What Crops Were Grown on Devon Cliff Plats?

Potato
Freshly Harvested Potatoes Similar to Plat Teddies

A wide range of crops were grown on the Devon cliff plats aka cliff gardens or cliff farms. In the early days, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815),  there was a shortage of cereals and hence bread. So the cropping was reflected this with cereals being grown. Most of the crops would have been cut and threshed by hand, then carried to the mill for processing before being taken back to the plat gardeners’ homes to be made into bread.

With bread prices tripling at this time growing cereals would have been a necessity and never a way to occupy the local population as implied by the National Trust signage at Weston Plats.

Cereal crops grown would have varied due to demand thereafter and included wheat, barley and oats. I’ve seen no record to date of rye being grown.

There are indications that various forms of gardening or farming took place on the Devon plats prior to the Napoleonic wars, though I’ve yet to see firm evidence of the full range. However there is 1763 reference to garden plots (note the word plots rather than plats was used).

But whatever the actual commencement date, these were tough times and had been for centuries. I suspect that foraging for sea beet, sea kale, nuts, berries and fruit would have been apparent for hundreds of years before the plats became established as rented pieces of land. Indeed I suspect that the transition from foraging to cultivation may well go back to Elizabethan times if not before. I cannot prove this at present but hungry people always find a way to supplement their diets!

Firm Evidence Of Plat Gardening From The 1940s

Though earlier evidence is sparse, there is significant evidence of plat gardening during the 20th century. As well as newspaper reports, census records, church records etc. there is evidence from the plat gardeners themselves. Some kept records that have survived to their day and they are a source of evidence upon which we can now reflect.

For example one plat gardener, tom White, wrote a list of his seed sowing and planting during 1942-3 and I have reproduced much of it below with my comments. Sadly I haven’t managed to access the full years records but what there is is certainly revealing.

Onions were a popular plat plant!

One thing that I find particularly interesting is the large quantity of onions grown. However when the 1943 onion growing video I recently posted is considered it is easy to see why. Huge tonnages of onions had been imported previously. If you haven’t seen the video, its worth watching, if only for the superb photography in it!.

Seeds Sown in 1942-3

1942

August 7th  Cabbage Seed

Sept. 13th  Giant Rocca Tripoli Onions  (This was a popular variety usually sown in August elsewhere)

Sept 22 Flat Pole Cabbage (Flat poles were huge cabbage, often 40lbs in weight, mainly grown as a fodder crop for cattle. After silage was fully mechanised they fell out of favour and I’ve not seen any since the 1960s)

Sept 26th Bees Cabbage Seed (this isn’t a variety I know).

Sept 28th  “Flower of Spring” Cabbage (this is an Offenham 2 variety and hence from the Vale of Evesham, the seed is still available today).

Nov 11th  2 Ranks of Early Seville Broad Beans
Nov 20th  4 Ranks White Broad Bean
Nov 22nd 3 Ranks of “Early” Broad Bean

1943

Jan 24th 6 Rhubarb Rods
Jan 28th  6 Rhubarb Rods
Feb 4th 8 Ranks of Early Market Carrots

Feb 7th 2lb of Seed Shallots

Feb 7th 2 Ranks of Long Red Radish

Feb 7th 4 Ranks of “All Year Round” Lettuce

Feb 12th 6 Ranks of Hollow Crown Parsnips (A show variety that loves deep soil, Hollow Crown Parsnip is one of the oldest varieties, still available today. It has long tapering roots of very white skin and well textured flesh. This might tell us something of the soil where this was grown).

Feb 13th 6 ranks of “Jarman’s Mammoth” Leek

Feb 13th 1 Rank of “Jarman’s Goliath” Sprouts

Feb 15th 12lbs Shallots (1942 seed) Autumn Giant

Feb 15th 2 Ranks of “Early London” Cauliflower (aka Veitch’s Autumn Giant, In “The Cauliflower” AA Crozier says It was introduced into England about 1869, since when it has become very popular there for a late crop and for summer”).

Feb 15th 250 Tripoli Onions

Feb 16th 4 Ranks of Brand Beans

Feb 18th 1 Rank of “Jarman’s Exhibition” Sprouts

Feb 21st 4 Score of Potatoes (the variety is not given but the date of planting is interesting as it indicates that this is indeed early potato land).

Feb 22nd Shallots, old seed

Feb 23rd 500 Tripoli Onions

Feb 24th 6lbs Shallots, old seed

Feb 24th 400 Giant Rocca Tripoli Onions

Feb 26th 24 lbs Shallots, old seed

Feb 28th 3 1/2 Score of Potatoes

March 5th 1/2 ounce of Bedfordshire Champion Onions

March 6th 3 Ranks of Somerset Hero Onions

March 6th 1 Rank of Jame’s Keeping Onions

March 7 4 Score of Potatoes

March 7 2 Ranks of Spring Onions

March 7th 2 Ranks of Ryders Wonderful Lettuce (This isn’t a variety I know. I can find no references to it. The popular of of the day was Webbs Wonderful, even then a heritage variety, that is still grown today).

