Asparagus at Formby

Formby Asparagus field

The British have enjoyed eating Asparagus since Roman times. Before the Second World War, it was an important crop in the Formby area. Local growers used the port of Liverpool to export their crop around the world by ship. It is rumoured that the culinary delicacy was served to passengers in First Class on the doomed transatlantic liner, “Titanic”.

History of Asparagus 
Since Roman times, when it was introduced from northern France, the inhabitants of the British Isles have prized asparagus for medicinal purposes both as a diuretic and to aid digestion.  Known also as sparrow grass, sparrowgrass and spara gus, it was found growing wild around the eastern and southern coastal fringes of England until the Tudors started growing it in their gardens.  Henry the Eighth would have eaten it fresh (boiled and served with butter or cream) but also, out of season (May-June) pickled.  The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, wrote in 1668 that he had partaken of ‘a hundred of sparrowgrass’ for which he had paid one shilling and eight pence.  His meal, we are told, consisted of the asparagus accompanied by ‘ a little bit of salmon’.  By the 1700s, it was the fashion to eat the asparagus baked inside pastry as a pie called a ‘torte’.

A “History of the County of Lancaster” from 1907 indicates the population of Formby, given as 5642 at the time, cultivating rye, wheat, potatoes and asparagus ‘a speciality in the district’.  From 1848, when the railway line running from Southport to the growing metropolis of Liverpool was completed with its convenient stops located at both Formby and Freshfield, these local crops could be easily transported into bustling Liverpool by train.  At the same time, the train line was solving the growing problem of what to do with Liverpool’s mountain of human excrement.  Inspector of Nuisances, the aptly-named Thomas Fresh, was enterprisingly arranging for the waste problem to be relocated - sent out to Formby and Freshfield on the train.  Here, local farmers were making good use of the readily available, cheap fertiliser!  The asparagus crop grew well on its diet of Liverpool ‘night soil’ and from Liverpool, Formby asparagus was shipped daily by train to London’s Covent Garden and around the world by liner.  Indeed, it is said that the doomed First Class passengers on the “Titanic” dined on Formby asparagus before the luxury Atlantic liner fatefully hit the iceberg on her maiden voyage.

In the 1920s and 1930s there were 200 acres under asparagus cultivation in the Formby area.  Due to the introduction of improved sewage disposal infrastructure in Liverpool combined with land use competition pressures after the war, the asparagus acreage has sadly reduced to an area of just 5 acres today.  However, in the heyday of the 1930s, local farmer Jimmy Lowe won prizes at the prestigious Asparagus Competition, still held annually in Worcestershire’s Vale of Evesham, on no fewer than five occasions!  Formby Asparagus was top class!           

Take a walk along our Asparagus trail to see how this crop has shaped the landscape.