed a mile beneath the sunlit earth and bringing just a little light to that darkness.  

Back we went, to his own handover from the miner that started this crop, brought over from Lithuania, or Poland, or somewhere. In sacks, a few at a time.  The times when the Baltic farms gave labour for Summer and the Lancashire underground fields took the rest for Winter. He reckoned that the crowns were seventy or eighty years old, as old as him ‘but dealing wi’ it a fair bit better’. Dad remembered Mrs Davies giving us a dozen stalks in newspaper when they moved in, that symbol of kindness an ancient one. Purple stalks, hard as the arms that cut it. And still this miniature forest of ancient wealth gives its bounty.  

These huge waving poisonous leaves, the proud and relentless stalks, the pulse of a lifetime of which our own is only fleeting. The houses and the rhubarb, solid fixtures for more than a century, as all the waves of humanity that brought them have gone. Back out the pen, across the backs, yard and house and onto a road now choked with a blue smog of Saharan oil replacing the murky haze of coal fires. The parting gift, if you time it right: the newspaper packaged stalks of Russian Gold from dad, himself the octogenarian.  

The headlines change in that inky wrapping but an ancient thread runs through those veins. And ours.  

120 Year-Old Rhubarb