Having a dozen trees planted around the garden makes for our modest orchard with a day to day juicing requirement for home consumption. It suits. Going back to Devon on this trip and visiting a small producer like McG makes for a very interesting afternoon. We enjoyed a lovely lunch Jake & Miriam in their village centre home in Dolton. Their four grown up children help them out, when at home. The big orchard lies below the garden. Former pastureland, sloping down to a small stream, is where the enterprising couple planted some 200+ apple varieties, all suitable for juicing. They also put in a few crab apples to aid pollination. In a large wooden shed on site they crush, juice, pasteurise & bottle their lovely apple product. The old barn opposite the house is used for storage (carefully insulated against freezing in Winter) before orders are labelled top sealed and dispatched. (Labels designed by Miriam). The couple have grown a good customer base, both wholesale & retail, across the county. One growing product line is apple vinegar while a brisk trade in bottling juice for other growers balances output flows and brings in extra income. It’s all go each autumn of course and having a mini-tractor and cart for the heavy work makes all the difference in harvesting effectively. 2018 has been a good year so they – like many others – have surplus product, like these Lord Derby apples, left lying in the orchard this November. Michael, Kim & I left even more appreciative of people like Jake & Miriam whose dedication, hard work and skill set have brought new life to old ways, here in the heart of Devon.
Local resident and ‘Gardeners World’ presenter Carol Klein is on record as saying that it’s easier to get a place at Chelsea flower Show than a stall in South Molton pannier market. I love it. Reminds me of a Victorian engine shed, wide open at the lower end. the once great cattle market has receded from and today a much smaller mart is still held for sheep. Originally farmers wives would bring their wares to market – butter, cheese, eggs, vegetables etc – in panniers astride a donkey or other beast of burden. That’s no longer the case of course but the market still thrives on a Thursday and Friday, with a variety of quality goods on sale and a good buzz about the place. On previous visits Kim bought plants but this time we’re on the train so limited to compact things like…books! The main big stall here is run by a very amiable and knowledgeable collector. It takes him an hour and a half to set up of a market day morning. The stalls were full of delights – maps, children’s books, topographical volumes, histories etc – and yer man was doing a brisk trade. He told me endearing anecdotes of Henry Williamson while I bought a mint condition 1948 edition of his most famous work ‘Tarka the Otter’. Williamson (1895-1977) lived much of his long life here in north Devon and the still operating Exeter-Barnstaple branch line is named after the eponymous creature. (The two rivers – Taw & Torridge) Charles Tunicliffe’s brilliant illustrations added greatly to its effect, giving birth to a new genre in nature writing for the modern age. Was also fortunate to dig out a 1978 W G Hoskin’s ‘Devon’ as published by David & Charles – the definitive County guide. A hat trick completed by another classic from the same year – David St John Thomas’s ‘The Country Railway’. (The David in David & Charles). The previous night Michael had taken us to join a packed house of locals in the old church rooms nestling in a corner of the old churchyard at nearby Swimbridge to hear the local historian give an illustrated lecture on the village’s station in particular and the Taunton to Barnstaple line in general. Great atmosphere and lots of lovely poignant anecdotes of that lost rural line and the characters who worked on it up to closure under the Beeching cuts of the 1960’s. The station and a long stretch of trackbed into Barnstaple now lies under the A361 North Devon link road. Our lecturer had an easy conversational style and really bought the subject to life for visitors like Kim & I. He had brought along objects from his collection including a copy of ‘The Country Railway’, now long out of print, which I photographed, determined to look out for… As it turned out I did not have to wait long. The old friendship with our wonderful host Michael allowed this leisurely weekend to be full of such happy events…And for that I am truly and everlastingly grateful!
p.s. The green bikes hanging from the market walls are a proud reminder of the Round Britain Race when the mass of competitors streamed through the the length of the venerable building, cheered on by crowds of locals!
Recently returned from a long weekend with our friend Michael Gee, staying at his cottage in North Devon. As always Kim & I are entertained, informed and integrated into local life by our extraordinary host. The afternoon of our day – Rememberance Sunday, 11th November – was spent driving over Exmoor into west Somerset, to explore the picture perfect settlement of Dunster on its lush eastern edge, overlooking the Bristol Channel. Not been here since touring an adaptation of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ with Barnstaple based Orchard Theatre Company back in the 1980’s. The company derived its name from a line in ‘Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance’ by John Arden. It took Joan Littlewood’s Theatre practice out of the East End of London (Stratford Theatre Royal) into the rural heart of Devon, premiering and later touring lots of new work and adaptations. That morning I’d stood in silence with Kim in Michael’s cottage garden, remembering the fallen of World War One, exactly 100 years after the armistice. Grandfather William Tomlin was a Stratford lad (b.1890), a regular soldier in the Essex Rgt, wounded in action on the retreat from Mons in August 1914. A story he told was about breaking ranks on the march to take apples offered by Belgian civilians. He was charged and accepted field punishment, being tied to a gun wheel to take a beating. He reckoned it saved his life as on returning to his unit he discovered they’d all been wiped out by a German shell. So, there you go – Orchard, Stratford, War, Apples, Fate. But back to the present… Michael was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) two years ago for his services to Orchard Conservation in Devon. He’d been a consultant for Dunster’s community orchard project, established from scratch on a gentle slope just above the centre, on land donated by the Crown Estate, the largest landowner hereabouts. He was relieved and delighted to find it well pruned and established some five years on. The parish tithe barn (now a restored community centre), old priory dovecote, magnificent parish church and the equally impressive restored and rebuilt castle with its lovely encompassing gardens, (now in the care of the National Trust) all provided further delights to make our day out a truly wonderful one. Our drive demonstrated very clearly that beech predominates on Exmoor – a result of upland enclosure and improvement on a mass scale by agricultural developers in the early 19th century. As trees, hedge plants or windbreaks, beeches autumn foliage was shining dull gold everywhere in the fine clear weather. The Victorian landowners – led by the Knight family, fabulously wealthy ironmasters from Worcestershire – used every means at their disposal to settle the waste (as they saw it) and turn the former royal hunting forest into profitable farming acreage. One key aspect was drainage and here they built on methods already in place since Tudor times. Steep valley upland holdings had their fertility improved through ‘catchmeadows’ – open drainage systems which helped thaw the land and quicken grass growth and increase the fertility of poor soils and rough grazing. The hardy farmers tapped into head streams, diverting flows through fast moving open channels (leats), often taking them through the farm’s yard, where muck enriched the mix, down into the still frozen intake fields, slowly thawing them in the process of running in rills to a lower lateral drain which in turn would fill and brim over to repeat the process down to another lateral cut and so on to the valley bottom where any remaining water would drain away into the lower wider stream. The result of this comprehensive system brought thawing and fertility to otherwise unpromising land, thus increasing grass yield & hay crop. More animals could be stocked and a viable living generated. Some 240 farms on and around the national park have been identified to have had this system in operation at one time or another. It would take a keen eye, knowing what to look for, to identify the remains of such practices today. Michael knew someone whose job it was as a child to clear the plugs in the yard wall so the ‘catch meadows’ could operate in the early spring…A cold and thankless task for the otherwise ignorant youngster staying with relatives still farming in the old way. I knew of the systematic ‘bedworks’ system involved with seasonal ‘drowning’ of meadows in chalkland valleys in the southern counties of England but this sort of upland practice was a revelation. Put to wondering that it could not surely be unique to Exmoor. Did Dartmoor farmers of old must follow the same practices. It seems likely….More homework clearly required!