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Forbidden Fruit

Apple Day, a celebration of the country’s orchards and fruit, is here again. We need it.

Daily Telegraph, 14th October 2006

Reg Farmer is walking me through an ancient orchard in the Teme Valley, on the Shropshire-Worcestershire border. Reg can identify every tree here, and take a good guess at their ages too. He has an old Worcestershire burr and a fund of local knowledge, which is shot through with realism rather than sentimentality.

‘Of course,’ he says, ‘we’ve lost a lot of orchards. This whole valley was once covered in orchards and hopyards. But as you’ll see if you go to the supermarkets, it’s mostly foreign apples. The market has gone because Sainsbury’s and all these people don’t want it. Tenbury Wells used to have a market every Tuesday, and it used to be full up with fruit. It’s gone now.’ Reg walks on, fingering buds. These trees are over a century old, their trunks twisty and gnarled, the orchard itself a haven for wildlife as well as fruit.

‘This orchard contains what might be the only Normington apple tree left in the country’, says Reg. ‘A farmer I know has an orchard with over a hundred different varieties in it. Now, look at this tree here. It’s a Casey Codling. That’s a very rare old apple. But you see, the trouble with a lot of the orchards around here is that these varieties just aren’t wanted’ He scratches his head.

‘These old trees’, he says, looking around him resignedly. ‘They’re just not fit for purpose anymore.’

It’s nine months ago now since Reg showed me around that orchard, and for all I know it may already be gone. It belonged to a friend of Reg’s, who was planning to grub up the trees and burn them this year. There was simply no money in them anymore.
They are far from alone. Next Saturday is Apple Day, a national celebration of our national fruit. Apple Day has a dual purpose: to celebrate this neglected national, natural treasure; and to arrest its spiralling decline.

And it is declining, fast. Since World War Two, almost two thirds of Britain's orchards have been lost. Regionally, the picture can be even worse. Over the same time period Devon, Kent and East Anglia lost a breathtaking 90% of their orchards. And this is not just about fruit; every ancient orchard is also a haven for wildlife, a map of local history and culture, and a repository of often unique and curious varieties. Eggleton Styre, Scarlet John Standish, Laxton’s Superb, Gravenstein, Cockagee, Kirkston Pippin, Foxwhelp, Lady Henniker, Cornish Honeypin: the names are enough to paint a vivid picture of the significance of a truly ancient orchard.

Orchards are disappearing for numerous reasons, but one of the main culprits is globalisation. Supermarkets, which sell 70% of Britain’s apples, will rarely sell many, if any, local or even national apples, preferring to import a few standard, chilled, out of season varieties from New Zealand or South Africa.
‘We’re continually losing a lot of old orchards’, says Sue Clifford. ‘I know of one that’s gone very recently that’s probably been there since the 1500s. It’s going to be replaced by housing.’

Sue is one of the directors of Common Ground, the Dorset-based charity which began the Apple Day tradition in 1990. Common Ground exists to promote the concept of ‘local distinctiveness’ – something that finds its finest exemplar, says Sue, in the apple.

‘The thing that turned us on to this nearly twenty years ago was discovering that there were an amazing 2300 varieties of cooking and dessert apples in Britain, and hundreds more varieties of cider apple,’ says Sue. ‘And they all have their stories; they’re all related to places and people and moments. An orchard can tell you about the state of both nature and culture.’

This week, hundreds of apple fairs, apple shows, apple produce auctions, orchard open days and awareness-raising campaigns will take place all across the country, all with the same aim – to highlight and protect this living heritage. Because ultimately, the fate of ancient orchards and apple varieties lies in our hands.

‘We have become forgetful of what’s on our doorstep’, says Sue Clifford. ‘We have to point the finger at ourselves. We’ve fallen out of knowledge. During apple season, which runs from October right through to April, we shouldn’t even contemplate buying apples from outside this country.’

Her advice is simple: ‘Buy seasonal, buy local, learn about the varieties’. Or even plant your own trees. ‘Create an orchard in your village or suburb’, she suggests, enthusiastically. ‘I promise you, you’ll be paid back a hundredfold.’

Common Ground’s Apple Day website is at www.commonground.org.uk/appleday/a-appleday.html


  • A century ago, over 180,000 acres of England grew fruit trees. Today, the figure is 47,000 acres. Of these, only 28,000 hectares are traditional, ancient orchards.
  • The wild ancestor of the apple, Malus silvestris, still grows in the hills of the Caucasus. The apple is thought to be one of the first trees to have been cultivated, around 4000 years ago. The first written account of an apple orchard is found in the Odyssey.
  • The Norman Conquest led to a rise in apple growing. The Normans introduced many new varieties, including Pearmain and Costard, and were particularly keen on cider.
  • The eighteenth century was probably the orchards’ heyday, as the canals expanded the market for cider. By the end of the century, around 10,000 hogsheads (over a million gallons) of cider were made in Worcestershire alone.
  • Globally, around 10,000 apple varieties are grown. Almost a quarter of these are native to the UK.