What are these: Dead Boy, Green Horse, Late Treacle and Merrylegs? They’re all perry pears, the source of perry which, presumably, first gives you Merrylegs and then Dead Boy. Grown for centuries around Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, perry pears have, nevertheless, languished in obscurity. By way of contrast with the voguish “pear cider”, perry can be a delicate drink with a floral nose. It improbably enjoyed a renaissance with Babycham – light sparkling perry – but the trees have been in decline for many years before and since. Recently, though, they have been enjoying a mini-revival.
We live in Somerset, which is ciderland rather than perry country. In the English south-west there used to be an estimated 120,000 acres of traditional cider orchards. Now it is dotted with small-scale, artisan cidermakers, with a few stars such as Julian Temperley’s Burrow Hill. Our village has just celebrated Apple Day in the old orchard across the lane where we collect Michelins and Morgan Sweets, Kingston Blacks and Redstreaks to make our Bullbeggar cider, a favourite tipple of FT columnist Rowley Leigh.
Thanks to the likes of the people at River Cottage we are re-evaluating these half-forgotten fruit for eating as well as drinking. There are delicious varieties that retailers never stock as they are difficult to produce, or the wrong shape, colour or size. You’ll never find the peculiar Grenadier in the supermarket, for all its charms. It took Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to revive the fortunes of the irregularly cropping but tasty Ashmead’s Kernel.
Ten years ago “plum” was synonymous with Victoria; only now are people becoming aware of really different looking fruit such as the fabulous Warwickshire Drooper (used to make the alcoholic drink plum jerkum) and the delicious Yellow Pershore.
Organisations such as the London Orchard Project are reconnecting urban dwellers with local fruit, too. Their Hackney Harvest scheme located a surprising number of old trees in the East End, including the Howgate Wonder from the Isle of Wight. The group harvested 80kg of apples and pears from them. Learning Through Landscapes’ Fruit-full Schools programme aims to establish 200 orchards in schools up and down the country in order “to improve understanding of the cultural diversity and benefits of locally produced food”.
My enthusiasm for planting and promoting old varieties of fruit trees was fired by something different: I began to understand orchards as being as much socially and culturally important as practically useful. To quote Common Ground, the Dorset-based charity: “In orchards we and nature together have created an exuberant and a secret landscape – a treasury of genetic diversity and a repository of culture.” There is a rich heritage in the UK’s 2,000-plus varieties of apple tree let alone all the plum, pear, quince, damson, gage and cherry varieties there are. Re-establishing local fruit varieties is a way of reconnecting with local history and community and of celebrating regional distinctiveness. They reflect social history: from ancient apples like Joaneting through to the gardeners of the big estates deferentially naming new cultivars after their employers.
When we renovated our small orchard we didn’t want to end up with enormous numbers of cider apples, despite their historic appeal. We didn’t want enormous numbers of anything, so have ended up with a mixed orchard, which is not only practical but great fun. We’ve got the odd local cider tree, but a couple of cookers and eaters too, which blend to make lovely apple juice. Additionally, we have all manner of nuts and fruit trees and bushes, including a couple of the early-flowering cherry plums as a wind break and as early forage for the bees. I planned the whole plot using bamboo canes, reckoning on roughly 10 metres between the perry pears, 8 metres for apples and plums, and rather less for the smaller trees. The generous spacing allows for the vigorous rootstocks we used and allows more sunlight into the orchard floor.
The whole assemblage not only provides an extended flowering period but, if you wanted a screen, the tangle of branches of an irregularly planted orchard works as well as any evergreen, even in the winter. It can be tricky finding many of these trees to buy, sometimes for good reason. There can’t be more than a couple of hundred cultivars commercially available. The specialist nurseries can be small, which means they struggle with sudden surges in demand; it is best to pre-order for the bare-root season, which has just started. Trees For Life supplied the Fruit-full Schools programme and are the largest specialist fruit tree (and ornamental) nursery in the UK, but unfortunately they’re only wholesale.
You’ll tend to do better with bare-root rather than pot-grown, and unless you’re in a hurry you may as well buy the smallest plants available, which are cheaper and will re-establish more quickly.
There are some top-quality nurseries that can help with your selection and offer advice on suitability. This sort of information can now also often be found online if you search a particular fruit tree variety.
A traditional orchard does require a maintenance regime, for the trees as well as the wildflowers and grass. It pays to go on a pruning course if you’re anything like me and can’t understand the books.
As for the grassland, careful but simple management will produce something stunning – but that’s another story.
Nick Mann founded Habitat Aid in 2009 to promote environment-friendly landscapes and to support conservation charities
Bernwode Fruit Trees, www.bernwodefruittrees.co.uk
Habitat Aid, www.habitataid.co.uk
RV Roger, www.rvroger.co.uk
Ian Sturrock and Sons (Welsh trees), www.iansturrockandsons.co.uk
Thornhayes Nursery (West Country trees), www.thornhayes-nursery.co.uk
John Tweedie Fruit Trees (Scottish trees), tel: +44 (0)1387 720880
Brogdale – National Fruit Collection, www.brogdale.org
Common Ground, www.commonground.org.uk
People’s Trust for Endangered Species, www.ptes.org
The Orchard Network, www.orchardnetwork.org.uk