The National Trust site at Formby, on the North West coast of England, a couple of dozen miles north of Liverpool, is a beautiful place, with miles of sandy beaches facing out into the Irish sea, backed by constantly moving sand dunes that can rise as high as a two story house.
Behind the sand dunes sits a small wood, originally planted to stabilise the dunes and now a refuge for the Red Squirrel (native to England but being displaced by the grey squirrels in most woodland that includes oaks)
In the midst of all this well-presented beauty, what caught my interest were the aspargus fields and the story of the man who made them possible: Thomas Fresh, an extraordinary Victorian Englishman.
Victorian England was reshaped by the railways and by the pressing need to find a way to keep the suddenly enormous populations of the cities (growing by 20-30% every decade) free from diseases caused by poor sanitation.
Thomas Fresh was a man with the vision to combine both of these things in an innovative way. In 1844 he became the first public health official ever appointed in England and was one of the pioneers of public sanitation.
Part of his responsibilities was to figure out what to do with the vast amounts of “night soil” generated by the population of Liverpool which, in the absence of modern plumbing, had to be collected and carried away in carts.
Thomas Fresh lived in Freshfields, near what is now the National Trust property. The poor quality of the local land, a mixture of salt marsh and sand, made it hard to farm.
Thomas Fresh had one of those ideas that the larger-than-life Terry Pratchett entrepreneurs of Ank-Morpork would be proud of. He donated some land to the local railway company in return for them building a station at Freshfields. He then had the night soil shipped out by train from Liverpool and used to fertilise the local fields.The outcome was the creation of prize-winning asparagus farms that used the railway to distribute their premium product across England.
I have to admire a man who can be standing up to his knees in… night soil and smiles at the opportunity rather than wrinkling his nose at the problem.