This is a long ‘sketch’, written as part of my postgraduate assessment. Much too long for an article in a magazine, it is more of an example chapter of a short book.
1. The Orchard, St Erth.
Where the apples reddens
Lest we lose our Edens,
Eve and I.(Robert Browning)
I came to St Erth to see The Orchard, a sardine tin cul-de-sac surrounded by a leylandii hedge on one side, and a cracked concrete wall on the other. Between the hedge and the wall, four houses and four picket-fenced gardens are crammed into the site of the old orchard. A similar fate is shared by most of Cornwall’s orchards, remembered only in tragically ironic names. Orchard Close in Truro. The Little Orchard self catering ‘village’ in St Agnes. St Austell even has an Orchard School of Motoring. Where did all the real orchards go?
The Ordinance Survey’s 1870 map of St Erth shows a village full of trees. Small fields close to the cottages are full of orchard trees. Chickens would have run about under the trees, and in the lambing season, so would sheep, where the shepherds could keep a close eye on them. Some cottagers may have kept a Gloucester Old Spot, the ‘Orchard Pig’ conveniently close to the house to eat the scraps from the table and the windfalls from the trees, until it began to turf up the field too much – by which time it would be big enough to eat. The apples themselves, cookers, cider and dessert, had their own obvious purposes. I wonder if after the Methodist Chapel was established, whether the Wesleyans would give their bittersweet Capt. John Broad to the non-dissenting population, in exchange for the more palatable Sweet Merlin or Queenie. Or if they grew the Tommy Knight, would they trust themselves to store the produce until Easter, when the cider apple miraculously becomes an ideal cooker.
By the mid-twentieth century, the orchard had fallen into disuse. But Frank Blewett, who grew up in the village, remembers collecting the windfall and putting them in a box by the roadside for passing villagers to buy for sixpence a bag. It was he who carved The Orchard’s sign, white letters on dark teak, which still hangs outside the oldest cottage’s front door today. In the late 60s, part of the old orchard was cleared when Frank’s brother built himself a bungalow behind his parents’ house. The rest of the orchard grubbed up in the 70s to make room for holiday chalets, which themselves were demolished after Frank’s father died and the house and land were sold off to a developer, who built the houses that are present now. Today, a single apple tree remains, covered in ivy and surrounded by low-maintenance palm trees in pots, and a wood-chip mulch.
I feel awkward walking through the village, loitering on street corners, with no obvious business there, even though everyone I’ve spoken to have been helpful and friendly. I seem to repeatedly bump into the postman, and get the feeling that I’m being watched.
2. Healey’s Cornish Cyder Farm, Penhallow.
Cider on beer, never fear;
Beer on cider, makes a bad rider. (Cornish horseman’s rhyme)
I did not expect to be able to visit a working cider farm and not see a single apple tree. However the only way to see the orchards is on a tractor ride tour, which was not running today, and so apple trees were strictly out-of-bounds. The Cornish Cyder Farm is a cannily run business and tourist attraction, with over two hundred thousand visitors over the Summer coming to enjoy free samples of the different ciders produced. On a good day, the farm shop can take over twenty thousand pounds.
Like the farm’s resident peacocks, visitors are free to wander around the farmyard and explore the outbuildings which house the cider-making equipment. These surround a central small paddock, which in Summer encloses small animals for children to pet whilst their parents go on a guided tour. In Winter, pigs and miniature goats are on show in larger paddocks behind the distillery.
A notice board outside the apple-crushing room has an extract about orchards from the 1811 ‘General View of Agriculture in the County of Cornwall’ pinned up. It has been hand-typed onto copy paper, giving the document a double sense of antiquity. Although the author saw much room for improvement, that perennial obsession of the nineteenth century, the extract describes apple growing all over Cornwall, widespread and established enough to have become neglected. The author, a Wrey L’Ans, Esquire, of Whitstone, is quick to criticise Cornish apple growers for their “ill chosen situations…want of skill in the choice of trees, and in the manner of planting”. Yet the unpruned, neglected apple trees planted close to the farmhouse “to prevent plunder”, sound rather attractive to me, even if they haven’t been optimised for greatest efficiency. Abused by cattle and sheep, these orchards had that invaluable quality of being able to withstand neglect, and still produce a harvest, that must have been highly appreciated on the horse-drawn farm.
