The Case of the Cayton Plant-Poisoner

The British are, by and large, a tidy people, so much so that you almost wonder whether they didn’t conquer a quarter of the world and add it to their empire just because they found other countries rather untidy, and felt it their duty to set things to rights. 

Wonersh signpost points to the Church Hall and the Memorial Hall, and displays Best Kept Village awards.

Towns and villages even engage in competitive tidiness.  The charity group Campaign to Protect Rural Britain (CPRE) runs annual competitions to name the Best Kept Village in each county.  You don’t have to be  a picture-postcard village full of thatched cottages to win, you just have to be the tidiest.  A related phenomenon, the Britain in Bloom competition run by the Royal Horticultural Society, gives awards for community-wide efforts at what they call the “cleaning up and greening up” of cities, towns, and villages of all sizes, thus mixing the drive for tidiness with the British passion (or even obsession) with gardening.  Organizers claim the winners of these awards will see all manner of benefits, from “increased social cohesion” to increased income from tourism. 

A few of the Wonersh CPRE shields

Britain in Bloom is getting a lot of press this year, because one of the serious contenders—Cayton, a past Yorkshire in Bloom winner, and runner up in 2006 and again in 2008 for the national award—is probably out of the running for 2010 due to horticultural vandalism:  someone dosed their flower beds with herbicides, some so exotic that the authorities have yet to figure out what was used.  The first withered shrubs were noticed about a week ago by a senior citizen who said he was “doing a spot of tending” when he noticed the white powder around the plants. (I add, for the sake of UK readers who will wonder why that’s worth quoting, that US readers are likely to find his wording quaint.)

This isn’t the first time competition gardens have been sabotaged, though this seems to be the first attack with chemical weapons.  In recent years, vandals have broken an irrigation system in Saltburn-by-the-Sea (Teesside), stolen plants in Spennymoor (Co. Durham), and decapitated hosts of daffodils one by one in Harthill-with-Woodall (Yorkshire)—one report says “their heads were snipped off, you could say quite professionally, with secateurs” (US: pruning shears) in an attack that must have taken several hours.  Cheltenham (Gloucestershire) has installed CCTV cameras to deter would-be flower-rustlers. 

It’s easy to make light of the situation, but some villages put huge sums of money into these competitions; it may not be rival villages poisoning the gardens of Cayton, but renegade Caytonians who object to spending £6000-£7000 ($9000-$10,500) on show gardens in a village of only 2000 people.  If they meant to discourage waste of funds, the vandals shot themselves in their collective foot, because their neighbors are shoveling out tons of contaminated dirt and bringing in new compost to fill the space, at considerable expense. 

Ewhurst's wrought-iron signpost

Winning villages don’t win actual prizes, as far as I’ve been able to tell, other than the right to put up signs proclaiming them to be Britain in Bloom winners.  A Best Kept Village winner may display a CPRE shield, a plaque awarded in a ceremony complete with an unveiling.  The tidiest villages accrue several shields on village signposts, bringing to mind totem poles, or the standards of Roman legions hung with tokens of their honors. 

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon I went, with an intrepid friend who’s good at reading maps, to seek out some of these displays.  They weren’t exactly hard to find, but the quest wasn’t trivial, either.  Rural villages can sprawl a bit, and just because we found the church or the pub or the village hall didn’t mean we’d found the place chosen to show off awards, so we had to stop to ask the locals several times.  But the photos here of the Surrey villages Wonersh and Ewhurst give you an idea of what we found. 

In the meantime, as Britons go on their way, tidying and tilling, forensics experts are trying to identify the chemicals used in Cayton and the North Yorkshire Police are reported to be “hot on the poisoner’s trail”, and while it must be terribly shocking and discouraging for the gardeners of Cayton, it seems to me an interesting and a peculiarly English situation.

Some of Ewhurst's CPRE shields

This is after all the land that gave us Inspector Morse and Hercule Poirot and the endless line-up of their fellow detectives.  The attraction of the Miss Marple stories is certainly the dark forces lurking unseen in the kind of village that must surely display a few CPRE shields.  I’ve always thought there must be some fundamental link in the British mind between the fictional crimes they dream up, write about, and read, and the masterminds who dig up (appropriately for gardeners) the truth, some balance between the disruption and violence of the evil done and the satisfaction of closing the case at the end to leave everything, well, tidy.

If you can do all that and mix in a few flower beds, you’ve got a quintessentially English story.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Case of the Cayton Plant-Poisoner

  1. Jill Waterhouse

    I saw this story, amazing. To think someone would go to such trouble, but have to admit the first thing I thought of was Miss Marple. I’d be perfect for the case, I’m always looking out my window.

  2. Me, too! But I haven’t seen much out there that would interest a sleuth, I’m afraid.

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