The Big Apple, Harvest time in Much Marcle, Herefordshire
‘The Big Apple’ festival staged every year in the parish of Much Marcle in Herefordshire is well known to British visitors to the Fruit Forum web-site, but not so familiar to fruit lovers on the Continent and elsewhere. Below we print an account of this year’s festival at Much Marcle, as seen through the eyes of a Belgian visitor, Jean Pierre Billen.
Almost every other year, Jean Pierre Billen, one of the leading members of the Belgian fruit society – Nationale Boomgaardenstichting (NBS) National Orchard Foundation – organises a trip for Society members to different European countries in search of all things connected with fruit. They have often come to England. Jean-Pierre Billen also visits England for his own enjoyment or to make some advance plans for a future Society expedition. In the following article he reports on the Much Marcle Festival of 2017. This is a translation of the original account, which appeared in the Winter 2017 volume of the NBS quarterly journal – Pomologia; we thank the journal for permission to reproduce it. For more information on the NBS visit http://www.boomgaardenstichting.be/
For many years members of the Belgian fruit society - Nationale Boomgaardenstichting (NBS) – have visited England to explore orchards and fruit gardens, to see, taste and enjoy a wide range of fruits. We have been on several occasions to see the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent, also the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden at Wisley in Surrey and even called in on the original Bramley’s Seedling apple tree in Southwell, near Nottingham.
In 2013, as part of our English tour, we drove through Herefordshire and stopped to sample some of its excellent ciders and perrys. This is a county that is famous for beautiful rural landscapes and the Herefordshire cattle that can be seen grazing under the cider and perry pear trees. During the visit, I heard about a fruit festival staged in the village of Much Marcle and learned that in 2017, on October the 14th and 15th, Much Marcle would celebrate its Harvest-time festival for the 29th time! Such a long tradition deserved a visit, I thought. A lovely B&B was booked and I immersed myself in Englishness for a weekend.
The Big Apple organisation made it possible to visit nine different venues in and around the village. On the program were farms, orchards, the local church, historic Hellens Manor and an industrial cider plant. With an English friend, we began our weekend at – by some criteria – the biggest player in the village: Weston’s Cider. Weston’s is situated on the edge of the village. It began as a small enterprise in 1880 and has become the second biggest cider producer in the UK. It took them five generations to get to that size! All the apples come from the region, from orchards lying within in a radius of 60 kilometres (37 miles) of the plant. Only cider apples are accepted, strictly no dessert apples or cookers. When waiting for our guided tour we saw deliveries ranging from small tractors with equally small trailers to impressive trucks. In this time of year the factory works day and night. Six industrial presses carry out the pressing. The juice is pumped into wooden or stainless steel vessels. Of the latter there are 120 tanks, each containing 200,000 litres. With a working staff of 240 Weston’s is an important employer in the village.
At the farms a lot of apple pressing was going on. In one place you could even press your own apples. You could take a stroll in the orchards and admire the typical Herefordshire cattle, and taste plenty of cider and perry. In a barn at the Hellens Estate many cider apples, perry pears and dessert apples were on display and there was an opportunity to taste dessert apples. About thirty or more varieties were for sale outside of rare and not so rare varieties, such as, Jupiter, Ribston Pippin, Spartan, Red Devil, Herefordshire Pippin and many more. I must also have tasted at least ten different apple sauces; that is cooked apples. All these were presented with a name label and a short description. My preference was for Golden Noble, Catshead and Herefordshire Beefing. It struck me once again that the UK. has many more culinary apples then we have in Belgium.
The local fruit association ‘Marcher Apple Network’ had a stand for identifying varieties. I must have passed them half a dozen times. They were never out of work. On Saturday, the Beekeeping Association of Herefordshire presented an informative educational stand together with beeswax exhibits.
A guide took us through the house at Helens Manor telling us stories of the unusual history of the place. We walked in the garden and the park and saw the old press and mill before strolling back through the long perry pear tree avenue, planted in the reign of Queen Anne in the early eighteenth century. In the restrained but tastefully decorated St. Bartholomew’s Church, I climbed the Tower, then two ladies gave us a crash course on how to ring the bells properly. We didn’t take part in the Big Apple Bike Ride that followed quiet country lanes and stopped at the cider producers and orchards. Nor did we join in the walk of the Friends of the Dymock Poets. A ukulele band gave little performances at three different locations. There were so many items on the programme that it just wasn’t possible to go out and see or do everything.
On Saturday evening we went to the Royal Oak for a ‘Bushel Full of Pippins’, an evening full of prose, poetry and song. A fiddler played little tunes, A choir of six beautiful voices managed to make us sing along. This and a few pints of cider resulted in an evening to remember.
Many people found their way to James Marsden’s cider and perry pear orchard Gregg’s Pit, where an ancient stone press still stands in the orchard. The cider apples and perry pears are all collected from orchards nearby, which are managed without the use of pesticides. The trees are a pleasing mix of (very) old and young. Mr Marsden is a man with passion for the fruit he grows and the fine drinks he makes out of them. Some of us wondered why there were so many perry pears in the grass. As a dessert pear has to be eaten when fully ripe, perry pears are also collected when ripe. Only then one can make a good quality product. My favourite drinks were the Thorn perry single variety and the Dabinett and Yarlington Mill cider blend.
The program was well filled. The weather was marvellous that weekend, it was a delight to pick out locations and easily walk to them. If you are in the neighbourhood next October, if you fancy the local drinks and the peace and quiet of the countryside, don’t hesitate and get yourself a great weekend in Much Marcel.
What did I like best? I was most impressed by the Leominster Morris Dancers performance in Gregg’s Pit orchard. This was the perfect setting, dancing on the grass among the fruit trees. It was astonishing to see their movements in different combinations; sometimes with 4, 6 or 8 people, using sticks or handkerchiefs. These men in their colourful jackets wearing hats full of flowers made a sublime picture.
More information can be found at www.bigapple.org.uk
Also well worth visiting is the app ‘Golden Fire’. It guides you through the abundant history of cider and perry in Herefordshire.
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