A wooden hopper that looked as though it could be made out of sleepers fed an apple-crushing machine the size of a small car, and the pulp was carried away on a conveyor belt to the pressing facilities. A far cry from my domestic hand-operated apple crusher that I felt so proud of, but still within the scope of my comprehension. A cottage industry with ambition. However I was still suspicious of what went on in the stainless steel units on the other side of the farm, behind the “no entry” signs. In such a unambiguous tourist trap such as this, could I be looking at anything other than a living museum?
Further round the courtyard is the bottling room, and then the jam house, with its water-heated, temperature-controlled jam pans big enough to hide in. In the corner are oversized Tupperware containers labelled with jam ingredients, Citric Acid, Pectin and Sugar are lettered beautifully, as if this were a National Trust farmhouse kitchen. The self-referentially Cornish quaintness must be one of the main selling points at the Cyder Farm.
I allowed myself to be distracted by the miniature goats grumbling at the miniature goat kid who was playing outside despite the rain. As I re-entered the courtyard, the farm’s old shire horse, Sunny, had just been brought back to his stable after being exercised in the wet November fields. He made short work of the basket of hay hung from the rafters. I was fascinated, watching his lips moved independently to his jaw, like factory workers feeding a non-stop machine, which rhythmically processes everything offered up to it. I would have loved to see him working the old, model apple crusher set up in the museum, a circular granite trough around which an upright millstone is rolled as a horse pushes a thick oak beam around the whole thing. A beautiful painting of the scene by Mary Martin is included in her book, co-written by Virginia Spiers, ‘Burcombes, Queenies and Colloggetts, the makings of a Cornish orchard’.
Back in the shop, the much-anticipated cider tasting led almost seamlessly into the purchasing of several bottles.
3. The Mother Orchard, Cotehele.
September winds, blow thee soft,
‘Til the fruit is in the loft. (Apple grower’s rhyme)
The slopes of the Tamar Valley fall steeply into the wide, brackish river. The water is silty, and as often as not seems to be flowing in both directions at once. Twice a day, reed-covered inlets are flooded by the tide, and twice a day they are left to stand, brown-grey, a muddy haven of wildlife. In the reed beds, everything sounds bigger than it is. Up, away from the bank and out of danger of flooding, are the remnants of the market gardens that once lined both sides of the river. On strips of fields so steep that not even horses could work them, let alone the primitive farm machinery, farmers planted soft fruit and flowers. These slopes face the sun like a modern solar farm. Once the railways arrived in Plymouth, Cornish strawberries could be bought in Covent Garden less than twenty-four hours after being picked, and a good two weeks earlier than any other strawberries in the country. With luck, a mild Winter, an early Spring, and an absence of mildew, growers could make a small fortune. But long before the daffodils and soft fruit, the Tamar Valley was known for its apple orchards.
Born in an oak barrel, cider travels better than water. Before embarking on long voyages, quartermasters in Devonport would be sure to stock up well, for unlike fresh water cider gets better with age. As long ago as 1657 in A Treatise of Fruit-Trees, Ralph Austen wrote how “cider, and perry, are also of great use in long voyages at Sea.” This use of apples probably helped to encourage their spread to the New World, where most of our supermarket apples are sent to us from now. The ship’s surgeon would know that cider helps to ward off scurvy long before the Royal Navy started a daily lime ration for all its sailors. The old, unpasteurised scrumpy taken aboard ship would have had a much greater vitamin C content than modern, mass-produced cider. Some varieties of apple have very high levels indeed, the Ribston Pippin is a commonly-grown variety with at least 31mg/100g of vitamin C, three times as much as your average Cox. In the nineteenth century, tourists started taking day trips on paddle boats up the Tamar, and one of the highlights would have been to see the apple blossom in Springtime. It is strange to imagine Cornish sailors to whom the taste of the Tamar’s cider was a reminder, not of home, but of life on the high seas.
Up until the Truck Act of 1887, farm labourers were often paid at least part in cider. In Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders published in the same year as the Act, the scene is nostalgically described when the forest people are harvesting bark to be used in the tanning industry. In the middle of the forest, alongside the make-shift shelter and camp fire, “a milking-pail of cider stood near, a half-pint cup floating on it, with which they dipped and drank whenever they passed the pail” (113).
