Sunday, 6 September 2009
Man-Made Eden: Excerpt
At the western edge of Kingsbury Episcopi, overlooking the surrounding Somerset Levels, Burrow Hill stands like a Neolithic monument – a miniature Solsbury topped by a single sycamore. You can see it from miles away, across the flat land of central Somerset, and from its summit the view is a delight. Around the base of the hill curve rows of standard apple trees, and the landscape beyond them resembles an image from a seventeenth century book on orcharding. It’s an ordered landscape of geometric shapes, with rows of trees in different shades of green, and almost uniquely in the West Country, this landscape hasn’t changed much in a hundred years.
Around Burrow Hill orchards proliferate, great and small, young and old, but mostly of standard trees, and just below the summit of the hill, across the lane, is the main reason. This is Pass Vale Farm, formerly owned by Mr Charles Duck, whose cider was well known, but for perhaps forty years now the domain of Julian Temperley and, since 1992, the home of Somerset Royal Cider Brandy.
This is a business that knows its public. The entrance is pure rustic, with an antique wooden door inviting visitors into the cider house and an ancient mobile still standing like a sentinel under a walnut tree in the yard. Beyond it, the land falls away, with row after row of apple trees covering the hillside, and when I visited in October each tree was laden with yellow or red fruit, as they have no doubt been for many many years.
I had just read Cider – The Forgotten Miracle, which is based on James Crowden’s twelve or so seasons making cider at Burrow Hill, and I walked around with a ghostly sense of déjà vu. Things had changed, however, particularly in the matter of pressing the apples, a process Crowden describes with his characteristic admiration for toil and community. In his day the apples were still pressed in the old way, with the apple pulp wrapped and layered as it still is at Wilkins, but more recently a little of the silvery steel of the Thatcher’s factory has infiltrated the rural idyll, in the form of a new automated press.
I was mulling over the possible significance of this shiny piece of kit – heir, some might say, to the machines of Hardy’s day – when Mr Temperley himself appeared, the imposing, rumpled figure familiar from press photos going back thirty years. Once he’d established that I wasn’t a complete idiot, or in any way connected with certain government-sponsored schemes to boost the rural economy, he launched into an extraordinary monologue that lasted, with interruptions, for the rest of the morning, wandering with the freedom of an earlier century from the derivation of ‘chesil’ to the position of gypsies in modern Somerset, with a ready-made quotation every so often.
First, he led me into a wooden building and up the stairs to a meeting room with a view over the orchards, and pointed out varieties one after another at high speed: Brown Snout; Chisel Jersey; Kingston Black; Yarlington Mill. Burrow Hill cider contains a blend of forty varieties, all grown locally to give a flavour it is impossible to replicate anywhere else.
As he put it, “A variety is married to the land.”
Picture of Julian Temperley by Stephen Morris.