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Fruit of their labours

PUBLISHED: 09:00 25 November 2014

Trees are grafted to allow space below for the ponies to trim the grass

Trees are grafted to allow space below for the ponies to trim the grass

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An ancient orchard in Mid Devon is still a place to bring the story of the apple up to date, as our Gardening Writer GILL HEAVENS discovers

A bag of apples ready for taking to the barn to make ciderA bag of apples ready for taking to the barn to make cider

Perhaps I have seen too many episodes of Sherlock Holmes, but I surely cannot be blamed for feeling a little nervous when my latest assignment took me to the village of Black Dog, ten miles west of Tiverton in Mid Devon? As I passed through the village the road turned to a rutted track, storm clouds gathered and my apprehension did not diminish.

This twisting lane came to an abrupt end and I had no choice but to continue through the ominous gates and to whatever fate lay beyond…! Which, luckily, was a very fine fate indeed. I was warmly greeted and welcomed to Lewdon Farm by the charming owner, Jane Schofield, who shared with me the wonders of her marvellous orchard which boast almost 100 heritage apple trees.

Jane and her husband Hugh Meller, moved here 22 years ago, arriving in August when the orchard was burgeoning, and were instantly smitten by this sloping L-shaped field laden with enigmatic fruit. Identifying apples is a tricky business, seedlings were often named after friends and trees get mislabelled or renamed. So Jane and Hugh were lucky to meet the previous occupant of the farm, Joan Troake - 90 years old and still going strong. It was her father who had planted most of the original orchard. This lady could not only name each apple but also their uses, the best ones for storage, how they react to cooking and which are best for juice or eating. The passing on of this invaluable knowledge fired their enthusiasm further still.

‘Lewdon’ means “sheltered sunny place” and although it is protected from the worst of the wind, it is extremely vulnerable to frosts. To avoid the pitfalls of these crop-obliterating frosts none of their trees come into flower early. Whilst some of the original trees remain, including a magnificent Newton Wonder, Jane has planted many more. These are mainly grafted trees, a skill that Jane acquired on a course organised by Orchards Live, an organisation which supports growers in North Devon.

Plum-shaped Pendragon has a striking red interiorPlum-shaped Pendragon has a striking red interior

Although she professes to already have enough specimens, there were whispers of “a good seedling on the road to Crediton” so a new grafting trip had been planned. Jane grafts all her trees onto a vigorous rootstock and they will grow to 2m before branching out. This means the orchard can be grazed easily by the company ‘lawnmowers’, in the guise of two miniature ponies, Kipper (who is the grand old age of 35) and Buttons, both rescue ponies.

Much of the Lewdon Farm crop is used for making juice or cider so, unlike harvesting eating apples, the fruit is allowed to fall to the ground before gathering. The grass is left to grow longer before harvest in order to provide a cushion for the falling fruit. The craft of cider making is complex, combining different apples to achieve the correct balance of sweet, sharp and bitter (tannin). It is not an exact science, more alchemy, and they adjust to taste as they work to perfect the blend. In the name of professional research I was obliged to taste a little and I can confirm it was delicious! n

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