Yorkshire gooseberry competition returns with 85-year-old taking top prize

An 85-year-old awarded the trophy for heaviest gooseberry has expressed his pride, saying he thought his “winning days had come to an end”.

Bryan Nellist’s victory, in the Yorkshire hamlet of Egton Bridge near Whitby on Tuesday, went to the wire, decided by a “berry-off” that came down to fractions of a gram between his white gooseberry – of a variety known as Belmarsh – and its rival.

“It was incredibly tight,” said Ian Woodcock of the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society.

Despite the tension, Woodcock described the day as going “excellently”, with “a really nice table of berries” entered. Visitors, including families on holiday from Dorset, Liverpool and Somerset, were greeted with a sign welcoming them to “Ye Olde Egton Bridge Gooseberry Society”.

The hotly anticipated competition was cancelled last year, due to the pandemic, for only the second time in its 220-year history.

Pinned to the wall is a copy of the hand-written rules of the 1823 show, and the Egton Bridge competition strictly abides by the rules. The two dozen or so individual growers are invited to arrive with their gooseberries in the morning, most using egg trays to transport their prize hopefuls, before judges examine them in the corner of St Hedda’s schoolroom. One grower was left disappointed after arriving minutes after the midday cut-off point and faced disqualification. One hundred berries were weighed in total.

Woodcock said that fears that recent adverse weather conditions could affect the quality of the berries had not come to pass, although the world record “holy grail” of gooseberries from the 2019 competition was left untouched. Nellist’s winning entry came in at 26 drams 18 grains, on Avery oil-dampened balance scales dating from 1937.

A much-discussed topic of the day was the controversy of another gooseberry competition, held last weekend, in the Cheshire village of Goostrey. Its reigning champion, 76-year-old Terry Price, was unable to enter either Egton or Goostrey after claims his prized bushes had been poisoned and killed by a suspected rival ahead of the competitions.

The president of the Goostrey Gooseberry Society, who first entered a competition aged 18, Price sent some of the dead plants for laboratory testing, only to discover they had been sprayed with a chemical formula unavailable over the counter.

Woodcock said he had never heard of such a thing happening in Egton Bridge. “That’s the other side of the Pennines, that’s just foreign,” he said.

“I’ve never come across anything like that. If that really has happened, that is something very odd going on there. I mean, people talk about competitive leek growing and the shenanigans that go on there, but gooseberry growing isn’t like that,” Woodcock added.

Indeed, in Egton Bridge, the runner-up described himself as a “happy loser”, with many growers declaring themselves pleased for Nellist, who won his first title in the world of gooseberry competitions in 1997 and has broken several world records.

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