Thomas, Arnold (b.1912)

Arnold Thomas was a strawberry grower in Cheddar for 52 years. Strawberries were grown in the Cheddar area from the middle of the 19th century. The construction of the ‘Strawberry Line’ in 1869-70 by the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company meant that they could be despatched all over the country and arrive in good condition. The line ran from Yatton, via Cheddar, to Wells.


After the line closed in the 1960s, and cheap imports from the continent started to arrive in large quantities, the industry declined. But strawberry growing in Cheddar has continued, on a smaller scale, into the 21st century.

Strawberries being loaded onto ‘Strawberry Line’ trains. Strawberries being loaded onto ‘Strawberry Line’ trains.
Sound File
Listen to Arnold Thomas - 1.92MB Duration 2:11 min.

AT: Well, the strawberry industry started in Cheddar in the latter part of the 1800s by a Mr Stan Spencer who grew the Royal Sovereign.  It was raised by Laxton and Sons. The early days were very difficult at first because they hadn’t had any experience of marketing and the growing of strawberries, and they had quite a problem during the early years, the very earliest period, of finding suitable containers and they eventually managed to get some local wicker basket-makers in Cheddar to make them some twelve pound wicker baskets which were sent to the market with the first cropping.  But the problem was they didn’t get a certain amount made, and it meant having to wait for them to be returned to pick the next lot of strawberries that were ripening.


And another problem they ran into in the early days was the fact that they found the strawberries used to get dirty by splashing from the rain, and so they had the, well, it was quite a clever idea, of cutting some of the heather on Blackdown and also the bracken, and they used this for putting up between the strawberries and that avoided the splashing.  But they found it was very hard work and they couldn’t get enough quantity of it.  And then various other things were tried.  They used sparta grass waste from St. Cuthbert’s paper mills and that was very successful for a period.


And then, after quite a time they developed straw.  They didn’t develop straw, actually, but they used straw which was provided by the farmers and that was really a wonderful material that’s been used from then right through till now.  It’s still being used in the present day and we can’t find anything to better it really.


Now the marketing, we used to send the strawberries by train.  They used to run a midday train for the northern market, 5 o’clock train for the Midland market, the north Midland market, and the local markets and Birmingham, they used to leave about 8 o’clock at night.  When I was started as a boy, when I was about four years old, I was allowed to grow, to go, I probably shouldn’t put this in...


AH: Yes, go on.


AT: Well, the horses and carts used to stretch from the station right back to the village, and the difficulty was that the growers...  We didn’t mention this, did we, about the transport.  The growers used to take the strawberries by horse and cart, they were all in baskets, and they could only get two layers high, and it meant an awful lot of horses and carts to take the strawberries out to the station.  And the railway gave us a wonderful service up until ’66, no that’s not right, ’79 now, ’63...?


AH: Yes.


AT: ’63, 1963, when they built the bypass.  Well, the railway stopped, and then they sent, the trains stopped running, no, the trains stopped running first, they didn’t build the bypass for some time.  The trains stopped running and the line was closed, and the railway then gave us a service of huge vans to take the strawberries to Bristol and distribute them by passenger train to all over the country.

Copyright Information
Copyright. This recording was made by Ann Heeley in June 1979. Photograph ©SRLM. For access to full interview please contact the Somerset Heritage Centre.