It’s September, and we’ve picked our early apples for juicing – despite the sheep’s close attention. It’s funny to think of the generations of apple pickers there have been in our orchard. It was on the earliest map of the village there is, and we’re just up the road from a late Roman settlement; I can perfectly well imagine the Saxons having the same arguments with their sheep in the same place.
We’ve recently started to value traditional orchards for their ecology; since 1997 they have been Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitats:
Traditional Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity and have been shown to provide a refuge for over 1800 species from the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.
We’re also now valuing traditional local fruit varieties to eat (and drink!) of course, partly for environmental reasons and no thanks to the supermarkets, which aren’t set up to deal with localised purchasing. As for their aesthetic beauty, that’s never been in doubt – our Perry Pears are every bit as amazing in flower as any of the cherry blossom I saw in Japan when we lived there. The clincher for me, though, is the local and historic context of these old trees.
The fruite of apples do differ in greatness, forme, colour and taste; some covered with a red skin, others yellowe or green, varying indefinitely according to the soyle and climate; some very great, some little, and many of a middle sort; some are sweet or tastie, or something sower; most be of a middle taste betweene sweete and sower, to which to distinguish I thinke it impossible…
John Gerarde, 1597 (quoted in The Common Ground Book of Orchards)
No wonder; there are supposedly 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain. Like all the other varieties of traditionally grown top fruit here, they are all closely associated with their own areas and the history and social structure of their local communities. Where we are, in Somerset, the landscape is still dotted with mixed farm cider orchards full of local trees, many of them named after their villages. Originating within 10 miles of us, according to the Somerset Pomona we have Cadbury, Dunkerton’s Late, Honeystring, Neverblight, Norton Bitters, Pennard Bitter, Pig’s Snout, Porter’s Perfection, Silver Cup, Somerset, Sweet Pethyre, Yarlington Mill… And historical apple trees? You can still buy varieties dating back to Roman times. We sell trees grown from a graft of Isaac Newton’s tree and Hunthouse, the Yorkshire variety that Captain Cook took with him on his travels to fight scurvy.
One of the things I am most happy that we have done is to help Common Ground promote as many of these local varieties as we can and to help Ian Roger sell them. To my enormous pleasure we are now even selling Perry Pears and Mazzards (edible wild cherries) to add to traditional fruit trees like Mulberries, Medlars and Quinces and local varieties of Gages, Plums, Damsons, Pears, and Cherries. Beauty of Stoke, Claygate Pearmain, Cornish Gilliflower, Crawley Beauty, Keswick Codling – there will be an apple or other fruit which is local to you. If you had the choice – and they were similiar prices – would you buy a sofa from Ikea or one designed by a local expert for your house? Even if you’re thinking about just popping a small fruit tree into your back garden don’t just pick up something from B&Q, but find a local variety. Chances are it will do better – and you’ll be contributing to a rich and ancient local heritage.