Sunday, February 28, 2021

Badsey, Worcestershire


I’ve always been vaguely aware that the Vale of Evesham had more than its fair share of those marginal buildings that people categorise as sheds, shacks and huts, buildings that are small, often made by their owners, and constructed of a cheap, easy to work material such as wood or corrugated iron. I first thought of this kind of building looking at roadside shacks and stalls from which fruit and vegetables were sold in season. The Vale of Evesham was one of England’s foremost market-gardening areas and driving out there in summer, one would often see makeshift signs advertising strawberries, plums, or ‘fresh local grass’ – this being West of England shorthand for asparagus. Much fruit and many veg are still grown in the Vale, but the advent of ‘pick your own’, the disappearance of many small farms and smallholdings, and the growth of supermarkets have made these stalls less common than they were. They’re still there though and still a good place to buy whatever it is that’s ripening.

But there’s another building type, similarly modest, home-made, and unsung: the hovel. A hovel (or ‘ovel’ in the traditional parlance) was a shed that a market gardener would build on his land, where they could store produce, keep tools and other equipment – from canes and stakes to sacks – that was needed from time to time, and shelter if the weather turned bad. Hovels were small, but a bit bigger than many garden sheds. Growers were often tenants, but would build such a structure on the land they rented because of a tradition that allowed one to the right to claim compensation for improvements made to the land while you were cultivating it.

Growers needed a shed or hovel because they usually lived in a village some way away from their land. So they needed storage and somewhere to sit down for a rest and a packed lunch. These days, when every small farmer has a car or a van or both, hovels are less useful, and many have been left to rot and rust away. But a few survive like this one in Badsey. It was always a rather superior example, being built in part of durable brick, but with an addition in corrugated iron and another add-on that I think is mainly wooden. A few buildings like this are being restored, preserved, and used to show people something of the history of this important local agriculture. Eritage ovels? A little self-conscious perhaps, but if it helps impart some historical awareness, by no means a totally bad thing.


Brian Harris said...

So lovely to see this. I grew up in the adjoining parish of Bretforton, where my parents were market gardeners. They were tenants of "The Squire" who resided at The Manor and still owned most of the land in the village as well as many of the houses, in a world that remained surprisingly feudal. I remember well that much of my childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s was spent in and around the 'ovel (but no longer have the accent that went with it).

A pedantic point: I think asparagus (which my parents cultivated) was not "grass" locally but "gras" - as in Badsey's pub "The Round of Gras" (a bundle of buds tied traditionally with raffia or willow twigs), though it wasn't called that until 1968).

Joe Treasure said...

Great picture. Interesting post.
"In fellow, there, into the hovel. Keep thee warm." (Lear 3.4)
I realise I'd never thought of a hovel as specific kind of structure with its own function, but only as the lowest form of habitation.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Brian Harris: Thank you for your comment. For asparagus, these days I think both 'gras' and 'grass' are used. As they are in neighbouring northern Gloucestershire, where I live and where it is indeed sold by the 'round'. My Yorkshire grandfather called it 'sparrow grass' – the first word pronounced 'sparra' and the second the way a Yorkshireman would refer to his lawn.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: Thank you. I'd always assumed the hovel mentioned in Lear was a low-status dwelling. Shakespeare might have known agricultural hovels – his part of Warwickshire was not far from the Vale of Evesham, and maybe they use the word that way in his county too. However, market gardening in the Vale of Evesham seems to have developed on a large scale in the 18th and 19th centuries, so maybe the origin of horticultural hovels lies in that period too.