Harvesting leeks is hard work. It's definitely not lucrative work. But times were tough. It was the mid '90s, and for some reason the otherwise buoyant UK jobs market just didn't seem to have much use for a scruffy young backpacker, proudly toting a half arsed degree and zero work experience. Who'd have thought. The exchange rate hadn't been kind and my meagre savings were DOA. So off to Lincolnshire I went to try my hand as a piece rate leek picker.
It takes a special kind of person to cut it picking leeks. High tolerance for backbreaking labour and extreme boredom. Ok with being exploited for terrible pay and worse living conditions. Desperate. Illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe ticked each box nicely. Less so the dumb arse backpacker with delusions of idyllic rural lifestyle and the thought that 80 pence per 32 pound tub of leeks didn't seem so bad (how hard can it be...80p is nearly 2 bucks...how many grams in a pound?). But hey, bonus points for desperation.
Toiling long cold hours in flat, frozen, featureless fields, whatever small novelty value there was waned fast. A good day meant 15 or 16 tubs, a bad day just 7 or 8. Do the math. Accommodation was provided, but meant sharing a busted caravan with a disturbingly erratic and generally pissed Pole, who despite polishing off a litre of straight vodka every day by mid afternoon then napping in the sun, would easily double my harvest, wth 35 or even 40 tubs of leeks. Bastard.
No money for luxuries like food, so baked beans (7p per can thank you ASDA) and porridge alternated for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And leeks. Leeks with beans. Beans with leeks. Leeks with oats (yes). Leeks with leeks. Tender little leeks. Big hoary leeks. Boiled, fried, roasted leeks.
Our employer / feudal overlord was a jovial enough fellow. His indifference to our squalid living and surely unlawful working conditions was matched only by his enthusiasm for cask conditioned bitter. A card carrying member of CAMRA, the old sod would occasionally take us hapless serfs to the nearby village of Crowland for a couple of ales. He didn't pay of course.
Crowland loomed large like a medieval metropolis from across the sodden fields we laboured in. Standing to stretch a cramping back, it was easy to feel kinship with the peasants who for centuries would've beholden much the same view back to their homes, hoping none of the 13 kids had been sent home with a note about please not coming to school with the Black Death. By the mid '90s there were few kids about, the whole half-populated town seemed deserted by the young, smitten not by plague but the gravitational pull of London a couple of hours south.
It did, however, have a cracking pub. One of those perfect country pubs the English do so well. Open fire, exposed ancient wood, obligatory dog or two curled up in the warmth...and a gleaming row of beer engines, long polished handles standing proud. At the time, cold lager was more my thing, preferably at low prices in high volume. Just drinking out of glass was a move upmarket after half a decade in the student dives of Christchurch.
The gentle charm of fresh flavoursome real ales took time to grow on my barbarian palate. But an unlikely agricultural detour to the backblocks of Britain was the start of a beer education.
Maybe better times have now come to Crowland, perhaps London property prices, good trains and Escape To The Country have seen young people return. Winter crops will still grow slowly in the flat fields, probably harvested by more waves of illegals and the odd desperado backpacker. Never again though will a leek knowingly pass these lips. I wish the same could be said of nasty cheap lager from plastic cups, but most Australian stadiums offer no alternative. I expect the pub is much the same, just as it's been for 400 years or so. One day I'll return, drink a cheery pint and trip on a dog.
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