Lucky old Bridport gets to celebrate Apple Day twice this year.
On 17 October, there is the gathering in the Community Orchard behind St Mary’s Church in South Street where the event is in its eighth year. Then on 25 October there is a shiny new applefest in Symondsbury, centred on the artisan retail experience that is Manor Yard. Lucky, too, that it’s been a good year for apples.
Unless you knew otherwise, you might think that Apple Day was one of those fixtures of the rural calendar whose origins were lost in the myths of time and involved rituals of the pentangle or invocational chanting.
This is not the case, but there are conflicting accounts of its beginnings. Common Ground, the campaigning charity based near Shaftesbury, believes it launched the festival in 1990 with “an aspiration to create a calendar custom… a celebration and a demonstration of the variety we are in danger of losing not simply in apples. but in the richness and diversity of landscape, sociology and culture too.” Not just a wholesome fruit, then.
Arthur Davies, a retired fruit grower from Somerset and Chairman of the NFU’s Apple Action Committee in 1980, recalled it differently. In a letter to The Fruit Grower magazine in 2010, he reminded us that the industry thirty years earlier was “suffering from an excess of second class fruit from France which was pulling down our prices.”
That June, more than 100 apple growers marched on Brussels in protest, demonstrations were mounted across the country and apple giveaways were staged at supermarkets — a tactic not lost on today’s dairy farmers. Many of those fruit growers and general farmers opened their gates to the public that year and the first rootlets of the Apple Day tradition became established.
Apple Day is the Community Orchard’s big fun(d)raiser of the year. There is no entry charge but families go along for the apple games and competitions, for the for the soup-and-bread-and-cheese lunch put together by the ladies of Walditch WI, for the on-the-spot pressed apple juice, the jam and chutney derived from the allotments which occupy a corner of the orchard and when it’s all over, the Treasurer reckons to turn a profit of some £500.
The orchard represents something of a triumph of the people
For many years, Shetland ponies grazed the glebeland which stretched from the back of St Mary’s Church towards the River Brit on an area now owned by the West Dorset District Council. Naturally a piece of land at the heart of town attracted the attention of developers but a tireless campaign fought by the Bridport Environment Group led by the town councillor Charles Wild resulted in the plot being designated a green space in perpetuity from 2006.
At the time, David Squirrel, who is a bookbinder on St Michael’s Estate, and his wife Kim had been running The Apple Project in the Willy Tuck orchard in Symondsbury as centre for all things apple over the previous decade or so. They were tiring of it and suggested that the newly-available green space be turned over to fruit for the general community.
Enter Jill Lloyd, a retired nursing sister, recently-arrived in Bridport, keen to find a purposeful role in the town’s life while making some new friends and not one who likes to have time hanging heavy on her hands.
She became chairman of the Bridport Community Orchard Committee and its public face; snowy-haired, warm of handshake, outgoing and rigorous in not allowing committee meetings to over-run. Her hospital experience taught her the dynamics of team work and she sees her own part in the project as the promotion of everybody else’s contribution.
The committee gets on with its work in the background while Jill raises the Orchard’s profile, each member deploying their own specialised expertise — biodiversity, sustainable growing, wild flowers, animal wild life.
The upshot is that in the seven years since the orchard formally opened, it has developed a patchwork quality: a water lily pond down in the far corner away from the church, a haven for amphibians and those members of the community who occasionally like a quiet exotic smoke; a bog garden to absorb the overflow from the pond; a clutch of bee hives with, according to the beekeeper Jim Binning, a thriving population; a chain of newly-installed compost heaps encased in pallets.
Gardening is good for mental health. Who knew?
Adjoining the Orchard itself are the allotments, small, manageable plots, often raised beds, where those with a disability or learning difficulties or who simply have no garden of their own can grow exactly what they please: “And it’s official now,” said Jill Lloyd with a meaningful look. “The Department of Health has recognised that gardening is good for your mental health. Who knew that?”
For all these peripheral pleasures, the orchard is the star of the show. Guided initially by the Squirrels, volunteers have planted sixty specimens of 45 varieties of apple, pear and gage, most of which have a pronounced West Country accent, like the Tom Putt cider apple or the Devonshire Quarrendon.
Dorset itself has not generated much indigenous fruit, apart from the Melcombe Russet and the Bryanston gage and, David Squirrel’s very own newly-discovered variety, Granfer’s Apple. Actually, the tree grows in a garden in Beaminster and its owner, Mrs Diana Toms brought an example of the fruit, mostly green with a slight flush, to Mr Squirrel in his Symondsbury Project days. He didn’t recognise it. He showed it to a cider apple expert. She didn’t recognise it. They sent it to Brogdale which made a suggestion as to its identity but, as Mr Squirrel says: “I know the colour of the blossom, so I know that’s not it.” What they had was a variety hitherto unknown to pomology which allowed Mrs Toms the honour of choosing her apple’s name. She knew that the tree was in her great-great-great grandfather’s garden in 1804 (which makes it even older than the noble Bramley) so her choice was pretty clear.
Mr Squirrel made three grafts of Granfer’s: one for Mrs Toms, one for Symondsbury and one for the Bridport Community Orchard where it flourishes.
Jill Lloyd is scrupulous in her determination to award credit where its due — to the committee, to the Orchard’s financial supporters and sponsors and to those who simply like to muck in. “The level of commitment is incredible,” she says.
“Everything is done by volunteers.
We planted a lot of yellow rattle which suppresses the grass and will allow the wild flowers to come in. We had a scything session for the grass in this whole huge triangle which hadn’t been touched from April until the end of July. Fifteen people turned up at 6.30 in the morning. In three hours it was scythed, raked and barrowed away, ultimately for compost. Now we have the equipment and a pasteuriser, we have juicing sessions in my garage when we make the apple juice to sell.”
Without the Town Council, the orchard would not exist — it leases the land from the District Council, maintains the paths and cuts the hedges which is no small matter on a patch which has no access for vehicles. Though obviously this is what gives the whole place its other-worldliness.
Palmers Brewery gave more than £800 towards the scythes and materials required to lay the long hedge between the Orchard and the allotments which led to a productive weekend in February. Groves Nurseries pays for the annual newsletter; West Milton Cider contributes its cheering product to events like the January wassailing day; Leakers and Ford Farms send along bread and cheese for the jollies and Elwell Fruit Farm allow the orchardeers to collect windfalls for free because, for the moment, their own trees cannot meet the apple juice requirements. Too many get eaten (or picked eye-wateringly early) by those passing through with their dogs or walking their children to St Mary’s School or simply coming to sit on the benches designed and made at Colfox School.
And this is surely what the orchard is for
A place to breathe and reflect — perhaps on the sweat of all those scything brows, perhaps on the flight of a damsel fly or if you’re out late and very quiet and very lucky, the glimpse of a dormouse.
It’s an unusually moving experience for the casual participant in its pleasures and almost disproportionately offensive to discover evidence of disrespect to it — unretrieved dog mess, a discarded can or bottle here and there, the fact that David Squirrel will no longer run an apple ID service on Apple Day because the clients (paying £1 for something which would cost them £18.50 at Brogdale) have become so rude and impatient.
The harshness of the world beyond its boundary hedges is a deeply unwelcome intruder in the orchard. It may be within spitting distance of the town centre but there is little of the retail experience here.