But Cornwall, as Giles Winterbourne would be able to tell me, is not an obvious place for apple growing. And Giles is a man worth harkening to, as Grace found out only too late. A sort of wood-god, a green man of the forest,
he looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as cornflowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips (171).
(Apple pips have traditionally been used in childish divinations to tell whether or not a girl’s lover was true. A pip named after the lover is placed on the bars of a fire, and a charm was recited,
If you love me, bounce and fly,
If you hate me, lie and die.
If the pip pops and spurts away across the room, then the lover is true, but if the pip merely burns away, he is false. If only Grace had known – how much heartache could have been prevented).
Cornwall, as an upcountry grower like Giles knew, is damp and exposed, so even if the trees don’t succumb to scab, canker or mildew, they’d be blown over in the high winds. Or so you’d think. The apple tree’s success as a species comes from its heterogeneity, its huge rate of variation. It is an earnest student of Darwin, almost recklessly rearranging its genetics with every new generation in a wild gamble to become better adapted to its environment. Plant the pip of a Golden Delicious and what you harvest a few years down the line may be something quite different (which can only be a good thing), and perhaps, just maybe, your seedling will be more resistant to scab, like the Egremont Russet. Or better-suited for cider-making, like the Dabinett. Or have an unusual shape, like the Pig Nose Pippin. But probably it will be a small and bitter, like a crab apple. Over centuries, Cornwall’s farmers, cider-makers and orchard gardeners have selectively bred apples better-suited to their own particular environments, and grafted them onto dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstock to keep them out of the wind, or simply planted a tall hedge around their orchards.
At Cotehele, a Tudor National Trust property, scions of over 300 of these Cornish apple varieties have been collected, sometimes from the very last tree of their kind, and grafted onto new rootstock. One variety was actually saved from the ashes of a bonfire. The gardeners are creating a Mother Orchard – a bank of rare genetic information, which will soon be supplying scions itself to be redistributed to new orchards. Chris Groves, the gardener in charge of the orchard project, tells me that after years of fighting disease and damp with chemicals and pesticides as the government advice told them to, many commercial growers are beginning to revert back to the traditional methods. “It’s all a bit different in Cornwall,” he says. When I tell him that I couldn’t see the apple trees at the cider farm, he is not surprised. “They can only do their tractor rides in between the spraying.” He’s proud of the Trust’s low-impact methods, and says that it will ultimately be much cheaper to farm these disease-resistant varieties with the traditional methods. They are only just in time, for not only are many varieties becoming extinct, but the knowledge and skills to manage them are going as well. One of the hardest jobs Chris has had to do is find an apple’s name. Sometimes different apples would be called the same thing in different parts of the county, most apples have two or three synonyms, and to make matters harder, two scions from the same tree can produce different apples depending on the soil type, sun exposure, and how well-managed they are. There have been heated debates at apple conventions on this topic, and some old scores have only recently been settled by modern DNA testing.
The Mother Orchard itself is laid out around a giant ‘V’ shaped avenue, and the apples are arranged by use. The wide, grassy path is kept in order by an intelligent robotic lawn mower. This quietly wanders the paths at random, leaving strange tracks of mown grass, eventually covering the whole area like an old screensaver, and returns to its base when it needs recharging. Chris prefers not to graze livestock here in order to allow wildflowers to grow, and because he’s hoping to create a similar heritage collection of Tamar daffodils underneath the trees. But he doesn’t mind about us walking between the trees. “It’s great to see the kids running in the long grass after all the ‘please do not touch’ signs in the House.”
In the middle of the field a giant hand was emerging from the earth, clasping a giant apple. But this was not the hand of one of the fearsome giants from Cornish myth, wart-covered and calloused. This was the eternally rejuvenating hand of the soil, or of nature, and I wonder why I thought that should be any less awful. I didn’t expect to find sculptures in the Mother Orchard, for some reason I was expecting a rather dry and serious project, like a seed bank, or a well-labelled RHS garden. But this feels right. Apples and apple trees have deep roots in our shared cultural imagination. This is an archetypal image, from Eve, to Paris, to Snow White, apples have symbolised our fall from grace over and over. I wondered whether this hand was really jealously clasping the apple, or if it was being offered. An angry giant for Jack to kill might have been more comfortable after all.