March 8 1 Rank of Gradus Peas  (Gradus were a tall early variety of pea. They were grown as a comparison variety at Wisley Pea Trials in 1946. The seed supplier was Watkins and Simpson of Drury Lane, Covent Garden, London. They supplied several varieties and it appears that tin some cases they “raised, and introduced” pea varieties).

March 10th 1 rank of Gradus Peas (It’s interesting that a second row of peas was sown a few days after the first. They were on separate plats so may indicate that they were being sown in to spaces that became available as crops were harvested. Or it might be to spread the risk of damage from winds of this tall variety. I doubt the latter as shorter varieties were available as can be seen from the Wisley Trials of a few years later).

March 12th 2 Ranks of Drumhead Savoy (Drumhead cabbages are still popular today. They are the large globe like white cabbages weighing up to 4lbs that are common in supermarkets and often used for coleslaw).

March 12th 2 Ranks of Chardonion Cabbage. (I can find no reference to this variety and don’t know it myself).

Growing Brassicas on The Plats

There is plenty of evidence of growing various members of the cabbage family (brassicas) on the plats. The list above includes various cabbages including the very heavy flat pole cabbage as well as Brussels being grown. I would also expect to find that perennial and annual kales would have been commonly grown. Perennial kale, often called Cottager Kale, was staple of many cottage gardens.  We know it was popular in the 1860s as Charles Darwin mentioned it in the Gardeners’ Chronicle of 1860.

Early Potatoes: Growing Branscombe “Teddies”

The potatoes grown on the cliffs around Branscombe and Weston Mouth were famous. Known as Branscombe “Teddies” they were as early and those from Jersey and local said tastier.

Interestingly the potato varieties being grown in the above  list isn’t mentioned.  Maybe because only one was normally grown and it therefore didn’t need mentioning by name. It’s not that there was a special Branscombe potato variety. On the cliffs they grew the same varieties as elsewhere.

I believe it was most likely to be Epicure or Arran Pilot in most cases. The evidence is that there are records to that effect.  Certainly some Epicure seed potatoes were purchased from Scottish producers.

During the First World War the seed potatoes offered to growers by government included Epicure, Sharpes Express, British Queen, Up to Date, and Aran Chief. But local suppliers also had Eclipse, May Queen, Puritan, Duke of York and Myatt’s Ashleaf available.

Epicure Potatoes on the Plats

Epicure is a first early, it was bred by James Clark and sold by Sutton and Son. It was first commercially available in 1897, was known as a high yielder and is  still known as having well-flavoured, floury tubers with white skin and cream-white flesh. Another of its features is that it is able to withstand light frosts. Hence, in an area with fewer frosts, as the cliff side plats are known for, it is an ideal variety. As a variety for early production, for the famed Branscombe potatoes aka Branscombe teddies, it was ideal. Interestingly, Epicure was also grown in Ayrshire as an early variety.

And as a variety that steams and boils well it is ideal for those early potatoes that hotels and restaurants could serve up as something special.

War however meant change. The government didn’t want early potatoes, they wanted huge tonnages of potatoes to feed a hungry nation facing the U-boat wolf pack predation of incoming food conveys.

So government mandated other varieties and insisted that growers went for maximum yield. They had favoured varieties for this and the main one seems to have been King Edward potatoes. King Edwards were first grown commercially way back in 1902 and were patriotically named King Edwards to coincide with the crowing of King Edward VII.

But they weren’t called King Edward when first developed a few years before. They’d started as ‘Fellside Hero’ and were initially developed in Northumberland. But they didn’t show promise and were bought by an enterprising grower who promoted them and started what has become a very long lasting cultivar.

King Edwards are still grown today and it’s one of the oldest surviving cultivars grown in Europe.

So, despite the fact that main crop potatoes weren’t ideal for plat growers as they were unprofitable … the money being in early crops .. that is what they were told to produce!

Early potatoes don’t produce high yields. The tonnages are much lower than later crops. But the profit is made by virtue of the fact they are early and therefore scarce. Shortage always produces profit for those that have the crops that are in short supply.

As can be seen above, in 1943 some potatoes were planted on February 21st.

And records from other years show that potatoes were usually harvested in mid May, with some crops occasionally as early as late April.

This ties up with the time from planting to harvest that we still claim today. Earlies take 12-14 weeks to reach harvest size. But of course it depends how big you want them. Some people say they are fit to harvest in 10-12 weeks!

