apple juice, Nature, Out and about, Uncategorized

Ashmead Kernel – the apple that took 280 years to be recognised

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Ashmead Kernels on the kichen table

“What an apple, what suavity of aroma. Its initial Madeira-like melPhilip Morton Shand, author and grandfather of Camilla Parker Bowles.lowness of flavour overlies a deeper honeyed nuttiness, crisply sweet not sugar sweet, but the succulence of a well devilled marrow bone. Surely no apple of greater distinction or more perfect balance can ever have been raised anywhere on earth.” Art critic and pomologist Philip Morton Shand (right), BBC Radio 1944.

“Outright winner was Ashmead’s Kernel, so good we almost eliminated it from the competition as it was not fair on the others.  This is an intensely aromatic apple, with a pleasing balance of sweetness and acidity.  Crisp and juicy.  It is a late season apple that stores very well.” Gloucester Apple Trust – tasting notes 2005.

“Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again…” Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie

This autumn ten of the 25 apple trees I planted six years ago have finally borne worthwhile fruit.  I had to look up my planting notes to work out which ones they were. Five of the trees were Ashmead Kernel. They were absolutely laden with very large almost khaki-coloured fruit. Some of the branches were bent down almost to the ground with the weight. Closer up you can see the colour is green underneath but overladen by the furry “russet” coat, which is a sort of light brown in colour.

I picked them all. Most have been pressed into apple juice – which is particularly flavoursome – and are now in the freezer in plastic bottles. But I still have a tray in the cellar because they are meant to keep into February. They are both acid and sweet at the same time, as the tasting quotes above show. The four pictured above I’ve just brought up from the cellar. The boys gobble them up very fast.

They are called Ashmead after the Gloucester worthy who first grew them in his garden in what is now Clarence Street, Gloucester in about 1700. Sadly the original tree was destroyed when a new road was built through the garden in the nineteenth century. The site of his garden is now taken up by this unlovely Primark outlet. primark-gloucester

Luckily, a local nurseryman name of Wheeler propagated the apple for sale in about 1766 and it became locally successful ie in West Gloucestershire. It is seen now as one of the finest products of Gloucestershire, so could quite likely have contributed to Laurie Lee’s drink of golden fire, quoted above from his novel Cider With Rosie.

Despite Morton Shand’s wartime fervour for its taste,  according to some info I found from a community orchard outside Bristol, it did not come to national notice until the 1960s when it showed well in blind testing conducted by East Malling Research Station. It finally gained acceptance when, in 1981, it was awarded a First Class Certificate by the Royal Horticultural Society – after nearly 300 years.

If you surf the web, rather pleasingly, there are quite a few American bloggers talking about how much they like it, but how difficult it is to grow, including one poor chap who only managed to find a couple of apples in a very special supermarket when they were past their best in December. He had to nibble the top and bottom bits (near the poles) to get the “acid drop” taste, which had seeped away during storage nearer the apple’s equator.

I knew none of this when I bought the saplings from a nursery six years ago. I chose the trees based on what was available (the nursery had run out of many  of its varieties and generally takes bookings a year ahead) that fruited late and kept well and were reasonably disease free. So I’m feeling quite smug about my choice.

A few of my Ashmead Kernel apples have got a  mild case of “bitter pit” which is thought to be brought about by lack of nutrients but with my apples it is not severe enough to affect the flavour.

The whole idea of planting late fruiting varieties was to have enough apples to keep in the cellar and last us through winter, so we’ll see how they last.

They are there in the musty gloom alongside about seven trays full of Claygate Pearmain, the other five of my planted trees that did really well this year.

Here are some of the Claygate Pearmains.

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The sun-kissed Claygate, fruit of a glorious Suffolk autumn

Like the Ashmeads, they are covered in russet but they have a rosier tint on the side where the sun reached them, this segues first into orange, then yellow and then green as you travel around the apple’s equator. But the whole skin is suffused with greeny freckles.

The flesh is softer in the Claygate and it does not have Ashmead’s sharpness, but they’re still nice.

Claygates also have a back story. They were discovered in a hedge in the village of Claygate, in Surrey by Claygate resident John Braddick in 1821.

The Claygate trees have this year been even more prolific than the Ashmead. But strangely, one of the five trees produced a mass of smaller apples and hardly any full sized ones. I tried to thin out the baby apples in mid summer but that tree may either have been more attractive to bees for some reason and so set more fruit or it may have been one that I missed.

Here are some tasting notes on Claygates from the Orange Pippin website

“After a month in cold storage, the tropical fruit flavour develops into one of the most deliciously complex apples I’ve ever tasted. I would rank this in my top five desert varieties. A shame it is not widely grown in USA.”

