Let Me Tell You A Story
The county of Gloucestershire could be sub-divided into three distinct areas. There are the world famous Cotswold Hills whose coombes and valleys offer sanctuary for apples and pears, the higher land being suitable for cereals and sheep grazing.
To the west of this area lies the Severn Valley, bounded by the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and the Malvern Hills. This area is comparatively rich in orchards today but was once home to thousands of acres of fruit trees, fragments of which survive and provide me with my raw materials.
In the south west of Gloucestershire lies the Royal Forest of Dean, home of the Foxwhelp apple and the Blakeney Red perry pear. Freeminers excavated coal from the shallow deposits under an ancient Royal charter and this area provided many of the press beds and runner and chase mills, hewn from local quarries of sedimentary stone. These stones made it possible to mass produce pressing equipment and many are found many miles distant from their point of origin.
Across the Severn, to the east, lies the village of Slimbridge where the Workman factory revolutionized the rate of juice extracted with a wide range of very efficient mechanical mills and presses, many of which survive in service to this day. I know of one which is still operated in Southern Ireland.
I was born on a small-holding, in the parish of Ashchurch, near Tewkesbury and as long as I remember, there was always a barrel of cider and perry in the stable, for home consumption and for any visitors who wished to partake. Cider was commonplace but perry has always been revered and kept for special occasions.
Although my father made his own cider and perry I took no real interest and as a child, considered picking up fruit in the autumn, a bit of a chore but the smell of perry pears, in hessian sacks, never really left my nostrils and even today that autumnal scent floods me with memories of the pear orchards whose immense trunks and canopies brought about an almost religious awe, similar to the feeling one gets when amongst the columns of our churches, abbeys and cathedrals.
Perry pear orchards predominated over our apple orchards, although some were mixed; but this wonderful scene changed in the early sixties when many orchards were felled and the roots grubbed out. Consequently perry became rarer and even more revered.
Factory cider became the norm as many farms lost their laborers and fruit was sold to merchants who delivered it to large-scale makers. It was around this time, having progressed from sharing the gallon of cider at the Friday night youth club disco, that I started to travel further afield and became aware of cider houses dotted around Bredon hill. Cider had always been cheaper than beer and as a poor apprentice it was my first choice. Each of these cider houses had its own unique brew and it was possible to visit the Yew Tree in Conderton, for Lanchbury's, Elmley Castle, and the Monkey House for a final half or even a pint before winding one's way home, very merry but with change in one's pocket.
These cider houses were like magnets to the faithful and attracted many characters. I remember Harry Banbury telling me to “watch out because cider drinking will kill you - it killed my father - it took 85 years though!”
Barry and Tilley heading up the hill in the black of night when the cry went up “Barry - I've lost my shoe! … Never mind, we'll find it tomorrow”. A few minutes later “Barry - I've dropped the cider … Standfast !”
Then there was the “Junkers Club” in Gloucester, where any member caught drinking anything other than cider was “tried” by his contemporaries, who wore judges wigs whilst passing sentence.
A friend of mine once cycled from Stourbridge to Elmley, only to find it shut when he got there and no amount of begging and pleading would induce the landlady to bend the rules! He now lives in Ireland but still brings a brace of demi-johns to a little village hall in Putley, Herefordshire, for the annual cider competition; making it not only an international event, as far as I'm concerned, but proves beyond any doubt the devotion of the true cider drinker!
I shall always be grateful to another character, Dave “the cheese” (so called because he always drank his cider with a lump of cheese), a government farm inspector, who informed me of a new cider-making course being held at Hindlip Agricultural College, run in the evenings by a trained microbiologist. I duly attended and learnt all about the use of chemicals and phenolics, but I was most influenced by the emphasis on hygiene.
The next season I proceeded to implement my new-found knowledge by pain-stakingly examining each individual piece of fruit and although it took much longer, the resulting cider and perry was much improved.
It was also around this time that some like-minded drinking companions informed me of a cider competition in a little village hall, yes - you've guessed it, the afore-mentioned Putley, where you could taste all the entries, for a pound; which in those days amounted to quite a few! So, although my intentions were not entirely honorable at this stage, when I got there I found to my complete amazement a veritable cornucopia of colours, smells and tastes and I became aware that I could even distinguish the different acids, tannins and faults.
I feel I ought to say, at this point, that these competitions brought together many different cider and perry makers and this resulted in the formation of the Three Counties Cider and Perry Makers Association.
The following year having carefully sourced only dedicated varieties of cider fruit, I entered the result into the competition and to my utter astonishment I won and proudly carried the crown back to Gloucestershire. As my winning entry was one hundred per cent pure juice with no chemicals or artificial additives of any kind, this confirmed, to me, that my method of production was the way to go and it set the standards for my cider and perry which I still apply to this day.
I began making as many single variety ciders and perries as I could find and as demand for my products grew I was encouraged to go into commercial production and progressed from draught, to plastic bottles, then into corked wine bottles. In the near future I intend to have a limited range of bottle fermented perries.
When I first started searching for vintage quality fruit, the youngest pear trees were about twenty-five years old. Now I see new trees being inter-planted in old orchards and even more encouraging, new orchards of apple and perry pears springing up again.
I, for one, am most heartened with what appears to be a rekindled interest because cider and especially perry are entrenched in this country's lore and I am extremely proud to carry on with this ancient art, into the New Millennium. Wassail!