Auld Tom--The Leek Man

Jilly Allison

© Copyright 2018 by Jilly Allison


Photo of a man with trophy.

Auld Tom did exist in our village. He was a lovely man.  I have tried to explain quite lot. Leek growing and pigeon ‘fancying’ ( breeding of pigeons to fly long distances and win lots of medals as opposed to pigeons used as ‘messengers’ in the First World War.) 

Auld Tom was a legend in his own lifetime, primarily because of his expertise with leeks and because that lifetime stretched over 96 years, as opposed to Young Tom, a mere stripling of 72, and John Thomas, the grandson in his fifties, these intrepid folk inhabited our village in the nineties and were a leftover of times long past.

Our village was, and is, four streets of red brick terraced houses built in the nineteenth century to house the working miners who migrated here from Durham and Wales. With the odd sprinkling of locals who jumped on the bandwagon of toiling down the pit for hours on end as opposed to toiling in the fields.

Life was a relentless round of work in those days the only outlet being either the allotments, which sat in pride of place behind Richard Street, or ‘The Club’.

To the unitiated this was the ‘Working Mans’ club a place to drink, chat and put the world to rights. The two came together twice a year, at Christmas (for the children’s Christmas party and the ‘do’ for the old folks) and in the late Summer for ‘The Show’ for show read Allotment Show and within it the battle for the best leek!

There were other parts to the show like carrots and other vegetables and of course a small area given over to the ‘wimmin folk’ with jams and baking. This was for the coveted silver cup given to the ‘Society’ by the Lady of the manner at its inception in the 19th century

However the ‘Great cup’ for the best leek had graced the ancient mantelpiece of ‘Auld Toms’ house for over thirty years and was lovingly polished by Gwynny each and every week, it being the only piece of silver the family ever saw or possessed.

Our village is not one of Maggie Thatcher’s ‘middle England’ villages, it is a working ribbon village which grew out of a medieval settlement evolving through agriculture, alum mining (hence its hills) and the legend that the lord of the manor sold his ‘pee’ for twice the price to the alum industry, believing it had extra properties being from ‘gentry. Thence to agriculture and in the 19th century, to ironstone mining.

North Skelton is about a mile from Skelton and boasted its own Cooperative shop, butchers and Chapel (the incomers were mainly non-conformists from the valleys of Wales).

Auld Tom’ had been a stalwart of the ‘allotments’ all his life, taking over the plot from his dad (you’ve guessed it Tom) when he passed away at 102.

Being small and of rotund stature, flat cap from under which sprang a thick swatch of white hair, the brim greased and dirty from years of ‘doffing’ to folk he met.

The tweed jacket had been around since ‘Noah’s day’ as Gwynny was proud to say (she being the more gregarious of the two), cord ‘breeches’ snuggled into well polished leather boots and on wet days were topped with ‘putties’ left over from his days in ‘some war or other’.

Tom had in fact served his country well in both wars, lying about his age on both counts and possessed a goodly amount of medals for his trouble.

The breeches were tied up with a bit of ‘Charlie Tanner’ to a neat bow above the fly, Charlie Tanner being the local parlance for baler twine used by each and everyone for purposes never intended and supplied by a local hardware shop.

There were a variety of sweaters lovingly made by Gwnny on a circular needle from all sorts of materials, often bright and bitty and always warm.

The two old folks could often be seen at his shed sharing a white clay pipe together and watching the sun go down in the western sky.

Tom had never ventured far, he had, he told me, been up to town one day but ‘twer right busy it were market day not been back since, never felt the need’. Town being Guisbrough about eight miles away!

I got to know Tom through the Parish Council where allotments were my responsibility. Sunday mornings winter and summer alike would find me trotting about the place, either trussed up like a’ yeti’ (the arctic winds blow in from the Urals and cut straight through you) or ‘got up’ in jeans, wellies and a ‘cast off ‘mans shirt, neither of which made pleasant viewing.

Notebook in hand I took my responsibilities seriously, we needed running water to the site and I was determined to persuade the local Squire ( the owner of the land) to supply it.

We also had problems with the local rat population giving all the ‘holders’ grief. Most allotment holders grew vegetables, were in possession of a dog of some description and in a lot of cases had chickens.

There were a few whose passion was ‘The Pigeon’.

