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The cider house rules: homes with orchards
Few things surely can lift the spirits more than the sight of spring blossom at an English orchard, with a chorus of busy bees going about their business. But during the last third of the 20th century, more than half of our fruit trees were grubbed up.
Kent, once the Garden of England, lost 85 per cent of its orchards, not least because shoppers tended to buy supermarket apples from overseas. Large, uniform and shiny they may have been, but bland of taste compared with our cox, pippins and russets.
There are more than 2,300 varieties of English apple, some dating from Roman times; and in days gone by it was not unusual to plant 200 different trees in a single orchard. Among them would have been local species bred for the making of cider.
Thankfully, the decline has been reversed. In two decades three million new trees have been planted, half of them specifically for cider (and now cider brandy) production. Many apple varieties are preserved at the East Malling Research Centre and also at the Royal Horticultural Society gardens in Wisley, where in recent years cider has been made and sold.
Down in Somerset, where farm workers’ wages used to include four pints of cider a day, it is still a big part of everyday life. Further back in time it was used for baptising babies, as it was cleaner than water.
We brew more than 130 million gallons of cider and scrumpy each autumn. The word “scrumpy” derives from a West Country dialect word “scrump”, meaning small or misshapen. While there are many commercial orchards it is quite normal for locals to brew their own and sell surplus apples to local cider makers.
When aircraft designer John Lawrence built his house on a plot in Corton Denham, not far from Yeovil, he was intrigued to find two ancient cider apple trees. That was the start of a hobby that has become almost an obsession for John, who now produces 1,500 gallons of top-quality cider every year.
So successful has his adventure been that he is now extending his garage, immaculately arrayed with barrels and fermentation equipment. Sadly his beloved Porsche in which he used to deliver to local pubs and farm shops will have to be sold, to make way for more equipment.
The quality of life in Somerset is infectious and over the years many have escaped the rat-race to enjoy the views and friendship the county has to offer. One such couple was Pat and David Vale who moved to Sandbrook House in Galhampton, near Castle Cary, after retiring in 1981.
They ran the little farm and enjoyed the good life, grazing their cows, sheep and pigs in the orchards and learning the art of cider making and planting more trees.
David died in 1988 but Pat soldiered on, picking apples by hand and giving them to local cider makers in return for a few bottles for herself.
Now she is reluctantly “obeying” her two sons and easing up to move closer to them in Hampshire. The farmhouse, with wonderful flagstone floors, plus three acres including the orchard, is now on the market through Chesterton Humberts for £650,000
(0843 315 1550).
Nigel Stewart started his research into the cider industry during his time at agriculture college and now, 17 years on, he has built a thriving business at Bridge Farm in East Chinnock. Some of his cider is now sent for distilling into cider brandy which, after years of wrangling, finally received the blessing of the EU last September.
Another renowned cider maker in the area is Julian Temperley at Burrow Hill orchards and distillery. Julian, the father of the fashion designer Alice Temperley, is surely the godfather of Somerset cider. His 160 acres of fruit, grazed by sheep and pigs, is spread out beneath a dominant hill capped with one tree that is visible from miles away. The range of outbuildings are stuffed with ancient treasures, presses and barrels that tell the story of cider.
In addition to a wide variety of ciders, Julian has developed brandies and delicious aperitifs that rival any cognacs and sherries. In the huge bonded warehouse row upon row of apple brandy awaits future bottling and, as with malt whiskies, reduces by at least a third over the years – the angels’ share.
While cider can be made from any apple the best is produced from specially bred cider varieties. These are fibrous so juice is easier to extract. They are also generally high in tannin and sugar but low in acidity. Growers plant about 40 standard trees to the acre, but recently more bush trees on dwarf root stock have been preferred by some, where 250 can be planted to the acre.
Trees are shaken or allowed to shed their fruit naturally, to be gathered either by hand or more likely by a sort of sweeper. Once down they are left for a few days to mellow.
There are plenty of lovely houses with fruitful orchards on the market at present but often buyers will have to wait for the first harvest to identify the varieties.
Fortunately there are plenty of specialist nurseries with cider trees. Specialist equipment (crushers, presses and so on) can also be sourced.
Natural England is actively encouraging land owners to preserve and increase areas allocated for orchards, not least because they are so valuable to wildlife. If they are managed organically, with little or no chemical spraying, so much the better. It advises planting on sheltered south-facing slopes and away from valley bottom frost pockets.
Herefordshire is another county noted for its cider orchards and among Savills current temptations is Orde House, near Ross-on-Wye. This is a five-bedroom Georgian house with nearly 10 acres that includes a large orchard next to the all-weather tennis court and summer house. The price guide is £1.135 million (Savills, 01242 548000).
Among the many properties on the books of Knight Frank’s Sherborne office (01935 812236) is North Acre Farm, near Wincanton, which has breathtaking views and 27 acres of its own and equestrian facilities at £1.45 million. Even more heart-stopping is Pugin Hall, designed by the Victorian architect Augustus Pugin, across the border in Dorset but not far from Sherborne. This is a Grade I former rectory with seven bedrooms, a coach house and 3.5 acres that include an orchard beside a stream and a wildlife garden at £2.25 million.
More affordable is a delightful thatched cottage at Milborne Port, near Sherborne, which has four bedrooms and an established orchard. Palmer Snell (01935 609697) suggests a price of £425,000.
Back near Hereford there is Avalon, near Holme Lacy, a three-bedroom cottage with splendid views and nearly an acre of gardens that include an orchard. Andrew Grant (01432 355292) gives a price guide of just under £400,000.
By David Hoppit (The Telegraph)