The Rhubarb Triangle, Yorkshire
You may already be familiar with the Golden Triangle in South East Asia, and no doubt you have heard tales of the strange goings-on in the Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic, but did you know that Yorkshire is home to its very own brand of triangle… the Rhubarb Triangle!
This mysterious land sits between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell and despite being only nine square miles in size it used to produce 90% of the world’s forced rhubarb crop. Special Rhubarb Express trains would leave from Wakefield headed for London’s old Covent Garden Market where it was distributed. In its heyday there were over 200 rhubarb producers who were the first in the World to erect special “forcing” sheds where they perfected the art of growing rhubarb out of season.
Forcing rhubarb is a very labour intensive method which hasn’t changed much in 200 years. First the rhubarb is left to grow outside in a field for two years where it stores energy in its roots. It is then exposed to a frost and the entire plant is lifted out of the ground and placed on the floor inside a warm, dark forcing shed. These sheds have no soil so the plant must use the energy reserves in its roots to grow stems. The dark and the warmth encourage this growth and it is said that the plants grow so quickly under these conditions that you can hear the buds popping. The resulting forced rhubarb is much more tender and sweeter than rhubarb grown outside.
With the advent of exotic fruit importing in the sixties, Britain’s love of this vegetable began to wane. Today there are only a handful of producers left. One of the most well-known is E.Oldroyd & Sons Ltd who have been forcing rhubarb since the thirties. Janet Oldroyd Hulme is often referred to as the “High Priestess of Rhubarb” and every year between January and March she opens up her forcing sheds to the likes of you and me.
Stepping into the rhubarb forcing shed is a magical experience. Because the plants need near-darkness, the sheds are lit with candles and seeing the bright pink stems en masse in the candlelight is quite a sight.
To understand why this tiny area of Britain became such a roaring rhubarb success we must delve into the very origins of the plant itself. Rhubarb came originally from Siberia where it was found growing along the banks of the River Volga. This gives us some important clues about the plant’s requirements: cold, water and nitrogen. The Rhubarb Triangle sits within a frost pocket in the shadow of the Pennines, there is a lot of water nearby and the area also used to have a thriving wool industry. One of the by-products of this was waste wool, or “shoddy” which is high in nitrogen and provided the plant with a cheap food source. Combine these factors with the nearby coal mines that heated up the sheds and you have the prefect spot for rhubarb forcing.
Interestingly, rhubarb was first brought to Britain by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century. At this time its principal use was as a medicinal drug. It was so highly regarded and sought after that in 1657 rhubarb was worth three times more than opium. So perhaps the Rhubarb Triangle has more in common with the Golden triangle than you think.
Rhubarb Triangle photos
More of Jasia's Rhubarb Triangle photos
How to get there
E.Oldroyd & Sons Ltd, Carlton Village, LS26 0ST. Open from January to March. Places are limited so book early to avoid disappointment (0113-282 2245). For more information see their website.
To get there by public transport take the 443 bus from Leeds bus station to Carlton village. Getting back was trickier and we got a lift from a fellow rhubarb tourist.