Steven Desmond meets Medwyn Williams, the man who knows more than anyone about growing and showing giant vegetables.
A visit to Anglesey will always be a special treat, not least when it involves crossing Thomas Telford’s illustrious Menai Bridge of 1826, with the superbly picturesque strait far below. The significance of the approach is underlined by the wording of the sign on the first tower — Môn, Mam Cymru: Anglesey, Mother of Wales.
Only a few miles from this memorable scene lives Medwyn Williams, himself a kind of living monument of the best kind. He is the greatest of our show growers, a king of long carrots and immaculate cauliflowers, who was awarded an MBE in 2006. He would be entitled to live in state, but, instead, greets me in his cosy sitting room, lined with family photographs and mementoes of his brilliant career. The anticipated masterclass soon dissolves into a friendly chinwag over a marvellous pile of bara brith and Welsh cakes furnished by Medwyn’s wife, Gwenda, an inseparable part of the family enterprises over the years.
In case you wonder on what authority I sing this man’s praises, let me be clear. In 2005, Medwyn won his 10th consecutive Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, a record for a vegetable display. That show is held in May, a month known to all gardeners as the Hungry Gap, because winter stores are at an end and fresh supplies are still at the seedling stage. There is a good reason why vegetable shows are usually held in late summer. Being told that it can’t be done in May is, to a man of Medwyn’s mindset, an irresistible challenge.
To an extent, all this was bred in him from an early age. When he was a little boy in a farmworker’s cottage on the island, he recalls the thump, thump, thump of his mother’s Ewbank against the boxes of potatoes under his bed. These were his father’s First Earlies, sprouting in the relative human warmth of the bedroom. The cultivar was Sharpe’s Express, still a good doer today.
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Medwyn’s father grew all the vegetables in the garden of their cottage, which lacked electricity, running water or indoor facilities. He was also a regular prizewinner at the Anglesey Show, including those long carrots of which we spoke earlier.
This might inspire or deter the next generation, but a turning point came when Medwyn was given his own corner of the garden to cultivate, plus three packets of seed: radish, mustard and cress. These germinated with the desired rapidity and, after six weeks, the eight-year-old Medwyn was able to invite his friend Gareth over to share a plate of radish, mustard and cress sandwiches liberally improved with salad cream. The die was cast.
As a young man, Medwyn learned his craft by helping his father at the show, exactly as his own son and grandson do now. By the late 1960s, he was winning prizes at the Shrewsbury Flower Show, where he won the cup for the best collection of vegetables. It is precisely that requirement for growing a wide range of vegetables, each with its own exacting requirements, that marks out the best of growers.
This reliable expertise soon attracted the attention of the members of the National Vegetable Society, the club for all those seriously interested in competitive showing. Medwyn was properly cautious at first and recalls questioning them ‘like a lawyer’ before he got the answers he wanted. Thus began the kind of long and happy relationship that develops among fellow enthusiasts who share the common desire to raise standards further and further each time. Medwyn is now, as you would expect, the president of the society.
After winning the Large Gold Medal six years running at the Royal Welsh Show in Builth Wells, Medwyn thought it was time to have a go at Chelsea, so he made a polite enquiry. The response was cool. The great and the good of the RHS thought Medwyn should first have a go at the Hampton Court Show, instead, to see how he got on. That show is certainly an easier prospect, being held in early July.
He put his exhibit together, bringing all his produce the long and awkward distance from the north-west corner of Wales to the southern suburbs of London, and won not only a Gold Medal, but also the Tudor Rose Award for the best exhibit in the entire show. This award is in itself a worthy and spectacular object, an emblematic panel awash with raised gold stitchwork embroidered by the Royal School of Needlework housed in Hampton Court Palace. It hangs above us on the wall as we talk.
This now meant there could be no further barrier to Medwyn showing at Chelsea.
The practical difficulty, of course, lay in producing a display of vegetables worthy of late summer in the third week of May. No one else would have embarked on such an enterprise, but Medwyn quietly set about his task with his usual order and method.
Fortunately, by this stage, he had more or less commandeered a range of glasshouses at the nearby University of Bangor. One such house was little used, so Medwyn persuaded the authorities to let him use a bench in it to raise his aubergines, starting, inevitably, in the dead of winter. It was not long before Medwyn had the full use of the whole glasshouse range, having gradually pushed out the other users ‘like a cuckoo’.
Anyone who has ever seen a serious show grower at work will have marvelled at the range of contraptions dreamt up to address practical requirements. One of Medwyn’s such arrangements involved the conversion of 15 wheelie bins, each containing a suitable length of six-inch piping, for the cultivation of that astonishing sight on the show bench, the long carrot. This method worked so well that he ended up with 90 such bins. It is worth remembering that it is impossible to tell whether the carrot is perfect (straight and unforked, with an intact tail) until it is fully withdrawn on the day of the show, so plenty of spares are always needed.
Anyone who has seen one of Medwyn’s displays will have marvelled at the meticulous array of perfect specimens in dazzling order, spread out like an unearthly vision of vegetable perfection. Some are notoriously more difficult to bring to such a pitch than others. Whenever I see a cauliflower even, tight and uniformly white in the curd, I know the touch of the master’s hand, as it takes only a slight wavering of concentration over several weeks to result in failure. And don’t even begin to contemplate the risks involved in transporting tomatoes by road for 280 miles.
The arrangement of the display, that long and fraught procedure, is overseen with a critical eye by Gwenda. She and Medwyn discuss at length the combinations of shape and colour — and always agree, however long it takes. Then, finally, they tiptoe away.
During the night, Medwyn can expect to endure his recurrent nightmare, in which a solitary tomato rolls off the top of the display, leading to a gradual domino effect and leaving the whole lot in a horrible mess on the floor just as the judges arrive. This is the price of a perfectionist approach, but in case you are concerned for his mental welfare, I should tell you I never met a more contented man, nor with greater justification.
Now that Medwyn has once more taken up the Chelsea challenge, we can look forward to more miraculous exhibits. He intends to do three final shows, the first of which yielded Gold in 2019. The year 2021 was going to be the last, but, in these unpredictable days, who knows. There is time to go and sit at the feet of the master. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
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