The problem with very early crops is the the yield is much lower. But the earlies were grown for profit and consideration needs to be given to price and weight. An earlier crop, though much lighter in yield, may well be worth much more money. If you are first to market the price is yours to command. And chefs would vie to be the first o offer them on their menu. Who knows how much premium they would pay to be first, even if the potato was very small.

We do know something of prices though as they were reported in local newspapers. I deal with potato prices in more detail below.

One thing is for sure. It’s much easier to carry a light crop of potatoes up the cliff than it is to carry a heavy one. And if that light weight crop is worth two, three, four out more times the money per pound why would you wait for them to get bigger?

A Relation of the Potato

Tomatoes and potatoes are from the same plant family. So it is hardly surprising that. a few plat farmers grew tomatoes. Though interestingly I don’t see many records of them.

Why?

It could be that, though an early crop would have been possible, they need picking every day and taking to market every day. That takes time and maybe the canny grower decided the profit margins just weren’t large enough.

Flower Growing On the Plats

I was interested to see that, in the same way as my grandfather grew flowers for sale, the market gardeners on the plats grew daffodils. Though picked daily they were not heavy to transport and the season was short. Maybe flower picking was one of the jobs the women undertook. I see no records of it, but there are a few records of women venturing onto the plats to work. But I have a feeling this might have been seen as a women’s harvest, simply because I’ve seen similar ideas elsewhere.

There is one newspaper reference I’ve seen to a female potato grower from Branscombe.  The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of September 22 1883 deals with the Mysterious Shooting Case at Branscombe (John Perriman’s death was being inquired into). One of those arrested was Mrs Eliza Williams who is referred to as a potato grower and the paper carried a side note to the effect that Branscombe was known for its potatoes!

Anemones were also grown on the plats. There is evidence that the corms were purchased from the Netherlands and that they were grown in their thousands. Anemones are another example of a crop that weighs little but commands a high price when produced for an early market.  It was easy to grow, harvest and carry to market, plus it commanded a good price. The perfect plat plant.

Branscombe Potatoes, Plats & Prices in the News

Life growing on the plats wasn’t easy. Prices depended on early harvests and needed a free market. So imagine how plat growers reacted if the government intervened and fixed prices.

On June 14th 1918 the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette carried an Early Potatoes, Branscombe Protest headline. Teddy growers from the plats were protesting and had made their voice heard at the Agricultural War Committee meeting. Mr C. Ford referred to the position of Branscombe potato growers and the restricted price for new potatoes.

Complaints such as this were to resurface when the growers were made to grow main crop varieties during World War II. Plus there were price limits for eggs, butter and potatoes.

Teddie Harvest Dates and Prices

Prices for potatoes were always higher the earlier the crop was sold.

In The Western Times of March 14th 1865 there’s a report of potatoes supplied by “a man from Branscombe who grew them on the cliff”. No price was quoted but this is the earliest crop I’ve seen reference to and is incredibly early by many standard. It should have made a very high price.

The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette dated May 31st 1880 had Branscombe potatoes in Honiton market at 3d/Ib.

On May 5th 1893 the price of them in Sidmouth was 4d/Ib and comment is made that they are a month earlier than last year.

On June 1st 1900 a Mr Perryman is reported as selling potatoes on May 29 at 5d/Ib. These were apparently a fortnight earlier than the previous year.  (I wonder if this Mr Perryman and Mr Perriman, that Eliza Williams was arrested and tried over, are related?).

In 1902, on May 16th, Mr W. Searle got his early crop to Sidmouth market and they fetched 6d/Ib. Apparently the earliness was remarked upon.

What is clear from these reports is that the harvest date often varied by a month or, if the March date is to be believed, could be from mid March to June.

The Impact of Weather On Plat Potatoes

The element that most affects potatoes has to be frost. The plats rarely experience frost. They are (and were) south facing, protected from north winds and the temperature is ameliorated by the “warmer” coastal waters.

The range of local temperatures was brought home to me yesterday when a gardener in Sidmouth town told me they’ve not had a frost all winter. My garden is a mile inland and we’ve had -6C on several occasions. Being close to the sea has a huge impact. And the closest places to the sea are the cliffs. That could mean big money on some occasions.

Take 1894. That year a late frost hit inland potatoes. The Branscombe crop came into its own that year.

But other elements also affect potatoes. High winds can damage foliage and that affects yield. In 1902 the crop was delayed into June because of cold weather in March. And in 1905 strong winds close to harvest time damaged foliage and did a lot of damage. It’s a good reminder that plant need leaves to produce growth. Tubers can only grow if there are enough leaves to feed them. And a potato crop can double in weight in a week at the critical tuber growth stage.

Discover more about plats and quillets below

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