“A very superior apple. Flavour is incredibly complex if picked when ripe and stored for a week or two. There are definite pineapple notes on offer. So far, this is the best apple I have ever tasted.”

It’s such a joy and privilege to be keeping alive these historic discoveries. And they are discoveries. Each of the hundreds of English apple varieties represent a little fortutious accident of nature, not deliberate breeding. Apples can not be “bred” like many domestic plants and animals. The pips do not grow true – they do not grow up into the same variety of apple they came from. The blossom on the tree is fertilised by pollen from another variety. The tree produces a predictable apple variety, but no one can predict what genes the seed inside the apple contains.

Often people’s carefully planted and long-tended pip grows into a tree that does not even produce apples.  Johnny Appleseed, despite his name, and what I was told at school, did not go around America scattering pips. He planted nurseries, with the aim of selling trees, not orchards for selling apples.

So it is up to nature to produce new varieties. When an apple arrives that happens to be tasty to us humans, it is our role to discover it, whether it is in a hedge, like Claygate Pearmain, or in someone’s garden. And then we have to propagate that plant, from cuttings, not from pips.

As you saw, Ashmead’s Gloucester garden is now a store selling cut-price imported  clothing and it is unlikely that any of the commuters living in Claygate would have the time or inclination to scan their local hedgerows for new varieties of apples today.  So we can only keep on propagating the discoveries of our vigilant ancestors.

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Out and about, Uncategorized

Zen and the art of mower maintenance

I have a good relationship with my lawnmower repair man. I have never met him and  he has never once asked me to bring the mower to him or come out to repair it.

What he does is give me free moral support for my own efforts. He saves his time and I save my money.

To be frank I am not very good with combustion engines. Just as some people go to pieces at the mention of maths, I tend to lose the will to live when the mower packs up.

It is not a logical response. It is an emotional one. There is an overwhelming feeling of entering a strange land where parts covered in grease and compacted dried grass do unknowable things in complicated ways and have impenetrable names.

And then you look at the manual (only available online) and all it tells you is not to ride it on a slope.  In manual world, people’s mowers don’t pack up. Or if they do, they telephone the manufacturer who instantly whizzes out the right part – complete with a team of mechanics in spotless uniformed overalls – labelled “Mountfield” to install it. Or they give you a complete new mower.

In the real world, the mower is an expensive bit of kit, badly designed and assembled, that will pack up for a host of generally fairly simple reasons – but there is no one in the shop where you bought it, or at the manufacturer, to tell you how to fix it.

Also things happen to the mower that seem designed to sap your mental energy. For example – the latest mower fault was a broken belt. Now, warning, here comes the mechanical part – ride-on mowers have two belts – one that drives the wheels and the other that drives the blades. The one that broke for me was the blade belt.

I got on the phone to Simon, my official mower repair man, to ask his answer machine how easy is it to replace the blade belt. “Pretty easy,” was his voicemail reply. “If you look underneath you should be able to see how it fits on.”

Well, eventually, I did. With the help of my father – moral support again – and a great deal of logical thinking, we got the new belt on correctly. It did need more advice from Simon and the loosening of one pulley – but we did it.

Back to mowing the lawn – neglected now for so long that dandelion flowers had turned to dandelion clocks and the buttercups were growing into shrubs.  A couple of hours mowing and the ride-on suddenly refused to ride. The engine was going but the mower was not moving.  Heart in mouth I clambered off to lie flat on the grass and inspect the dark mass of pulleys and cogs underneath. Sure enough, the drive belt had now broken.

It is genuinely hard to believe that the mower isn’t doing this deliberately as some kind of emotional wind-up.

So what to do? Reader, I slept on it.

Long ago I read a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Much of it was guff, but one bit really stuck in my mind. That was the bit that said that if you are trying to repair something mechanical and it is getting you down then stop. Take a break, think about something else, have a cup of tea. Once the anger and frustration are no longer there, your mind is left free to actually think of a solution. But also to build up the moral courage to tackle the job.

So I left it a couple of days. I got onto Youtube, where generally there is an American farmer drawling into a smartphone held by his wife/daughter while he shows you how to replace a belt on his ride-on mower.  The mower restarts and they wife “yeehaars!” him as he drives off into the dust. But there wasn’t. No one on the internet it seems knows has to repair a Mountfield 1430 ride on.

