It is rush hour in North London. The sun is setting and the stink of underperforming catalytic converters hangs heavy in the air. I'm standing underneath a large apple tree on Hampstead Heath, waving around a trouser leg attached to large hook as a man above pelts me with apples. I'm on a guerrilla mission. Tonight, I am an "urban scrumper".
There are more than 2,500 different types of apples currently growing on trees across the UK, and many of these are located in the gardens, highways and hedges of our major cities. In the past, much of this fruit has gone to waste. However, many urbanites are now far more aware of the plethora of produce available on their doorstep, thanks in no small part to the work of organisations such as Abundance Manchester and the London Orchards project, who are helping people identify scrumping sites as well as educating them about the joys of city fruit.
Why the sudden urge of interest in urban scrumping? "People are taking more interest in where their food comes from," explains Rowena Ganguli of the London Orchards Project. "They see heavily packaged fruit and vegetables being flown into supermarkets from far-flung corners of the world, and are wondering why they have to pay silly amounts of money for them when they can just gather what they need from the tree around the corner. Plus, there's the whole issue of waste. We've had a bumper crop of fruits this year and many people are wondering why they should allow it to rot when it could be harvested and turned into tasty chutneys and juices, or put into organic fruit and vegetable boxes and given to people who need it more than they do. More and more people are getting in touch with us to ask how they can give away some of the surplus they've harvested from their gardens."
For Charlie Tims, Pete Flocke and Francois De Morode, my guides today, harvesting the produce of London's trees and hedges is a perfect way to pass the time. They are self-styled "urban scrumpers" – a group who dedicate a fair proportion of their spare time to harvesting the fruits of London's trees and hedgerows and turning them into delicious ciders, jams and flavoured gins. Indeed, just walking into the Gospel Oak flat which they share is like stepping of the city and walking into a more rustic world. Everywhere you look, your eye meets a cornucopia of homegrown delights, from the green tomatoes ripening on the balcony next to the apple press, to the homemade sloe gin on the mantelpiece, and the chutney on the kitchen table, made from plums gathered alongside the M25.
"I got into the idea of making my own cider two years ago," explains Charlie. "My parents live in Rickmansworth, which is at the end of the Metropolitan Line. When you're coming into London on the train from there you can see into the backs of the gardens, which all contain apple trees. And it occurred to me this stuff was going to waste. I found a guy on eBay who was selling a secondhand apple press for £350 and bought it off him so I could make my own stuff."
However, it soon became clear that whilst the idea was a good one in theory, getting enough apples to produce a useful amount of cider was going to be tricky. "We don't have a garden and have very limited space to grow things on our balcony. My aunt lives on a farm and initially we were going outside London to go and get apples there, but that in itself soon became a massive hassle. You need about 15-20kg to get about a gallon – we didn't have a car at the time and it was incredibly inconvenient to take all of that produce home on a train. So naturally we just started looking into ways of getting apples closer to home."
A quick search on Freecycle revealed that there were numerous people more than happy to have spare apples taken off their hands: "Just so long as they were rewarded with the cider we made from them!" laughs Pete. But it soon became apparent that the trees on London's highways and parks were also choc-full of delights just waiting to be turned into cider. "We all cycle and we kept seeing trees we thought would be good to raid. Once we'd seen one, we'd make a note and come back to it with all of our paraphernalia."
The boys are relatively open about their hobby. But they do admit that there's a definite element of excitement in what they do – particularly in areas which aren't easily accessible to the general public. "Our best scrumping mission was near Regents Park a few weeks ago," says Francois. "The tree was in one of those communal gardens surrounded by railings. "e decided to go in under the cover of darkness. It was great – like something out of Danny, Champion of The World – lying underneath a tree wearing a balaclava while someone chucks apples at you."
