Windfall apples crunch under my feet in the orchard behind Rose Cottage. This means that the neighbour farmer will soon be here with his tractor and lifting gear to collect the perry pears and apples to sell to a well-known Herefordshire cider company – while keeping back a quantity of my favourite apples, the Cat’s Head (left) – for me to store. The Cat’s Head apple is both an eater and a cooker and stored in a cool place, will last us until the Spring. Every Autumn the farmer brings his family, including his young grandchildren and a couple of dogs to the fruit-heavy orchard, for the apple gathering – a colourful, neighbourly, timeless occasion.
Planting a new orchard was one of the first projects that I undertook after moving here. A friend in Leicester rescued some fruit trees, which had been used to demonstrate pruning techniques, and planted them here for me. Those trees continue to thrive and I was lucky enough to receive an EU grant specifically intended for new orchards to be planted, using only local varieties of apple and pear trees. With advice from FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group), I designed a traditional layout with the taller perry pears at the sides to protect the squat apple trees from the prevailing wind. The names of the apple varieties were unknown to me, but apart from the Cat’s Head, names such as Lady’s Finger of Hereford, Stoke Edith Pipkin, Pitmaster Pineapple, Api Rose and Herefordshire Beefing suggest a long history. Paradoxically, there was another grant available at the time, from the Ministry, offering money to farmers who wished to grub up their orchards.
Apples and orchards played an important part in my life for several years when, together with a local friend, we made cider and perry from apples and pears grown here: crushing, pressing, fermenting, storing in old brandy casks and finally bottling and labelling. Meanwhile, among the venerable apple and pear trees in the old orchard – survivors from 1918 when many orchards were planted at the end of the Great War – only one pear tree now remains. New additions have proved far less sturdy and the surviving old pear tree has recently produced new growth from the original rootstock and this year is laden with pears which are particularly relished by the dogs.
One of the old traditions associated with cider making involves pouring a libation of cider into the roots of an apple tree at the Winter Solstice to give thanks and ensure a good crop the following year. I feel grateful and give thanks for everything I’ve experienced with orchards and apples from the early days of planting the trees, to the joy of seeing the blossom in Spring and early Summer and for the incidental gifts of delicious apple juice and jars of apple chutney. The apple and pear trees no longer provide me with fruit for cider making, but their strength and beauty sustain me throughout the year.