On an unassuming nine-square-mile stretch of West Yorkshire farmland, one of the world’s largest forced rhubarb populations, housed in darkened wooden sheds, is tended to by a community of dedicated growers. Also known as the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, this area is the setting for a unique agricultural process: the rhubarb stems are hand-harvested by candlelight to prevent photosynthesis, keeping the plant sweet and tender while creating its distinctive crimson hue.

“I listened to the show on Radio Four talking about forced rhubarb, and I was struck by the fact that I didn't know that this place existed in such a small part of the UK,” says Jess Wheeler, an artist whose latest collection is centred around rhubarb. “It felt like there was more to share about this magical thing. So I wanted to go and see it.” Fourth-generation grower Robert Tomlinson welcomed Jess, filmmaker Joya Berrow and photographer Lottie Hampson to his farm to learn more about the crop and this centuries-old method of cultivation.

“The roots are grown outside for two years to energise them,” Robert explains. “And then in early winter, we dig the dormant roots up and plant them in the forcing sheds. We're tricking them into thinking it's spring by keeping them warm.” The rhubarb is bedded in a pitch-black environment, causing the stalks to grow tall in search of sunlight. Ironically, the dark is what creates the vibrant shade, due to the plant’s inability to produce chlorophyll. “It's a bright red rather than pale pink. It's magic, the colour.”

Robert’s family has preserved the tradition for 140 years from their plot in Pudsey, and little about their process has changed. “It is a labour of love, but there's a real romance in that,” he says. “There's no way to mechanise it, so this is the only way to do it. It becomes a sort of skill and a craft.” Robert is one of ten rhubarb farmers left in this part of the country; though a significant number, it’s a far cry from the Triangle’s glory days when over 200 growers occupied the region. The vegetable lost fashion in the 1970s and ’80s, and most of them retired. “The colour of this variety has helped to bring it back,” he says. “But if there were 200 growers now, we’d never sell it all.”

At one time, this part of Yorkshire produced 90% of the world’s forced rhubarb. The tradition began in 1877 when the first forcing sheds were erected after farmers discovered that the crop flourished in Yorkshire’s cool and fertile land. It reached high demand during the First and Second World Wars, peaking in 1939 with an express train which transported the rhubarb to London and Paris for Christmas markets. A combination of the rail strike in 1962 and the arrival of more exotic fruits in the UK led to its decline.

Artists like Jess are part of a new generation discovering the overlooked vegetable. “I think more and more people want homegrown British food,” she says. “The fact that this has such an amazing heritage and story to it, and it’s grown in this really intriguing way, is appealing. And it’s delicious!” For her new art collection, she has cast rhubarb leaves and stems to create striking decorative objects and side tables. All of the plants were grown herself and cast in bronze.

Her visit to Robert’s farm was part of a holistic exploration she embarked on while creating her rhubarb collection. Jess, Joya and Lottie felt like they were being let in on a secret – few signs of the production are visible from the outside, and for the most part, locals are unaware the farm is there. “The only hint of it is a pile of throwaway rhubarb on the field,” Lottie says. “So we took some photos of Jess standing on it.” 

As Robert guided the group through the long sheds by candlelight, their conversation was punctuated by sounds like “popcorn in a microwave”. This, Robert explained to them, is created by the artificial warmth in the forcing sheds, which encourages the rhubarb to grow quickly and crackle in the heat. “At one point, Joya was in there and I was taking photos outside, and I caught her saying, ‘I can hear it growing!’” Lottie laughs.

While Joya was in the barn, she captured the special scene on film. It shows Jess walks through rows of rhubarb, the low light catching shocks of reddish pink on either side. By all accounts, the shoot was joyful and illuminating – in more ways than one. “We all thought rhubarb was a fruit!” Joya admits. Though it is a vegetable, it traditionally takes on a more fruit-like role in jams, preserves and puddings, even infiltrating the botanical world of gin. “Robert was telling us about all the different things rhubarb can do,” says Jess. “And recently people have been thinking outside the box and making more savoury things with it.”

Spending time in organic, pesticide-free pastures was a reminder to all three creatives about the very thing that drives their respective work: a deep respect for nature. “Living in London, we can basically have anything, anytime we want,” Joya says. “But that's just not the case with nature and the seasons. The bluebells will only come out in April and May, and then they'll go. It's about catching them and relating to them for that fleeting moment.”

Jess wears the TOAST
Stripe Organic Cotton Tunic Dress, Lofty Alpaca Blend Sweater and A-Line Cotton Linen Canvas Coat

Words by Bébhinn Campbell.

Photography by Lottie Hampson.

Film by Joya Berrow.

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Being a Yorkshire girl I am aware of our famous triangle of rhubarb growers. It is versatile in cookery and tasty. The video of the growing sheds and the sound of the rhubarb growing is interesting. Well done to the team who produced this.

Susan 20 days ago

I have known about the Rhubarb Triangle all my life ….and worried that it was disappearing, but this charming film has given me great hope that a new generation of cooks,chefs,eaters and artists will keep it flourishing

Angelica 20 days ago

I really enjoyed this film. I am loving baked rhubarb with ginger and honey – it is forced on my allotment inside a clay forcer. The colour is a big part of what I love Thank you

Johanna 20 days ago