Fruit Forum

Alan Rowe (1928-2012)

Photo - see caption
Alan Rowe lecturing on cider production

Alan Rowe is well known to visitors to this web-site through his clear, practical articles on grapes, wine, real cyder and perry. Alan’s pieces are some of our most visited posts and his books on cultivating fruit and grapes essential guides for amateur growers. He was an accomplished, genial lecturer as well as an authoritative and engaging writer. The above picture is of Alan lecturing on cider production and demonstrating using his own home made cider crusher and press (above); on this occasion to the Friends of the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale.   With great sadness we inform you of his death on 21 March 2012 and publish below a tribute from Ian Harrison.

Alan Rowe was a fruit grower and author who died at his Suffolk home shortly after his 84th birthday. Born in the city of Birmingham in 1928, Alan grew up absorbing the life and culture of the industrial Midlands. He worked briefly in the newly emerging plastics industry, before joining the RAF at the end of World War 2 and became a bomber pilot flying Mosquito and other de Haviland aircraft. He was posted to Egypt and finally based in East Anglia. Not an obvious background for the future author of books on fruits and the traditional crafts of making ‘cyder’ and wine, but it says a lot about Alan that his many and varied activities became sources of knowledge and skills which he was able to draw on later. Alan left the RAF in 1957; a year of national soul searching following the ‘Suez Crisis’. He had married Anne, a trained horticulturist, and, with a young family, they began a small market garden business on land surrounding their home. More ground was acquired and Dutch light greenhouses constructed in which they grew tomatoes. Meanwhile extensive plantings were made of strawberries and raspberries, all aimed at local sales.

It was not an uncommon path for ex-service men to nurture dreams of a return to civilian life through small holdings, nurseries and market gardens. But the development of US style supermarket chains in Britain, the reorganisation of trade throughout the European Common Market and cheap imports worked against the small fruit and vegetable growers. Alan and Anne found, even with working days beginning at 5.30 am, they were not able to remain in business as they originally conceived. A change of course was necessary: Anne continued to produce as many tomatoes as she could cope with in the greenhouses, while Alan retrained as a teacher, qualifying in 1970. In this new career he was influenced by the work of the Suffolk-based pioneer A. S Neil, founder of the well known, progressive school Summerhill. With its ideals of allowing every child to be themselves in his mind, Alan sought always to encourage effort in his pupils rather than praise purely academic skills. He retired from teaching in 1988, to refocus his energies on fruit cultivation.

When the Rowe family moved into their home in the 1950s, there were already several of the best known old varieties of apples growing in garden. Over the years they extended the collection to include also cider apples and perry pears. At the same time Alan received tutelage in the practice of making real cyder (with a ‘y’ not an ‘i’) from a local master, Joseph ‘Dusty’ Miller of Mendlesham. Bee colonies were also built up - to as many as 18 at their height. And the Rowe’s botanic interests were not limited to fruits. Anne specialised in breeding auriculars, although a visitor to their home was just as likely to see strelitzias in flower in the greenhouse or lithiops growing in a sunbaked beds of pea shingle. Alan’s move from market gardening to teaching had freed up some two acres of land which over-time became a mixed woodland with nectar rich flowering shrubs and wild flowers, together with a collection of Malus species.

Alan and Anne’s interest in wines led them to undertake a tour of the Moselle region. They discovered the true quality of German wines at a time when these were blighted by ‘Lieb frau plonk’ and the Rowe family went on to establish lasting friendships with some of the region’s wine -producers. Holidays were spent in the Moselle picking grapes and learning the arts and crafts of producing fine vintages. At home, Alan began a collection of vines which numbered over 200 varieties at one time. Later, with increasing experience, he focussed on some 100 varieties of wine and dessert grapes. The barn next to the house became a workshop and processing plant for producing fruit juices, cyder, perry and wine, with other areas racked out for the storage of bottles and fruits.

