Pip pip! A salute to the English apple

From the 'Sharleston Pippin' to the 'Burr Knot', Anna Pavord salutes the varied world of the English apple and looks forward to Apple Day
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I first met the Yorkshireman Billy Tear at the Royal Horticultural Society's spring flower show in London. He'd come down on the bus from Wakefield, his flowers wrapped in sheaves of newspaper, to show us southerners what a tulip should look like. He staged his blooms, had a cup of coffee from his Thermos and without waiting for the judging to start, walked straight back to Victoria station to catch the bus back home. One glance at the competition was enough to confirm that he would sweep up any prizes going. Which he did.

Over the following years, he sent me some wonderful tulips: 'Blue Flag' from 1750, 'Habit de Noces' from 1785, the old English florist's tulip 'Bessie' raised in Wakefield in 1847. Then one day, he sent a message about an apple. He'd taken graftwood from an ancient tree that had blown down in a storm, a 'Sharleston Pippin' he said, the last survivor, as far as he knew, of this old Yorkshire variety, named after a village near Wakefield. Would I take on one of the grafted youngsters and look after it?

The tree grew wonderfully well in our old garden. Mr Tear had put the 'Sharleston Pippin' on proper stock, "not that dwarfing rubbish" as his note said – he was always strong in his opinions. The fruit had the warm look characteristic of pippins and was soft and juicy to eat, not a keeper, but a lovely apple to reach for in September and October. By the time we left that garden, Mr Tear had died and his tree was the thing that concerned me most. It was May, not the right time to take graftwood, so I asked the new owner whether I might go back in November and collect what I needed. That month, a long bundle of cuttings went off to Kevin Croucher at Thornhayes Nursery in Devon and a couple of years later, he sent back five sturdy young trees. Two are with us in the new garden, three were dispatched to friends. I can begin to hope that Mr Tear's tree will not disappear from sight.

Most apples have stories, like the 'Sharleston' and the 'Ribston Pippin', a really good late dessert apple first found at Ribston Hall near Knaresborough in Yorkshire. That tree was thought to have been raised from seed brought from Rouen by Sir Henry Goodricke around 1707, and although it blew down in 1810, it continued to fruit for another 20 years or so. A young tree sprouting from the bottom of the trunk grew vigorously until it too was blown down in the 1920s. By then, though, the 'Ribston Pippin' was safe. "There is no apple in the country which is more generally cultivated" wrote the fruit fanatic, William Hogg, in 1875. It deserved to be. It produces a firm, crisp, wonderfully rich and aromatic fruit with about four times as much vitamin C as other apples. It's a good-looking apple too, with the same warm red and yellow skin as the 'Sharleston Pippin'.

I was hoping to find out more about Mr Tear's apple in The Northern Pomona (Pomona Publications £50), a superb book about apples for cool climates that came out at the end of last year. Unfortunately, though there were plenty of other pippins in the book, his wasn't listed. But with 90 varieties described, northern gardeners aren't short of possibilities. And the book, published the old-fashioned way by patronage and subscriptions, is rich in the stories that the apples carry with them.

I'd never before heard of the ancient cooker called 'Burr Knot' (still sold by the Crown Nursery, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 01394 460755), so called because the tree produces a particular kind of burr at the bottom of each shoot. Gardeners soon found that these burred twigs buried in the ground quickly produced roots. Consequently, it got pushed into hedgerows all over the country, free food for those who needed it, and not fussy about aspect or climate. Lin Hawthorne, who wrote the excellent descriptions in The Northern Pomona, says it grows 900 feet up in the soggy Cumbrian fells. It was a favourite in South Wales too.

While some apples, like the 'Ribston Pippin', became universal favourites, others were always more local, varieties honed over centuries to cope with particular soils or a particular climate. And this particularity, this local distinctiveness, was what the charity Common Ground wanted to celebrate in their first ever Apple Day, held on 21 October 1990 in the old apple market in London's Covent Garden. It was a wild success. In a marquee on the Piazza, Common Ground showed the evocative photographs of old orchards in Devon they had commissioned from James Ravilious. Alongside was a display of more than 100 varieties of apple, an astonishing sight to city dwellers brought up on supermarket 'Golden Delicious'.

By the following year, the idea of Apple Day had spread all over the country, which is what Common Ground had hoped. Now every county in England has Apple Day events posted on the Common Ground website (commonground.org.uk/ appleday) and community orchards have sprung up in the most unlikely places. Will they still be there in 100 years' time?

That depends on how carefully the trees have been chosen. Ideally, some should be local varieties: the dual purpose 'Charles Ross' in Berkshire, 'Langley Pippin' in Buckinghamshire, 'Chelmsford Wonder' in Essex, 'Gloucester Underleaf' in Gloucestershire, and in Norfolk 'Sandringham', raised in 1883 by Charles Penny, the head gardener on the royal estate (for a full list see the gazetteer of local varieties in The Apple Source Book written by Sue Clifford and Angela King, the founders of Common Ground). But the most important factor in the survival of apple trees will be the rootstock they are grafted on. Few apples grow, like 'Burr Knot' on their own roots. Most are piggy-backed on different rootstocks, which control the way they develop. Trees in the old orchards so poignantly photographed by James Ravilious would have been grafted on to vigorous stocks, which gave them a life of more than 100 years. But they grew big and needed to be planted at least 30 feet apart.

In recent years there has been a shift towards dwarfing rootstocks (the most dwarfing are M9 and M27 – the M stands for Malling, the Kent research station where work on rootstocks started early in the 20th century). As well as restricting the size of a tree, these bring it into production earlier, both of which may seem to be an advantage. The disadvantage is that trees on these rootstocks need to be cosseted, planted in good soil, fed and watered, while trees on M25 rootstocks need very little attention and grow well in grass which the dwarfing rootstocks don't like. For an orchard that's going to have a long life, you need to think big.

You can order 'The Northern Pomona' from northernpomona.co.uk. Kevin Croucher sells 98 different kinds of apple at his Thornhayes Nursery, St Andrews Wood, Dulford, Cullompton, Devon EX15 2DF, tel: 01884 266746, e-mail: trees@thornhayes-nursery.co.uk, visit thornhayes-nursery.co.uk