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It’s all about the apples… wassailing, pruning and protecting

It’s all about the apples… wassailing, pruning and protecting

The Isle of Wight is not the first place you would think of when you think of apples, but there is a growing movement of apple lovers taking the Island by storm.

Now apples and orchards are normally associated with counties like Devon, Hertfordshire, Somerset and Kent. But the Isle of Wight is a microcosm of the rest of the UK perfectly squeezed into an area 23 miles long by 13 miles wide, from chalky downs with 360 sea views and towering pine forests to tropical Ventnor with its microclimate and banana trees, the Island is a horticultural haven.

And scattered across this diverse isle there are orchards aplenty providing fruit for delicious sweet apple juice or creamy potent scrumpy. Even the local rare breeds pigs are supplemented with surplus fruit – supposedly flavouring the meat from the inside.

All this was divulged at a apple pruning course run at Afton Park, Freshwater famed of old for its apple days festival – now owned by Paul and Michaela Heathcote who raise delicious rare breeds cattle and sheep alongside their apple venture.

The Orchard has 150 apple trees, mainly Cox and Bramley, also Discovery, Spartan, James Grieves and Howgate Wonder which are tended (with the help of enthusiastic pruning apprentices) and harvested for juice and chutneys.

Michaela said: “We are also planting traditional apple varieties more in keeping with our Isle of Wight location. These include Isle of Wight Pippin, Sir John Thornycroft, Howgate Wonder and the Isle of Wight Russet. Apples do well on the Isle of Wight with plenty of sunshine and few frosts, and we sell apples and our Apple Juice direct from the Orchard. Our Apple Juice is stocked locally by shops and cafes.”

The apple is Britain’s most ancient and traditional fruit, introduced by the Romans it has been a part of our culture for hundreds of years, from Isaac Newton and William Tell to apple dunking and toffee apples. But over the past 25 years half of all British orchards have been destroyed as growers have succumbed to pressure from foreign imports, intensive farming and developers.

The Orchard at Afton was planted in 1970 and there were originally over 1000 trees on dwarf root stock covering 7 acres. But with no one willing to take it on as a commercial venture most of the trees were pulled out in 1995. Paul and Michaela have continued to replant old English apple varieties since they bought The Apple Farm in 2006.

Keen to follow traditional ways, Paul and Michaela observe the pagan fertility ceremony of Wassailing each winter. Celebrated in England since the 1400′s, this ancient custom normally takes place on Twelfth Night and is intended to begin the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and to exhort apple trees to fruit well the following season by frightening away any evil spirits.

Afton Park is now also the venue for ensuring the survival of other traditional skills such as the mystical and ancient art of apple tree pruning. Run by the WWLP, this is just one of a series of well attended free course taking Islanders and visitors alike on a journey into the past, rediscovering traditional skills such as fruit tree husbandry and hedgelaying. These forgotten skills are blossoming across the Island, with overgrown hedgerows being transformed into works of beauty and form at the annual hedgelaying competition each February.

Volunteer…

Help protect the Islands traditional orchards by becoming a volunteer mapping traditional orchards left in the UK. The WWLP is working with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species to put the Isle of Wight on the map of their national survey of traditional orchards. You can join the campaign as a volunteer to help check and identify key sites across the Island, email orchards@wwlp.org.uk

Some Facts…

The UK imports 2/3 of the apples it eat

Orchards are a haven for wildlife.

The UK has the perfect climate for apples and could grow up to 2300 varieties.