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Britain's apprenticeship revolution - is it delivering?
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Last on

Fri 12 Oct 2012 11:00 BBC Radio 4

Duration:
28 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 12 October 2012

There's a gold rush in Cornwall; it's been going on for more than a century - producing the first flowers of spring, daffodils especially. Like mining, it's marked the landscape, and there are networks of tiny fields west of Mousehole and in the Isles of Scilly. Smaller than tennis courts, they nestle, safe from the wind between high hedges, warm on south facing terraced cliffs. From these old flower fields, called quillets, came something even more valuable than the 'Golden Harvest' of daffodils that bloomed earlier than anywhere else in Britain - delicate Cornish violets, carnations and anemones. From Victorian times to the 1960s fragrant bunches of these sped overnight by rail to reach the London markets in the morning.

The writer Michael Bird, who lives in St Ives, listens while Bill Harvey works the plots his father tended. They are too small to admit machines and depend on the long-handled Cornish shovel. At Churchtown Farm on St Martins in the Scillies, Keith Low explains how the fields were created, by first building, then moving entire dry stone walls. With the internet and the post these old fields have become key to a modern business.

Michael walks the cliff gardens with the archaeologist Graeme Kirkham, who interprets the landscape they pass through. He draws on the recorded memories of flower farmers and workers to recapture the life of the flower fields and the industry's mysterious skills and traditions - such as boiling the soil in huge cauldrons at the end of the season to sterilise it for next year's anemones. And he meets Bob Paterson at Covent Garden market who remembers selling the violets and anemones that came on the Penzance trains, and hopes he might again.

  • Bill Harvey with the first few violets of the year, picked on 7th October

    Bill Harvey with the first few violets of the year, picked on 7th October

  • Violets grown, picked and bunched with ivy leaves by Bill Harvey

    Violets grown, picked and bunched with ivy leaves by Bill Harvey

  • Bill Harvey working the land with his Cornish shovel

    Bill Harvey working the land with his Cornish shovel

  • Bill Harvey’s flower meadow

    Bill Harvey’s flower meadow

    With St Clement’s Isle, off Mousehole, in the middle distance and St Michael’s Mount far off

  • A dry stone wall sheltering a flower field at Churchtown Farm, St Martin’s, Isles of Scilly

    A dry stone wall sheltering a flower field at Churchtown Farm, St Martin’s, Isles of Scilly

    This breaks the wind but does not block it completely. If it did the wall would be blown down

  • Keith Lowe and colleagues picking scented narcissi on St Martin’s

    Keith Lowe and colleagues picking scented narcissi on St Martin’s

  • Michael Bird (right) with Robert Body of Nanpusker

    Michael Bird (right) with Robert Body of Nanpusker

    Robert sends every year 25 million daffodils to market

  • Archaeologist Graeme Kirkham explaining the history of the flower fields to producer, Julian May

    Archaeologist Graeme Kirkham explaining the history of the flower fields to producer, Julian May

    In an overgrown quillet near Mousehole

  • Men Working in the Violet Field at Trembath, by Alec Walker,1927

    Men Working in the Violet Field at Trembath, by Alec Walker,1927

    Courtesy of the Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Penzance

  • New Covent Garden Market in the early morning

    New Covent Garden Market in the early morning

    Flowers for big bright bouquets rather than pretty posies

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