And then I phoned the voicemail of Simon my repair man.  “Is this as easy to do as the blade belt?” I asked. Ominously my answer machine received no reply for a day. I slept on it again. And during the sleepless hours in early morning, my brain somehow resolved that I was being silly. That it would be relatively easy to do. They MUST have made the mower so that the drive belt can be replaced. It would just be a case of unscrewing what needed to be unscrewed to get at the pulleys around which the belt travelled and then loosening whatever pulley needed loosening to get the belt on.  And then putting it all back together again.

That’s what my early morning brain told me. And it was right. I stuck to it all of the next day. Unscrewing bits of metal and plastic in inaccessible places, all with different size bolts, all needing different spanners. Until I reached the nirvana of the six pulleys that held the drive belt.

I put the new belt back on. Screwed all the little gizmos back in to their places. Reconnected the battery….Except I couldn’t reconnect the battery because I had lost the tiny nut that holds the wire onto the negative pole. Next day a trip to the hardware store, back again, insert the nut, turn the ignition. Bingo! The engine started. Into gear, kazam! The mower moved forward. Connect the blades – Whump! The blades turned around.

I have fixed the mower. I reported back to Simon the repair man. “Well done,” he said. “You’ll have to come and help me with some jobs.” Now that’s an accolade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Local History, Out and about

Scaling Suffolk’s highest peak, by bike

There aren’t many people who know where Suffolk’s highest hill is. And I’m not surprised. I looked it up the other day on Wikipedia. It’s a spot in a middle of a wood on the Newmarket Ridge. The Newmarket Ridge?  That  is a line of chalk that runs from the Chilterns in Hertfordshire all the way to the edge of Sudbury. It’s 136 metres high, which is about the  height of a 40-storey tower block.  The sort of tower that in the City of London would barely raise a planning officer’s eyebrows.

I hatched a plan to cycle there and back. Google maps said it would take about 1hour 44 minutes.

Perfect day for it, or so I thought, with a sparkling blue sky, and a few puffy clouds. However, a short way into the ride I realised that I was heading northwest, which was exactly the direction the bitter wind was coming from. So I was scaling Suffolk highest mountain against a headwind.

Still most of the way there went swimmingly. I even found time to stop between Lavenham and Bridge Street to take some pictures of the pair of pill boxes still standing sentinel in a field, in case any stray Germans still thought the war was on.

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You can just see the other one in the distance. Why two so close together? I don’t know.  I hope no one cracks the mystery surrounding these concrete lumps in the fields. The internet if full of pillbox enthusiasts trying to explain their siting and use, but it was all done in quite a hurry and was jolly hush hush. So no proper records remain  of the thinking of the harried officers, who spent sleepless nights trying to predict how Hitler would try to conquer England.

These ones are part of the “Eastern Command Line” or “Stop Line” which acted as an inland tank barrier, so that if the Germans took the coast in the East – between Lowestoft and Aldeburgh was the thinking – they would not be able to progress westwards. It ran from Wivenhoe in Essex, to Colchester then via Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds up to Mildenhall and then on to the Wash. The Home Guard were were supposed to huddle into the pillboxes in order to defend the tank barriers. These pillboxes are just north of a disused railway line that ran between Lavenham airfield – a US bombing base in the war – and Sudbury so perhaps this part of the line was also trying to defend the rail track.

On to Bridge Street, a cluster of houses around the confluence of the endlessly droning A134 and the River Chad. There was something ancient about it. It would perhaps have been a major coaching stop on the way to Bury St Edmunds.  But obviously no longer. However, Terry and Lynette, I gather, do welcome you to their historic pet-friendly guest house. I fancied a quick stop here but the Rose and Crown looked firmly shut.  So I pressed on up the road to Shimpling which meanders in apparently random series of different directions up the hill.

Another stop in the sun half way up to take a picture of this bizarre newly built house, which seemed to have been designed to look like a chapel conversion. A flat roof had been provided, I noticed, to make it more difficult to protect from damp.

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From Shimpling the way took me to Hartest, which meant freewheeling down a steep ravine – quite an unusual experience in Suffolk – to the open triangular village green, surrounded by medieval houses.

There is something frustrating about Hartest. There was a deathly quiet in the air. Yet the village with its green surrounded by medieval shops tucked into a secret valley, ought to be bustling with activity and independent shops. But there is not even a village shop, to buy the essentials – scratch cards and fags.

There was a butchers, BS Clarke. I cycled past Mr Clarke’s shopfront on the way back and he was inside with what looked like huge cattle legs, chopping them up with a cleaver.

The Crown appeared to be open, but I didn’t fancy it. I still haven’t forgiven the place for giving us the cold shoulder when we turned up at 2pm with the family looking for lunch. “No we’ve finished serving,” they said.

Hartest, like so many other Suffolk villages, has been hollowed out by axing of buses and the rise of the motorised commuter.

