FEW people would turn down a hearty bowl of leek soup as the autumn chill begins to bite.

Now is the time of year to indulge if the flavoursome vegetable appeals to your palate.

For the leek show season is in full swing, with dozens of pubs, clubs and village halls across the district hosting the annual events.

From the outside, it might seem that they appeal to a niche following. After all, people don’t talk about leeks in the same way as they discuss football or politics.

But peel back the leaf from the stem, and leek shows have been at the heart of our communities since Victorian times.

In an era before supermarkets and internet shopping, households grew their own fruit and vegetables to feed the family.

Leek shows provided a bit of friendly competition. They gave gardeners incentive to grow the biggest and the best, and also a social occasion which they could enjoy year on year.

“They’re still very popular,” said Haltwhistle’s Michael Ridley. “People still like to win and take a pride in what they grow, and there’s still a lot of friendship and good humour at the shows.”

Michael is well placed to talk about the evolution of the leek show, having been involved with various events across South Tynedale for the past three decades.

“They were even more popular 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “Some shows used to have a strict 12-mile radius for entrants, because they were for local people.

“But they had to adapt, and open up to people from further afield and that worked, because they still attract enough people to make the shows worthwhile.

“There’s not quite the numbers of local people involved, but there’s still a thriving community of leek growers and enthusiasts.”

In years gone by, knowledge would be passed down through the generations, typically with youngsters following in the footsteps of their leek growing fathers.

Inspired by his own father, John Ridley, a respected leek show champion in his day, Michael competes at Haltwhistle Working Men’s Club, and also at the town’s Comrades’ Club, where he had winning leeks this year.

He judges at Whitfield Show, and at the Bowes leek show in Bardon Mill, and has previously been involved with shows elsewhere.

In their heyday during the latter half of the 20th century, there was a glitz and glamour surrounding leek shows. They were accompanied by discos and star turns on stage, and were backed by businesses who would fund big prizes, including televisions and pressure cookers.

Tynedale shows produce impressively large leeks every year, with some reaching over 200 cubic inches.

Some are grown in the garden at home, others in the allotment, while the use of polytunnels to protect leeks from the elements is favoured by some growers.

Before show day, leeks are stamped to ensure there’s no dispute over which grower they belong to.

All competitors must abide by the strict competition rules on show day or face disqualification.

Michael would like to see more young people get involved to keep the tradition going into the future.

“We have a few younger ones, but society is different now and perhaps some people don’t want leek trenches in their gardens,” he said.

“People live busy lives, but growing leeks is not just an art and a skill, it’s an all-year-round commitment.”