Follow in Dickens’ footsteps

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It is 170 years since English writer and social critic, Charles Dickens attended the Rye District Cottagers Horticultural Society Show. His diary tells of his journey from London to Hastings, then on to Rye via the new railway line, tempted by a large poster for the event that had fallen into his hands, featuring an array of ripe fruits, honey, scarlet runners and abundant apples.

He describes seeing the fluttering flags above the marquees as he walked from Rye station, then across a muddy ditch onto the land of Mountfield where the show was then held. It’s charming that there are few changes since his day, except the venue. The modern-day schedule and posters are still adorned with colourful produce and the bright banners outside the Rye Community Centre advertise the modern-day location.

He recounts that, “This rustic horticultural society is established to promote habits of industry, economy and management among the labouring cottagers” whilst Rye Flower and Veg Show 2022 tends towards “this fun flower and veg show is open to everyone”. He also comments on “vendors selling ginger beer, gingerbread and brazil nuts” whilst we are rather keener on the local WI and their afternoon tea and delicious cakes.

Flowers from an earlier year

He adds “Displays of floral temples and basketed cupids reveal to the cottagers that it is not just them that look forward to the show but that the ladies and gentlemen enjoy it too.” In 1852, gentlemen and ladies received cards for winning whilst cottagers were given cards and money. Nowadays it’s the same for everyone with cards and spot prizes for the highest scoring entries.

He is inspired by the “glories of the gardens of Rye” and adds, “Covent Garden me no Covent Garden, you must go to Rye if you would see potatoes.” He also describes how the long central table in the great marquee was laid out with French beans, turnips, cabbages, sweet herbs, apples, plums, hollyhocks, dahlias, nosegays, marigolds and honey. Today’s judges and visitors are equally excited by the central table at the show with a very similar display.

His diary makes mention of the immense crush at 3pm as the excited crowds surge in to check the results and he is impressed that “there was the most refined politeness in the whole spirit and the manner of this little confabulation.” Very much as it is today, we hope.

The original society, established in 1850, included nearby villages as well as Rye, and featured 587 entries. The present society was established in 2004 and the best count could boast 333 entries, so we still have a little catching up to do.

The 2022 show is taking place at Rye Community Centre, on Saturday, September 3 and full details and online entries are available at www.ryeflowerandvegshow.co.uk and in the schedules distributed around town. Enter a class or two if you can, everyone welcome, but if not then pop along in the afternoon and be one of that “immense crush”.

As Dickens wrote, and we totally agree, “The gardens of Rye then flourish, and long may they flourish.”

The full diary is available online at djo.org.uk and was referred by Simon Parsons of Rye Heritage Centre.

Image Credits: Andrew Bamji , Lorna Hall .

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