On the way out, on the road that was beginning the ascent to Brockley, I took a snap of the only other apparent business still going.  This historic corrugated iron garage on the way out of the village. The owner came out and we had a chat about his pumps.

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“Everyone wants to buy them,” he said. “I had someone offer me £1000 for them.” They date, he reckons from the sixties because they were still in use in the 70s when he bought the garage. But there were different pumps in wartime photographs he’d seen of the place.

I suggested the popularity of the TV series Salvage Hunters was making such items desirable . “Drew Pritchard was at my daughter’s school this week!” he said. “Really, what was he doing there?” I asked.

“No idea.”

A steady climb to Brockley Green. By now I was starting to look for excuses to stop and rest. Brockley failed to offer any. You have to turn left once in the village alongside a quite pleasant green with an uncompromisingly ugly 1970s village hall on it and a carpark. There were seats here, but they had all been placed on the car park, not close to the road. I started to get annoyed by the lack of roadside seats. If you don’t provide anywhere to sit in a village, you don’t provide anywhere for people to talk to each other. I presume seats would get in the way of people wanting to park their cars, which would never do. Retired people are forced to the seclusion of their conservatories. There to read the Telegraph and learn to hate the modern world.

So swiftly through Brockley pausing only to observe a bare-leaved apple tree in someone’s garden that glittered with shiny red apples, exactly like Christmas tree baubles.

One last push, up to the village of Rede which is at the heady heights of 110m. It appears abruptly at the end of a long road as a cluster of dormer-inserted bungalows.

Checking the map, I noticed an old man staring at me from out of his conservatoried retirement.

Then on up the road – only 26m to climb – and eventually onto the extremely isolated concrete farm track that took me all the way to Suffolk’s highest point, marked with a radio communications tower.

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And here it is, Suffolk’s most boring place. The word “ridge” is a misnomer, this was  a plateau, and a pretty featureless one at that. Rusting old farm machinery  lay mouldering around the cracked up concrete. There was a barbed wire fence, giving away the presence of a reservoir owned by Anglia Water. And that was about it. Continue reading

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Local politics, National Politics, Out and about

Talk on Climate Change to East Bergholt School

Climate Change

Yesterday I gave a talk on climate change to year 10 geographers at East Bergholt High School.

Some at least took it in. Some probably didn’t but you can’t win them all.

Above is the Powerpoint presentation I used.

Before going, I picked up some useful tips from Sandy Irvine, a Green Party member from Newcastle who used to teach sixth formers.  We have compiled them into a written list for all members to use who want to give talks to schools. A great resource.

I did ask the pupils at the end if any of them thought climate change was not man made or was not a problem. No one put their hand up. I think young people are not really interested in engaging or arguing with the deniers and sceptics. They just want practical solutions. There’s quite a few of the deniers on Facebook and Twitter, including the UKIP candidate for South Suffolk, who, funnily  enough, lives in East Bergholt. I get the impression they are all (the deniers) desperate for a debate on it. So I shan’t give them one. The debate’s over, the rest of us are getting on with pressing for faster solutions.

Now – rail lines down motorways please!

Immediately after doing the talk, someone posted this great graphic from Bloomberg, explains why climate change is manmade in about 30 seconds. You’d need to be pretty narrow-minded to think  it was sunspots after this http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-whats-warming-the-world/

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Local politics, Nature, Out and about, Politics

Sudbury – bypass or traffic calming? Please do my survey

South SuffWater Meadows Sudbury Suffolk Englandolk’s Conservative parliamentary candidate has decided to make building a bypass across Sudbury’s water meadows the key plank in his campaign. But I want to find out what people really think. So please fill out my quick, 10 queston survey below. Thanks. – Robert

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/C5YQHMR

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Local History, Local politics, Out and about, Politics

White Horse, Hitcham – planning committee gives stay of grace

The planning committee yesterday (26 November) decided to defer a decision to give the community time to make a bid to buy it as a community asset. Babergh have 8 weeks to approve it as a community asset and then there is a six month moratorium on selling the pub to allow time for a community bid.

The committee said they wanted to wait the full 8 weeks plus six months.

I would have thought a refusal would have been much more straight forward and easier to defend at appeal – that seemed to be the advice from officers – and councillors Desmond Keane, Kathryn Grandon and Bryn Hurren were putting together some good planning reasons, with the advice of officers, for refusal.

Unfortunately their move to refuse was lost by 5 votes to 8.

Here is the East Anglian report http://www.eadt.co.uk/news/villagers_submit_last_ditch_bid_to_save_their_only_pub_the_white_horse_in_hitcham_1_3864075

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