Scrumpy on tap as trees bear fruit

Cider is rosy: Traditional West Country apple orchards and a favourite thirst quencher, once scorned as a tipple for old drunks, are back in vogue; 'People are waking up to the fact that so many orchards have been lost'
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A soft red blush has returned to Somerset with the scent of half-ripe apples. After nearly a century of decline, the county's orchards are coming back to life, and cider-makers are expecting their best harvest since before the Second World War.

The campaign to restore the traditional apple trees that once flourished in villages has coincided with a booming demand for scrumpy, viewed until recently as the drink of old drunks and hapless adolescents.

Steve Scriven, who helped launch the campaign for Somerset County Council, said: "It's so much part of our rural heritage. After the war we lost so many orchards, but we are beginning to see a return to what was - the change in the image of cider has boosted interest enormously." In their heyday, orchards could number up to 20 in one village, and farmers paid labourers in scrumpy, but by the end of the last century the clergy was anxious to outlaw payment by alcohol. The number of orchards in Somerset declined by 60 per cent after the war, replaced by the Orchard Avenues of property developers and less traditional crops backed by government subsidies.

But Mr Scriven estimates that 14,000 new trees have been planted on 420 orchards in the past decade. At the same time, the cider market has doubled and Britain is expected to produce more than 115,000 gallons this year and 120,000 gallons a year by 2000.

At Old Cleeve, in west Somerset, villagers are preparing for their first harvest in a decade. Their orchard, owned by the Crown Estate, was to be felled for house- building until earlier this year. But, Jeanne Webb, 51, persuaded the Prince of Wales to plant the first new tree in March. In September the parish will sign a lease for pounds 250 to grow apples for the local cider-producers.

Mrs Webb said: "People are waking up to the fact so many of our orchards have been lost, the ones that are left are treasures. We hope this one will pay its own way and always be there for future generations. We'll sell the apples to a local cider-maker and, when we get going, maybe market our own cider."

The largest cider-producers in Somerset have depended heavily on apple concentrate from abroad, but are now being encouraged by campaigners, including West Somerset District Council - which launched an orchard scheme last week - to use more local apples, such as the variety, Dunning Russet, which dates back centuries.

The Old Cleeve orchard will also revive another tradition. Gerald Stowell, a retired railway clerk, has been appointed chief wassailer and will lead the New Year appeal to the fertility gods for a good harvest. "Wassailing is a very important part of the tradition and it will bring the whole village together. It's important to keep these rituals going."

Among the cider-producers who may buy apples from the orchard is Jill Gillman, 51, whose orchard, Torre Far in Washford, has 12,000 trees. She is anticipating the best year yet since she and her husband started making scrumpy eight years ago. "We are planting our own trees but have nowhere near enough for the cider we need to make to satisfy demand."

For some, the harvest is already overflowing. Inch's Cider, which uses apples from Somerset and Devon, is recalling thousands of bottles of scrumpy which could explode due to the potency of their content. Phil Collins, a company spokesman, said. "There's no health risk, but consumers are being advised not to move the jars, but to wait for them to be taken away."