Norfolk apples and orchards

PUBLISHED: 17:21 17 October 2016 | UPDATED: 17:22 17 October 2016

Heritage apples come in all shapes and sizes

Heritage apples come in all shapes and sizes

Martin Skipper

Part of our county’s food story for centuries, Norfolk’s apples, orchards and other fruit are being saved for future generations to enjoy, 
writes Clare Stimson

Boxes of beautiful applesBoxes of beautiful apples

Fruit trees bearing apples, pears, plums and cherries have been a part of the Norfolk landscape since at least the Norman Conquest. The county’s earliest record of fruit orchards appears in the foundation charter of Castle Acre Priory of about 1089, and the earliest mention of a named apple variety in England is recorded in a 13th century document from the Broadland parish of Runham, when a tenant farmer paid his annual rent with, “200 pearmains, and four hogsheads of wine, made of pearmains”.

By 1662, when Thomas Fuller described Norwich as, “either a city in an orchard, or an orchard in a city, so equal are houses and trees blended in it”, fruit growing was widespread, enjoyed by even the smallest households who, where space permitted, planted a few fruit trees for their domestic needs, while larger households enjoyed fruits from their own small orchards.

Large-scale commercial orchards arrived with the coming of the railways in the 19th century. These were concentrated in two areas of the county, in the west, centred on the town of Wisbech, and in the east, on the Broadland rivers of the Waveney, Bure and Ant. Gaymers Cider Works in Banham and later Attleborough, was also a large consumer of Norfolk apples. However, by the late 20th century the UK fruit-growing industry was in decline due to cheaper imports and a lack of government support. By 2006 Norfolk’s orchard acreage had been reduced to around 14pc of its 1950 level. As the older orchards disappeared, so did the range of local varieties and the wildlife associated with traditionally-managed orchards.

Around the orchards at ThornhamAround the orchards at Thornham

Bearing fruit

In 1994 a group of enthusiasts set up the Norfolk Orchards Project to raise awareness of the county’s fruit heritage, taking part in Apple Days each autumn and undertaking research into lost varieties. By 2003 this group had developed into a charity - the East of England Apples and Orchards Project - still based in Norfolk but working across seven counties in the east of England. Still run largely by volunteers, it has been surveying and saving orchards, re-discovering lost varieties, encouraging the planting of new orchards and making sure the skills to manage them are passed on. In 2012 the group established the East of England Fruit Collection at its headquarters near Fakenham. This contains more than 270 varieties of apple, pear, plum and cherry whose origins lie in the region, ensuring their safety for the future. The charity sells all these varieties, ensuring everyone can share in this unique heritage, with half of its sales each year going to schools and community groups. Tree sales also fund much of the charity’s work.

Nearly 50 of these varieties (37 apples, two pears and 10 cherries) originate in Norfolk, offering an astonishing range of flavours and uses. The oldest variety is the apple Five-Crowned Pippin, which was first mentioned by name in the 1500s, while the most recent are the 10 cherries developed by the Colney-based John Innes Centre in the 1980s. One of the best known local apples is the Norfolk Beefing, first recorded in 1698. This long-keeping, tough-skinned apple was used to make Biffins, a popular Victorian dessert created by slowly baking the apples until they caramelised.

Flavours range from the aromatic nuttiness of the russets, such as Pine Apple Russet and Norfolk Royal Russet, to the sharpness of Emneth Early. As for uses, there’s everything from apples to eat straight from the tree to long-keeping eaters whose flavours develop in storage, as well as a whole range of cooking apples with differing firmness and acidity. With careful planting and simple storage, it’s possible to eat Norfolk apples from August until April.

The names of the fruits tell their own stories too, with several being named after the person who bred or discovered them, like Lynn’s Pippin, Jordan’s Weeping, and Herbert Eastoe. Others were named after their place of origin, such as St Magdalen, New Costessey Seedling, Sandringham and Hanworth Codlin. The resurgence of interest in these local varieties is helping to secure their future. w

Apples and Orchards

Apple discovery

If you have an unknown apple on an old tree, why not take some fruit samples to be identified at an Apple Day?

Sunday, October 23, 10.30am-4.30pm

Oxburgh Hall, near Swaffham

Take a bite

You can also buy Norfolk-grown fruit at several pick-your-own and farm shops, including:

Ashill Fruit Farm, near Swaffham

Burlingham Farm Shop, North Burlingham, near Acle

Drove Orchards, Thornham

Hillfield Nursery, Haddiscoe, near Great Yarmouth

Plumbe and Maufe, Burnham Thorpe

Visitor Centre, Sandringham Estate

Taste for history

There are heritage orchards to visit across the county:

Carbrooke Millennium Green Orchard

Coltishall Community Orchard

Green Britain Centre, Swaffham

Gressenhall Rural Life Museum

Hunstanton Community Orchard

North Burlingham Woodland Walks

There are also collections at the National Trust properties at Felbrigg, Blickling and Oxburgh Halls

To find out more about the project and its work, to buy trees or book a place on a workshop, see the website or phone 01328 838403

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