These latter considered themselves the elite, those birds were better cared for than many wives, and were lovingly transported on Sunday mornings to do their duty in flight ( there is a lot of money to be made from pigeons!)

Auld Tom’ was not into pigeons or chickens, his pride and joy were leeks, these massive edifices were cultivated with as much care as any monarch surveyed his country, and to Tom they were his country.

Allotments come in all shapes and sizes but in the case of the ones outside my backyard they were precisely drawn into rectangles with access roads and pathways exactly placed, obviously the original designer was man of tidy principles.

When I took the children to school we would pass Tom and Gwynny going to their ‘plot’ when I collected them at 4 they would be wending their way home. Sheds were smart, though often made of a frame of discarded wood and covered with roofing felt, or a hodge podge of wood painted a dull shade of battleship grey, again with felt roof.

Inside was always warm and dry and the inevitable primus stove was housed in a corner along with tea, condensed milk and chipped cups which still had the MOD mark on the base. Overstuffed chairs with crochet blankets snuggled into corners and

shelves took turns as a table for the inevitable mashed egg sandwiches and its original purpose of potting on seedlings. The air was redolent of ‘Condor’ as the occupants smoked and ‘chewed the fat’ with each other.

Toms shed was no different, perhaps a little bigger than most as his dad had built it and Tom saw no reason to change it, nor anything about it , it was thought the chairs came from the ‘valleys’ with a long distant relative.

Their home was furnished with generations of furniture brought from just such a place. I only went in once and an antiques dealer would have had a field day, to Tom and Gwynny it was home, and very welcoming at that.

Tom was, to say the least, a man of few words, he may have been a bit deaf I was never sure, but he was as bright as button. He was also very kind.

We were not the wealthiest of people in the place as my husband didn’t work and each week I would find on the step of the back gate a cardboard box full of seasonal vegetables, at first I wasn’t sure where it came from (Toms allotment was just over the alleyway from our house) but after staking out the spot for a few nights I spotted the culprit, confronting him he just smiled and said ’the little people come by lass to those in need’ enigmatic, he didn’t want to be confronted with his kindnesses.

Gwynny was an incredible cook, she won prize after prize at the show and showed me how to make things from soups to pies, jams and jellies and how to dust tiny primrose flowers in egg white and sugar to decorate my cakes!

Where Tom was withdrawn Gwynny was little more talkative (not a lot I have to say) and the wrinkled almost toothless smile was a pleasure.

Sometimes I looked at her and saw the bright pretty young thing she must have been over seventy years ago when she waited for ‘her man’ to return from the ‘War to end all Wars’ and watched her friends from the village as telegram after telegram was delivered, a lot of men were spared because of the pit but many took the ‘Kings shilling’ coming back wrecks of their former selves or not at all.

Tom had come back, he had departed a boy and returned a man, he never spoke of his experiences and Gwynny did not ask.

Come the summer these two would keep lonely vigil beside their protégées in the cold frame, the leek seeds being saved from the previous year; long into the night either one or the other would be there minding the cold frame till after midnight or on the odd occasion young Tom would be allowed the honour. For honour it was, to mind the leeks, this was not often as Young Tom had once, unforgivably, fallen asleep.

Sabotage was not unknown

They were fed, watered and talked to like children and on the big day carefully transported to the ‘institute hall’ for judging.

Washed and labelled with beautiful pearlised bodies topped with a tree of deep green leaves they awaited their fate whilst Tom (with Gwynny trailing behind like a Labrador puppy) paced the floor like expectant parents puffing away at their clay pipes.

It was nerve wracking just to watch.

Finally the decisions were in, a mad rush back to the hall and joy was unconfined as Tom accepted the cup, passing it on to Gwynny to take home and polish for another year.

When Tom died the little Chapel (now a church from lack of numbers) was full of people, a lot of them replicas of the deceased, age unknown. The Vicar, a long time incumbent, knew he had but one chance at this congregation as they were usually to be found on Sundays at the ‘plots’ and milked it for all it was worth. He needn’t have bothered, these old folks had seen more of life than he ever would and their belief in ‘Him upstairs’ was so profound that their rendition of ‘Abide with Me’ brought the roof of.

There were (and I’m sure are) many Toms in this world, I deem it a privilege to have known one.

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