Spectator: Dreaming of an apple orchard

Lucy Baring dreams of an orchard.

I nearly persuaded Zam to buy a house he couldn’t stand up in. I didn’t think this mattered until, with his head bent sideways as we stood in the hall on our third visit, he said: ‘I really don’t want to live like this.’ I’d persuaded him to ignore ceiling heights on previous visits because I’d fallen head over heels in love with the orchard.

At least 30 old trees, beautifully pruned, were in full blossom, spread across a gently sloping hill. All I could see was lunch under the branches in dappled sunlight, but, while I was thinking of linen and picnics, Zam was developing a cricked neck, so we reluctantly abandoned the plan. However, an orchard is worth dreaming about and, although it would be a grandiose term for the fruit trees we’re planning to plant, I can’t help bearing it in mind.

Here, we have inherited some peculiarly shaped young trees on dwarf rooting stock, which aren’t what the catalogues would call ‘heavy croppers’. These small, misshapen specimens must come out, but the choice of trees to replace them with is mind-boggling, so, when a friend invited me to her village’s wassail, I was thrilled. I could find out which species thrive on nearby soil.

The wassail took place at dusk and the apple trees were very small, perhaps three years old. Songs were sung, plates and dog bowls were beaten with wooden spoons, bells were rung. We were meant to make as much noise as possible to ward off evil spirits, but felt a little shy. A ‘green man’ (a resident smothered in green face paint) started us off with the singing and a slice of cider-soaked toast was placed in the branches of a tree by an overwhelmed toddler.

Cider was poured around the base to encourage next year’s harvest. All very pagan and jolly, but I didn’t meet a wassailer who could tell me which species we were honouring. I didn’t get what I went for.
I returned to the catalogues with their efficiently unromantic descriptions and dismissed anything red as this only brings to mind the appalling Apple Crime committed in France a few years ago.

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As we drove past row upon row of cordoned trees laden with shiny, red apples—the fruit of fairytales and nightmares—I wondered aloud if anybody would ever notice if a couple of these apples were picked. Stolen. The acres of monocultural perfection stretched as far as the eye could see, as unfenced as they are unnatural, and within seconds, Rebecca had pulled the car over, hopped out and plucked two apples from the nearest tree.

We drove off again, the children and I giggling, appalled and impressed. But, as we raised the fruit to our lips, we saw, in the far, far distance, the shutters on a red-tiled house bang open to reveal the unmistakable outline of a man with a shotgun, shouting. We couldn’t put the apples back, so drove towards him, wound down the windows and stuttered our apologies, saying nous sommes désolés repeatedly until Rebecca embroidered our terrible act with the idea that the petits-enfants in the back seat were très faim and it was an act of mercy for starving (and quite large) children. He was unmollified, furious, but turned with a half shrug saying (I think): ‘Well, they’re not ripe anyway.’

And it’s true they weren’t very tasty—destined perhaps for our supermarket shelves (we apparently import 75% of our apples)—which leads me to ambark on a further process of elimination. Obviously I’m not going to grow Gala, Discovery, Braeburn or any of our bestsellers, because what would be the point?

Triploid, standard, whips on M25s—I’m immersed in the world of pomology and beguiled by names: Polly Whitehair, Slack ma Girdle, Cornish Gillyflower. I narrow it down to ‘disease resistant’ and ‘needs little attention’ and ring the nursery.

They’ve sold out.