At the back of the field, a sculpture of living willow tells the story of a man and his horse. The heartbroken man, William, spent his days searching for his long-lost lover, Grace, who had not been seen for three years. One day, after falling asleep on his horse and becoming lost on the moor, he came across an enchanted orchard, where hundreds of small people were dancing and spinning deliriously to the music of a fiddle. And who was the one forced to play that fiddle night after night at such a break-neck speed? Grace herself had been forced to stay and take care of the little people’s changeling children, and do their bidding, after eating a plum from that orchard. The piskies at once noticed the break in the music when she caught sight of her lover, and turned the man into a tree, living and breathing but only able to take his human form when the piskies danced, or when the enchantment was broken.
The trees in the Mother Orchard, only a few years old, look rather small, planted twenty feet apart. But they’ll soon fill the space.
In a corner of the field is the cider house. Inside is the horse-powered apple crusher, which was restored recently using pear wood, after decades of lying half-forgotten in an old barn. The horse drives a mechanism that crushes the apples between two studded granite rollers. Granite is the preferred material for apple juicing in Cornwall, not only because it is locally available but also because metal equivalents react with the acidic juice, producing an acrid black slime. Beside the crusher is the largest apple press I’ve ever seen – big enough to hold a ton of pulp, easily. Chris explains how the apple pulp is wrapped in straw to make a “cheese” – a word that was once used to describe any food that was wrapped up. The Cheesewring rock formation on Bodmin Moor is named after its resemblance to the stack of apple cheeses in a press such as this. Two men would stand on top of the press, turning the huge screw to increase the pressure. When they cannot turn it anymore, it is linked by system of levers and pulleys to a horse powered winch. The juice flows out of the cheeses and into a huge granite trough, where it is scooped out in large jugs and funnelled into oak barrels for fermenting.
This is where the real magic happens. One way of differentiating between cider and scrumpy is whether cultured yeasts are pitched, as in cider, or whether the brewer trusts to luck and the wild yeasts living on the apples themselves. Fermentation can take up to twelve months, it can stop and start, speed up and slow down, or not start at all. And the only input the brewer has is the blend of apples and juices used, although traditionally a joint of lamb was sometimes put in with the juice, to supply the yeasts with the nutrients that are not present in apples. Put your ear to the barrel and you might hear to cider ‘sing’. For really special brews, barrels that have been used to store whisky or brandy are used. However some brewers prefer to use the same barrels year after year, to take advantage of the bacteria that accumulate in them, which, if you’re lucky, will ferment the rough-tasting malic acid into the more pleasant lactic acid. Of course this runs the risk of introducing unwelcome bacteria, that can make the whole barrel turn into a acetic gel. To avoid this French cider makers would burn a sulphur candle in the barrels to sterilise them, long before sodium metabisulphite tablets became available – so some would argue that the ubiquitous ‘Contains Sulphites’ warnings on cider, beer and wine bought in shops is not as inauthentic as it appears. Once the yeast has finished fermenting, the cider is syphoned off the ‘must’ into a new barrel, to be stored or transported.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Cotehele, and will be visiting again closer to Christmas, when Chris is organising the annual wassail. The traditional aim was to protect the trees from evil spirits and to ensure a good harvest for the year ahead – but as with most spiritual traditions, it was equally important to have a good celebration. The Common Ground Book of Orchards tells how
the best or oldest tree, known as the Apple Tree Man, was chosen to represent the whole orchard and was fêted as its guardian. Cider was poured on the roots, pieces of toast or cake soaked in cider were laid in its fork or hung from its branches for the robins who were also considered the guardian spirits of the trees. The tips of the lowest branches were drawn down and dipped into the cider pail, as the tree was toasted with cider and songs. (117)
Different places had different customs and songs to go with their wassail. In some places, the wassail is a wooden bowl of mulled cider and cream, which is taken from door to door through the whole village by the wassailers, who carried bunches of evergreen dressed with apples, oranges and ribbons, and sang for entrance at each door. In exchange for wishes of ‘good luck’ and a taste of the wassail bowl, householders gave the wassailers alms. I can’t help thinking that this could have been quite intimidating to new residents.
