There is evidence of cider-making there as far back as the 13th century but Devon grew as a cider county ‘against the odds,’ says orchard historian Michael Gee in The Devon Orchards Book. Gee reckons there are more than 2000 orchards in Devon and around 35,000 in England as a whole.
Devon: an orchard county ‘against the odds’‘
Even at its peak, though, only about 2.5 percent of its area was made over to apple growing, when the county had 38,592 acres (15,610ha) of orchards, since they were mainly small says Gee. ‘While in British terms Devon might be considered a favourable county for agriculture and horticulture, only in limited areas is it suitable for fruit growing that can compete with other parts of the country or the world.’
Geology, topology, soil, climate, the advent of the factory ciders, town planning and the impact of Government and EU policies have all had an impact on the county’s production but the decline in Devon’s orchards ‘appears to have bottomed out,’ he writes.
‘There are some large modern orchards and new cider makers. There has been a growing awareness of the importance of orchards, with many individuals and some communities planting new ones, sometimes with public help. Nurserymen are able to supply varieties of Devon fruit which had almost disappeared. Provenance and craft have become important in the sale of food and drink, and are encouraging local initiatives.’
Save Our Orchards grows into wider campaign
Gee is a leading member of Orchards Live in North Devon whose aims include saving and planting traditional apple, pear and mazzard cherry orchards. It was set up by Gee in 1990 as the self-explanatory Save Our Orchards campaign and is supported by the Dartington North Devon Charitable Trust, which he joined as director in 1987.
At that time, Devon was estimated to have lost around 90 percent of the orchards it had had at the end of the Second World War. As the eco/art lobby group Common Ground – Gee’s inspiration – puts it, ‘orchards are still grubbed up and replanted with cereals or ousted by new development from roads to housing, while many orchards simply fade with neglect.’ https://www.commonground.org.uk/
But there is hope, and in his book Gee charts the county’s progress ‘from a county with relatively few orchards through a few centuries when the county was covered in them, back to a state where there are fewer orchards, but those are respected and in a few cases revered.’
Devon cider finds its way to Newfoundland
Gee’s view of Devon’s orchard history is a clear one, free of rosy tinting. He points out that in Medieval times, cider was far from being the mythic jolly peasant’s tipple. ‘Orchards were not the culture of the common man, more their overlords,’ he says.
The first map of Exeter in 1587 shows gardens but no obvious orchards within its walls or outside but ‘over a century later the maps show a different story.’ Among the stimuli were the woolen cloth trade and the need for victualling brought about by maritime exploration and the growth of a navy. Francis Bacon said beer and cider were taken to Newfoundland from Exmouth as a means of fighting scurvy.
‘Two centuries later when Newfoundland had a permanent population, about a third of them from Devon, merchant William Codner of the Teign estuary advertised for sale in St John’s exported Prime Devonshire Ale and Cider,’ writes Gee.
Devon cider pronounced ‘pleasant and healthy’ in 1630
Tudor landlords looked for alternatives to grain and livestock and ‘by the mid-17th century they were no longer alternative but mainstream.
Thomas Westcote wrote in A View of Devonshire in 1630 that ‘they have of late years much enlarged their orchards and are very curious in planting and grafting all kinds of fruits for all seasons of which they make good use and profit both for furnishing their own table as furnishing neighbouring markets …but most especially for making cider a drink both pleasant and healthy, much desired of seamen for long southern voyages as more fit to beverage than beer and much easier and cheaper to be had than wine.’
A survey by Dean Milles in 1750 estimated that Devon produced 170,000 hogsheads of cider a year, 10 million gallons; the population was around 300,000. Devon had indeed become a cider county. ‘Milles survey picked up the huge interest in varieties. The quality varied but some parishes were making good cider in large quantities and earning considerable money in the process. West Ogwell’s was “remarkably good”, Gittisham’s was a “good masculine cider” and Ottery St Mary’s was “a good cider improving annually”.’
Edwardian era heralds decline and neglect
By the start of the 19th century ‘around every farm, hamlet, village and town of Devon were vast acreages of orchards, transforming the look and life of the county.’ Yet when H Rider Haggard toured rural England in 1901, during the first agricultural depression of the 20th century, he noted that Devon’s orchards were ‘very ill cared for… to the eye which has first studied those of Kent.’ Foreign competition, mechanized farming and the trend towards factory cider on the one hand and away from traditional orcharding on the other, left farmers with little to invest and drove away workers.
Ingenuity of Devon’s apple growers
If the complex geology, lay of the land and the generally wet weather also militated against orchard production, ‘it has to be admitted that Devonians have over the centuries been ingenious in establishing and maintaining them,’ Gee says. And today Devon has roughly twice the acreage of orchards that it had in the 1950s and growth is replacing decline. There are almost 700 registered agricultural holdings growing fruit and many unregistered.
At least a small part of the revival is due to the efforts of groups such as Orchards Live whose achievements include establishing a demonstration orchard, and building an online Devon pomona or apple directory at http://devon-apples.co.uk. Gee’s own achievements led to his being awarded a British Empire Medal in 2013 for services to orchard conservation. The Devon Orchards Book, a suitably well-rounded and fruitful read, adds further weight to those efforts.
The Devon Orchards Book by Michael Gee, published by Halsgrove (ISBN 9780857043108) is available at £14.99 from www.halsgrove.com