The growing population of Tarleton
- Credit: Pics; John Cocks
Tarleton has become a popular place to live but its farming tradition has been bringing in outsiders for centuries. Martin Pilkington reports.
In times past, you could reach Tarleton by ship via the formerly navigable River Douglas, or by rail on the line that once linked Preston and Southport. These days, the village largely relies on the nearby A59 and A565 to connect it to the outside world, though a branch of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal still offers a more leisurely approach to this self-contained, productive and expanding community.
‘It’s a good question if Tarleton is a village or town now,’ says Anne Sutton, its greengrocer and a parish councillor. ‘Officially, it’s a village. It has all the amenities – schools, plenty of shops, churches, pubs – you don’t need to leave the village for anything much.’ The 2011 census showed a population of 5,652, but Anne believes new estates have lifted numbers nearer to 7,000.
One resident with deep roots is Stuart Johnson, whose family has run the village butcher’s for 90 years. ‘A lot of people commute elsewhere to work, but you’ll see them in the village at the weekend. People use the village. There are more and more houses being built, but really it’s still a village community. When things happen everybody gets together.’ A case in point was when the library was threatened and a huge petition helped keep it open.
Quite a few of the newer arrivals are of eastern European origin, attracted by what could be described as the growing demand for labour in the district. ‘This is now the salad bowl of England,’ says county councillor Malcolm Barron, whose family has lived in the area for 300 years or more. ‘In my grandparents’ time farms were more mixed. Their farm had a bit of everything – hens, corn, celery, salad, horses, cattle, pigs. Now Tarleton’s very focused on arable farming.’
Historically, its landscape was entirely different. ‘This was all fenland before they drained it over the centuries,’ says Malcolm. ‘When the Normans arrived they were supposedly allowed to kill any Saxons they found in the fens here.’
The River Douglas and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal both helped in draining the land, and were once important in bringing seasonal labour that supported agricultural activity, and according to local legend played a part in changing the growing methods. ‘At one time a lot of the picking was done by Irish people,’ continues Malcolm. ‘Schooners ferried between this area and Ireland and the Isle of Man. And my father told me an ex-sea captain – a man named Cookson, a good local name – had seen the greenhouses in Holland and he started them here.’
For the big operators in salad production around Tarleton it’s no longer a short seasonal affair. ‘Summer for us starts in May and ends in November. It isn’t just six weeks,’ says Ian Torley, a director of Len Wright Salads. ‘Our produce is sold UK-wide, with about 40 different salad lines that we supply now, mainly to retailers and processing factories. The area has changed and retail has changed, and farming has changed with it. It’s no longer that image of a chap on a tractor with a flatbed trailer and a dog next to him, it’s now a very commercial operation.’
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Len Wright has been at the forefront of developing the industry. ‘When I started in 1965, there were just traditional smallholdings here, making a living out of four acres,’ he says, ‘I tried new things as a young lad would do, and wanted to expand but couldn’t get land as the little farms were all tied up as family operations. Then I began to get opportunities. I started with two acres, and we now farm about 500.’ His firm processes the crops and handles the relationships with supermarkets for other smaller growers too. ‘We have five or six smaller growers that we work with. If they weren’t connected to a bigger business they’d struggle with retailers and the paperwork and so on – food safety is a big part of the work now, it’s not as simple as it once was,’ says Ian.
What hasn’t changed is the richness of his land. ‘Thousands of years ago this was all woodland here, so this soil is peat from decayed wood and leaves. We still bring up bog oaks when we plough sometimes,’ Len says. ‘This soil is like compost from a garden centre.’
It seems that proximity to the sea and the Ribble gives Tarleton’s growers a helpful microclimate too. ‘Temperatures are more consistent here, we don’t get the massive highs but neither do we get hit with big lows,’ says Ian. ‘And that in turn gives us a more consistent growing pattern. And we never get the hailstones or intense rains that flatten crops.’
Further eastwards, nearer to the Douglas, Brian Ascroft, of Croftpak Nurseries enjoys the same climate, but has soil of a very different type. ‘Here the land is just a foot of soil then you’re into clay which is poor for growing crops outside, but excellent for putting greenhouses on,’ he explains.
When his father started on the land in 1946 it was a mixed farm, now the business is 1.5 acres under glass producing tomatoes for Booths. His season is even more extended than Len Wright’s. ‘We grow long season tomatoes, getting the plants the first week of January, and pulling them out the last week in November,’ says Brian.
For foodies it’s heartening that Croftpak now grow fewer tonnes per acre than when they started with tomatoes 30 years ago. ‘We went off growing for weight in favour of growing for flavour,’ says Brian. ‘The more flavour the less weight – basically you put more nutrients in instead of filling the tomato with water.’ He extols the distinctive characteristics of the varieties he raises nowadays – Sweet Magic which despite the name has an old-fashioned bite to it; Bianca for extra sweetness; and Strabena that’s both sweet and juicy.
Being England’s salad bowl brings plenty of employment to the village, not just directly on the farms but also for the businesses like electricians and glaziers who service them. As things stand, it also brings a traffic problem as its main street is the only practical route to market for most. Both Anne Sutton and Malcolm Barron are passionate about a project to take much of that farm traffic around the centre. ‘We’re a farming community and need the haulage,’ says Anne. ‘But that currently impacts the village so we need the Green Lane Link to be built, widening a lane through the fields from one vehicle’s width to two.’ It doesn’t seem much to ask when, in return, the village puts so much on our tables.