Duff Hart-Davis Time to harvest 'the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun', as Yeats would have it

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One of my clearest boyhood memories is of a man called Alan falling out of a big old Blenheim Orange tree when picking apples. To this day I can hear the terrible thump as he hit the ground, and the shocked hush that prevailed while he was carried off on a hurdle.

In spite of that disturbing recollection, I love harvesting apples, especially from trees that are tall enough for me to indulge atavistic instincts and swing about the branches. Standing on a ladder is one thing, launching off into the canopy quite another.

Up there, safety depends on reading the strength of individual branches, and I cover myself by choosing positions that have natural back-ups: if branch A breaks, for example, branch B will act as a second line of defence, and I can also grab branch C to take some of the weight.

In a high tree, the secret is to have an earth-bound accomplice: if he or she possesses a safe pair of hands, individual apples can be dropped, one by one. Alternatively, a bag can be lowered and raised on a rope, so that the picker does not have to keep climbing down and up.

Last weekend I hoped I might achieve the ultimate picking experience by going aloft during the eclipse of the sun, and, by careful positioning of my head, create an eclipse of my own, blotting out both sun and moon simultaneously behind one cracking Bramley. Yeats's "the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun" might suddenly acquire magical reality.

Alas for such fancies! Not only was the sky overcast, and the sun invisible; many of the biggest apples turned out to be blemished, so that they will not keep.

Nevertheless, I picked a barrowful from the tree, and, back on the ground, addressed myself to the problems of storage. I used once to wrap cookers individually in newspaper, but experience has proved this laborious process to be a waste of time. Our apples keep perfectly well unwrapped, in a stone-built shed, provided they are set out on the shelves so that none touches its neighbour.

The Roman polymath Pliny the Elder recognised this essential truth in his Natural History, written in the 1st century AD, when he laid down that fruit should be stored "far apart so that the spaces between the rows may admit a uniform draught".

Pliny also recommended that apples should be gathered "after the autumn equinox, and not before the 16th day of the moon nor later than the 28th, nor on a rainy day, nor till an hour after sunrise".

I cannot claim that these quotations spring from regular readings of Pliny. Rather, they come from Ripest Apples, an engaging little anthology of poetry and prose collected by the Gloucestershire antiquarian Roy Palmer and published to celebrate Apple Day, on Monday, 21 October.

Living as he does in strong cider country, Mr Palmer includes many pieces about that heady brew, not least a ditty about Cider Annie, who was well known around Ledbury in the Fifties:

Old Cider Annie she has


To orchards in the sky

No longer need she trudge

the road

For life has passed her by...

No more lying in the ditch

And no more in the barn;

She's resting in an orchard now

And nothing can her harm.

An early report from Worcestershire has workmen drinking 16 pints of cider a day, but "a lot if we can get it". A 19th-century document records how, on the eve of the Epiphany, Devon farmers would go out into the orchards at night with their families and labourers and, "amidst loud cheers and discharges of firearms", pour libations of cider at the foot of the trees, to ensure next season's harvest.

"Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples", runs the Song of Solomon; and this anthology contains much good cheer. Yet not all is jollity. Thomas Cogan, writing in 1584, warned that new apples, eaten before they are fully ripe, "hurt the sinewes" and "breede wind in the second digestion".

Four centuries on, a bitter taste derives from a government statistic which shows that the area of orchards in the United Kingdom fell by more than 50 per cent between 1970 and 1994; and a poem by Edward Garfitt, published in 1987, echoes the same sad story:

Five apple trees

Are all the stranger sees

In what the village calls

The Orchard Field.

Others, as they pass,

See only trees and grass

Where to our village eyes

A ravished orchard lies.

'Ripest Apples' is published by The Big Apple Association, Woodcroft, Putley, Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 2RD, price pounds 5.95.