Pick them while you still can

Feature on Norton Strawberry farm which is one of only a few left in the area, Guardian reporter Helen Johnston is pictured with students from North Notts College (w110627-3a)

Feature on Norton Strawberry farm which is one of only a few left in the area, Guardian reporter Helen Johnston is pictured with students from North Notts College (w110627-3a)

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I’VE managed to get to my age without ever having picked my own. Strawberries that is.

When they’re there all red and juicy on the supermarket shelf, I’ve never really seen the point in getting my hands dirty by gathering my own.

Plus I always assumed it would be back-breaking work, a lot of effort for little reward.

But it seems PYO strawberry picking is a dying pastime, with far fewer farms offering the chance to collect this quintessentially British summer treat.

So I decided to grab my chance by visiting one of the few still around, Norton Strawberry Farm at Whitwell Common, and it was a taste revelation.

The farm is managed by husband and wife team Glynne and Denise Wildbore, who live in their caravan on site for the eight-week picking season.

Glynne said: “We had queues of people waiting to pay on Sunday, there were hundreds of them picking.”

Denise is out picking from 6.30am, collecting for the ready-made punnets they sell and she can pick around 4kg in just half an hour.

She said: “There is loads of fruit this year, the weather has been much better for us than last year. We don’t do any watering, the plants tend to get damp in the evenings and that moisture is enough for them.”

They charge £2.20 a kilo (or £1 a 1lb) and the plastic baskets used by pickers are designed to carry 2kg, although Glynne said people often manage to cram 3kg in.

They grow six different varieties, from early to late, and the plants are put in 18 months before the public is let loose on them.

“They are fed and have weedkiller on them, and the runners are removed because they take energy away from the fruit and you wouldn’t be able to walk between the plants if they were left on,” explained Glynne.

A group of seven students from North Notts College were first in the queue on the day I went.

Foundation learning lecturer Nicola Riley said: “It’s our summer fair today so we’ve come to pick strawberries so we can sell cream teas.”

“It’s the first time we’ve done it but we’ve enjoyed it and it was quite easy.”

Encouraged by their comments I grabbed a basket and took Glynne’s advice to head right up close to the hedge because not many people bother to walk that far.

As I bobbed down to part the leaves of the plants I was amazed at how much fruit was lurking underneath.

There were strawberries aplenty and the more I picked, the more I wanted to pick.

The fruit was very easy to pull from the plant and Glynne advised getting them with the stalk still on because once that is removed they start to disintegrate.

It was like blackberrying. Every time I decided I’d got enough I saw another plump strawberry just asking to be picked. It was addictive.

In about 15 minutes I managed to pick just over a kilo and a half. Not bad going for a novice I thought.

Dedicated strawberry picker Susan Cole, 44, of Moor Lane, Bolsover, was there with her 16-year-old son Reece.

She said: “We come every year. They are so much nicer than supermarket strawberries.”

“I brought my three-year-old grandson and nephew with me and they picked loads, and they’re better for them than sweets. My husband makes strawberry jam as well.”

Pensioner Gerald Smith, 67, of Church Warsop, said the farm was the nearest one to his home six miles away.

“We normally fill a couple of baskets but I’m on my own today so I’ll probably just fill one. It depends how many I eat as I go along,” he laughed.

“We like them with a big dollop of ice cream on top that’s just starting to melt.”

Norton opened at Spring bank when the early varieties Emily, Mea and Honyhoe were in fruit. They are followed by Alice, then Symphony and now Florence, which is what I picked and which were delicious.

The farm opens 10am-8pm every day for about three more weeks.