His knowledge of weather conditions and ability to forecast changes in weather cycles, gained as a pilot, together with his engineering skills as a maker of gadgets all contributed to the direction of his work. Fruits do not just need quality of light to grow buds and set blossom, nor just warmth when the fruits are growing. Some fruits need chill as well near to maturity. In the case of German wines, of course, freezing night time temperatures are essential to produce the finest grade of late-picked wines. Alan’s former varied careers gave him the ability to organise and think through processes, which in turn contributed, like his teaching experience, to his books: Successful Grape Growing for Eating and Winemaking (1988) and Success with Apple and Pears to Eat and Drink (2002). Both went into further editions and were published by Groundnut Publishing, an East Anglian company specialising in the life and culture of this region. Alan shared with his family a wide range of interests from the etymology of words, the shapes and forms of clouds to poetry and music. Where music was concerned he was very discerning and not just a passive listener. He had been an enthusiastic bell ringer in Suffolk churches. In matters of philosophy, he agreed with Epicurus: ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ and ‘things do not move in a straight line’.

When, in 2007, a threat emerged to the integrity of the National Fruit Collections at Brogdale in Kent, together with the associated site and archives, Alan and Anne rallied to the call for their defence. In spite of the distance between Suffolk and Kent, they pitched into the campaign and became founding members of the Friends of the National Fruit Collections, encouraging others to join and support its activities. Much of the public debate at the time focussed on descriptions which reduced the Collections to a single word, such as ‘gene bank’ or ‘museum’. Alan considered these failed to grasp the real nature of the Collections and their value to humanity. He liked to point out that most of the best of the 2,000 plus varieties of apples in the Collections were not the product of commerce. They had been identified, selected, propagated or bred by quite ordinary people. They were then passed from friend to friend or down the generations of families and communities who nurtured them; in short they were a social product. He believed that these, and others like them, deserved a special international status, safe from the hands of national government. He regretted, too, the failure of government in Britain which had overseen and allowed the closure of research stations and colleges dedicated to the cultivation of fruits and the training of technical staff associated with them.

In recent years Alan showed no signs of retiring from these interests. He had begun a small collection of figs and harvested a crop of some 240 ripe figs in 2011. Correspondence and exchange of books with a fig-grower in the USA provided him with literature to study and ideas for preserving figs. When he discovered in 2009 the work of Abbé Emile Warré on beekeeping, published in France in 1948, he set about constructing a Warré designed beehive. Warré was not alone among beekeepers at that time in recognising the negative aspects of the modern frame hives which replaced in many instances the woven medieval skeps. Warré’s hive through borrowing the best from the medieval skep strengthened the colony’s resistance to disease, reserved sufficient honey to allow them to overwinter without needing supplements of inferior sugar solutions and retained the warmth generated by the bees. When he finished his hive, Alan quickly found a small swarm and moved them in. This year during a warm spell of weather shortly before he died, he had the pleasure of seeing the bees emerging from his Warré hive, begin spring cleaning and searching out the abundance of nectar plants around his home. Last October, his ambition of breeding something of special value for cyder makers was also realised through a late picking apple with high tannin levels. He gave it the name ‘Late Gold’ and his friend Liz Copas, pomologist and consultant to the cider industry arranged for scion wood to be propagated and eventually put on sale to the public.

Earlier in the October, however, his suspected bronchitis turned out to be more sinister; the diagnosis was an incurable form of asbestos related mesothelioma. Alan embraced his condition with humour and courage. His wish being to live until January, when he would celebrate both his 60th wedding anniversary and his 84th birthday surrounded by a houseful of his family, was granted. He chose to be buried in a woodland in Suffolk with a walnut tree to mark the spot and his favourite cowslips to mark the turning of winter into spring. All who know knew him will miss him so much, but Alan has left us the legacy of two very fine books. They belong to a long tradition of writings stemming all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. These share something too of the qualities of the best of humanist tradition from the time of the renaissance and the reformation: its spirit of inquiry and concern for humanity, the quality of life. How many people undertake decades of practice and study before writing a book? Let Alan’s reviewers and friends have the last word.

Successful Grape Growing :

‘.... accurate, clear, straightforward and thorough .... this work should be on every vine grower’s bookshelf.’

Brian Edwards, then holder of the National Outdoor Grape Collection.

Success with Apples and Pears :

‘In this age of globalisation, when only a few ‘world class‘ varieties are bring offered in supermarkets, it is refreshing to read Alan’s descriptions of the old favourites we see so rarely on sale nowadays. His book is written from the heart and from years of experience in Suffolk, a book full of information you need to grow your own.’

Howard Stringer, also a founder member of the Friends of the National Fruit Collections at Brogdale and who died in February 2012.


Ian Harrison



A tribute to Howard Stringer was published earlier on this web-site