Helping hand keeps Lakeland orchards blossoming: Countryside Commission has offered funds to ensure survival of damson trees. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
THE DAMSON trees blossoming in the Lyth Valley between Kendal and Windermere are battered and blown after years of service and now there are few customers for their fruit. But just when it seemed likely that these orchards would disappear, they have found a new friend.

The Countryside Commission is sponsoring the orchards because they are such a striking feature of the landscape. So now they will be restocked, and the wild daffodils, which are a feature of Lakeland woods, will continue to thrive beneath the trees, which blossom at about this time every year.

Desmond Holmes, whose family has farmed in the valley since at least 1750, said: 'Years ago the jam lorries would come up from Manchester for the damsons and that would pay the rent for the year, but those days have gone.'

An orchard stretches up the hill behind his farmhouse at Whitebeck on the lower slopes of Whitbarrow Scar, near Kendal. The land was reclaimed from peat bog in the 18th and 19th centuries and now Mr Holmes grazes sheep on it. The fruit trees flourish so far north because, at only 20ft above sea level, the climate is milder here than in the surrounding hills.

The damsons, a special variety known as the Westmoreland prune, are small and oval, easily distinguished from the more familiar Worcester damson grown in the south of England.

Mr Holmes also has some strange varieties of apples and pears. There are 'Scots Bridget' apples suitable for cooking or eating and 'Baron Worsley' eating apples peculiar to the area.

'We have a cooker that my mother calls 'wheaten loaves' and there is only one of those left standing. We also have 'hazel' pears and the 'bishop's thumb' pear, a long thin variety suitable for cooking. But we don't know if these are real names or if they were just made up by the family,' Mr Holmes said.

The damson trees are 50 or more years old but the pear and apple trees are probably over 100. The trees are too large for the fruit to be picked so it is left to drop to the ground where most of it is eaten by the sheep.

The Countryside Commission is paying Mr Holmes and six other farmers in the area to prune and replant their orchards plus pounds 250 per hectare a year for managing them. It hopes that the farmers will be able to sell at least some of the fruit to local retailers and on roadside stalls.

As part of the project the rare apples and pears will be identified by the Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Faversham, Kent. Some may be hardy northern varieties not previously recorded.

A local publican, Nigel Stevenson, has found a new use for the damsons as a flavouring for beer. He has a small damson orchard behind his public house, the Masons' Arms at Cartmel Fell, near Windermere, and - inspired by a Belgian cherry-flavoured beer - adds mashed fruit to his home-brew.

It makes an attractive red coloured beer with a tart fruity flavour, which he says sells well as an aperitif.

'The women like it but some of the men aren't so sure. They worry that it might affect their macho image,' Mr Stevenson said.

(Photograph omitted)