Scrumping is certainly good fun. Why aren't more people aware of the fruit in their cities? "It's quite sad," says Francois. "There's confusion about whether the fruit belongs to the council because the trees are on council property, or whether it can be gathered because it's on a public highway." It is certainly a grey area legally. Essentially, if what you are looking to gather is on common land (and by extension council land where they're not growing the plant for food purposes) then you probably have every right to use it if you don't gain commercially from it. However, you are only allowed to pick and pluck fruits – if you dig them up or take cuttings, you could be prosecuted.
"In Eastern European countries, it's just natural for people to go out and make things from fruit they find growing wild. I'd love it if more people did that here," says Charlie. "What people need is some kind of website where they can identify apples they find and see what they can make from them, or tag trees on Google Maps with a GPS reference. It would be good for people to connect with what's around them – to be guided to the trees."
Once enough apples have been gathered, it's time to turn them into cider. The boys take me through the process – it seems shockingly easy. First, you get your apples and give them a good rinse to wash off pollutants that may have accumulated on them. Then the apples are chopped into small chunks before being put through a large mincer. Once this is done, the pulp is transferred to the press, where it is juiced into a large bowl. This juice is then put through a sieve before being poured into a demijohn. You can get around a litre of juice from one pressing, and each demijohn holds five litres. "If we wanted to be real guerrilla scrumpers, then we could just get a hammer and smash the apples to bits that way to collect the juice," says Pete.
The juice is put in a warm place to allow the sugars to ferment and turn into alcohol, a process which takes around a month and results in an alcohol content of around 7.2 per cent. The boys are kind enough to give me a glass of their homemade scrumpy, and it doesn't taste bad. While it doesn't taste like the Strongbows or Magners of this world, it's dry and refreshing with a little hit at the back of your throat – the kind of thing you could just imagine a West Country farmer sinking after a hard day in the fields.
It now looks as though some local authorities are looking to become involved in "scrumping" themselves. In September of this year, Islington Council entered into an extraordinary arrangement with the residents of an Archway street to ensure that a bumper crop of edible pears was given away. Previously, there had been complaints that fruit from the trees was dropping on cars and people had even been hit on the head. When Town Hall officers suggested felling, residents formed a "save our pear trees" committee. Then the council offered the services of its tree staff to collect fruit, and now the community shares the chutneys, crumbles and ciders they make.
If you're looking for something to do on a crisp autumn day, why not take a wander around your local neighbourhood to see what's growing near you? "Scrumping is some of the best fun you can have for relatively little money," says Charlie. "Plus there's the fact that it often just feels like you're participating in an exciting adventure. And you can't say better than that, can you?"
Abundance Manchester: abundancemanchester.word press.com. The London Orchards Project: www.erm. com/About-Us/ERM-Foundation/Foundation-in-action-/The-London-Orchard-Project
Urban harvest: How to make the most of your crop
A cold winter and a warm spring have produced a bumper crop of apples, pears and plums. On average, you get 10 boxes of apples from a tree.
You don't need much to start scrumping – often just a stick to dislodge the fruit, and a rucksack. However, if you're intending to make cider, it takes 15-20kg to make a gallon of apple juice, so you may need a car to carry it.
If you're interested in urban produce but aren't so keen on climbing a tree, many socially-minded people give their excess fruit and vegetables away by using online community messaging boards such as Freecycle. To find a Freecycle list near you, go to uk.freecycle.org.
Whilst it is not illegal to pick fruit from common land, or council-owned land where they are not growing fruit for the purposes of food, it is illegal to profit commercially from what you make with the harvested fruit. If you're harvesting from trees and hedges on private land (eg, from an overhanging tree or bush located in your next door neighbour's house), be sure to ask for their permission beforehand.
If you're thinking of producing juice or cider from your harvest, you can usually pick up a decent 12l secondhand fruit press from eBay for around £150.
Too much fruit to handle? Donate some of your excess to a local Abundance group. Abundance have groups in Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh and new groups are starting up all the time. If there isn't one in your area, why don't you think about starting one yourself?
More councils are planting community orchards. Indeed, one of Manchester City Council's commitments to the local environment is to plant more of them in urban spaces throughout the city.