This article appeared in the August 2011 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine
In his lyrical novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy describes a long forgotten rural way of life a century and a half ago. Music provided by a group of local musicians called the Quire forms the bedrock of church services, carol singing expeditions and dancing at parties. The musicians are particularly keen on cider and at one gathering of the Quire, Reuben Dewy, the tranter, eulogises the cider they are about to drink:
“This in the cask here is a drop o’ the right sort; ‘tis a real drop o’ cordial from the best picked apples – Sansoms, Stubbards, Five-corners and such-like….”.
Sansoms, Stubbards and Five-corners are the picturesque names of cider apples grown in Dorset in Hardy’s time. Drinking cider was important for relaxation in the 19th century but cider was also given to farm workers as part of their wages or used to ease hard work. In one report, labourers at Netherbury at harvest time had twelve pints of cider a day. Cider was still important in Dorset in the first part of the 20th century and my father would describe visiting friends to drink home made cider when growing up in Sturminster Newton in the 1930s.
Some say Dorset was the first county to make cider, influenced by monks from northern France settling near Bridport before the Norman Conquest. By 1796 there were 10,000 acres of orchards in the county growing cider apple trees. Compared to neighbouring Somerset and Devon, however, factory-scale cider production did not occur in Dorset so the county is not well known for cider making. Cider making remained a local pursuit with many farms producing cider from their own orchards. Very few of these orchards exist now, having been grubbed out in the 1960s and 70s. Dorset probably did have its own preferred varieties of cider apple and the flavour of the cider produced may have varied depending on the variety used as well as the location for growth. Records are scarce and we can’t be sure.
All is not lost, however, owing to the work of two local enthusiasts. Nick Poole, a cider maker from West Milton and Liz Copas, formerly a pomologist at Long Ashton Research Station, now living in Crewkerne, have set out on a quest to identify old varieties of cider apple tree still growing in Dorset. Each autumn since 2007 they have visited orchards and gardens in West Dorset around Bridport and in North Dorset in the Blackmore Vale looking for trees and fruit. This is the Dorset Apple Tree Analysis Project (http://www.dorsetcider.com/data.html; http://www.dorsetlife.co.uk/2011/04/dorset-sweet-and-sour/) and once trees are located they collect a sample of mature fruit, identify the variety from its appearance and extract the juice. A sample of juice is analysed to measure three important cider apple variables, acidity and sugar and the important tannins which give the cider a rounded flavour. But it’s the cider that’s important so the rest of the juice is fermented to produce a small sample. In the spring, the West Milton Cider Club gathers for a solemn tasting of the new ciders and the information about the apple is carefully catalogued.
So far they have identified twenty old varieties of Dorset cider apple tree including Golden Ball, Buttery D’Or, Fillbarrel, Warrior and Stubbard, one of the varieties mentioned by Hardy. Each has been propagated in a nursery in Herefordshire to produce 300 new bush trees which were sold for the first time this spring. Some of the trees were planted in a new cider apple tree orchard in Melplash, named Linden Lea after the poem by Dorset poet William Barnes. It is hoped that the trees will now be safe for the future but the hunt for other old varieties is still on.
This is a fascinating project and as well as providing a window on to an earlier Dorset, some of the trees identified may be commercially useful for cider production. I believe, however, that the project has broader implications. The near loss of these ancient varieties of apple tree and the loss of the orchards is a loss of Biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the whole variety of life on earth – from microorganisms to human beings, the diversity of the habitats in which they live and the genetic diversity of individuals within species. Although we don’t usually think about it, Biodiversity is fundamental to the life support systems of the earth. We take fertile soil, fresh water and clean air for granted but these depend on Biodiversity. The huge variety of organisms on earth is critical for pollinating flowers and crops, cleaning up waste and putting food on our tables and if we do not maintain Biodiversity we shall not survive.
Biodiversity has declined substantially with some estimates suggesting a decline by up to 25% between 1970 and 2005. The primary threat to Biodiversity is loss of habitats, but other threats include invasive alien species, pollution, over-exploitation, climate change and over-population. Habitat loss is a problem in many parts of the world but it is also happening in Dorset and one example here is the loss of heathland. Dorset Heathland provides a unique habitat supporting rare fauna such as the Dartford Warbler and the Nightjar. Heathland suffered nearly 75% loss during the 20th century and we need to be aware that when a new road or house is built, this may result in habitat loss. The work done on the Dorset Apple Tree Analysis Project to identify old varieties and plant new orchards will help restore lost habitats and is a small step towards supporting Biodiversity.