However despite the heroic efforts of the National Trust in engaging with local communities and fruit growers, Cotehele does still have something of the air of artificiality about it. In the grounds of a Tudor house, preserved for posterity as a snapshot of the past, the orchard cannot but feel like a museum, albeit a living museum. One of the ideas behind the Mother Orchard is that it will supply scion material to new orchards, run by traditional farmers and smallholders, community groups and schools, and it is these orchards I want to find now.
4. Chyan Community Field, Halvasso.
Mani appel is uten grene, briht on beme, and biter with-innen. (Proverbs of Alfred)
I had heard a lot about Chyan before I managed to visit. When I told people I was writing about orchards, a surprising number of people pointed me towards this 2.2 acre community project, which alongside the orchard, has allotments, an outdoor theatre space, sensory garden and straw-bale outbuildings, all powered by two small wind turbines. Events and training go on around the year, and the whole community is invited to get involved. After the relative exclusiveness of the National Trust, Chyan sounded like something new, and I was looking forward to going and seeing it for myself.
When I finally get to visit Chyan, on a dull, overcast November day, there is nobody about. This would not unusual for an orchard once all the apples are in, but Chyan is more than just an orchard. As well as being a site of community-run projects, a few permanent residents make their home in these fields that lie in a shallow valley on either side of a small river. Their caravans and converted buses crouch in terraces built into the hillside, most surrounded by living willow fences, which thrive in the wet soil and help to keep it well-structured, as well as providing shelter in strong winds. Well-trodden footpaths lead around the site, from van to van, to the fire pit, the grassy communal areas at the centre of the fields, the compost toilets up the hill, and the the apple fields themselves. But today only the young Shire horse is available to meet me – the couple who had arranged to show me around having obviously forgotten about it. In a valley in the middle of the Cornish countryside, there is rarely any mobile phone signal, and there is none here. Leaving a note where I was meant to meet my guides, I set off on a self-guided tour.
There are probably about two hundred apple trees, some old, some only planted this year, no doubt by volunteers at the apple day in October. There is space for more to be planted later in the Winter, the more customary time for tree planting. All the trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstock, as there is no need to fear livestock damage to low branches, and a great deal to be said for avoiding the high winds, as well as ease of harvesting. Most of the apples have already fallen, been picked, and cleared up, but a few late varieties are still holding on, even when most of the leaves have blown away. November never shows allotments in a good light, but here the terraced gardens look in remarkably good condition. One of the wind turbines seems to be out of order, or unnecessary, but the other is whizzing industriously in the wind.
There is only so long a person can wander around a place like Chyan before you start to lose your nerve. It is so obviously a place meant to be full of people, and activity. The horse is remarkably placid and makes pleasant enough conversation as I wait, hoping that someone will show up. But it is not to be. I take a small, forgotten apple as a souvenir and cycle off up the back lanes. Winter doesn’t suit a place like Chyan. It longs to be basking in hot sun, with children running wild and adults working the land. Looking back at the valley, I can see why the Winter festivals were so important to the orchard people in the days before television and central heating. I could do with a good long draught from the wassail cup myself.
Later, I was surprised to learn about the land ownership at Chyan. One man owns the land, and has dedicated it to this community project, but ultimately he alone has the final say on matters relating to it. It is not unknown for him to employ this prerogative. The caravans are permitted to stay here as long as their occupants contribute a certain number of hours work to the landowner’s latest project each week. Not a bad deal, but to an outsider this unusual landlord-tenant relationship sounds rather similar to Medieval serfdom. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that any additional labour is paid for in pints of cider. I can’t decide whether formalising the contract between the owner and the tenants undermines the ideals of mutuality and community that Chyan is built on, or is just necessary to avoid arguments. Perhaps the sense of obligation to an individual rather than to the community contributes to the fairly rapid turnover of tenants. The Community continues with the same ethos and goals despite constantly changing members, like the philosopher’s axe, so why does it make the it feel more artificial?
I have found some real orchards, living places with an economic function as well as a grounding in tradition. But I am still searching for an orchard that really feels a part of the place, with roots not just in the local soil, but in the local people. An orchard that does not have to try to be a part of local traditions, but is the natural focus. That doesn’t have to attract visitors, or charge an admission fee. It doesn’t need to be a utopia, which is impossible, or under any particular form of ownership. I