Gardening volunteer, Roger Brown, takes a look at Bayleaf farmstead orchard and the Museum’s heritage fruit trees.
‘A is for Apple,’ ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ and ‘apple of mine eye’ are just some of the sayings and myths that surround this ubiquitous fruit.
Apples have accompanied mankind since prehistoric times. The first evidence of their cultivation dates from around 1000BC, and the practice of grafting apples to maintain particular varieties was practiced by the Greeks around 500BC.
There are over 7,500 recorded varieties of apples worldwide, with over 2,000 here in the UK. Kent has traditionally been the centre of UK apple growing, but a good number of varieties were first developed in Sussex and Surrey.
Here at the Museum many of our historic gardens, as well as featuring vegetables and herbs, grow fruit trees. Our ancestors would have valued them highly for many reasons, primarily for their fruit, much of which could be stored for use during the winter, but they also gave valuable shade in the garden.
The winter prunings provided firewood and larger pieces of wood could be made into tool handles and mallet heads.
Bayleaf farmstead orchard
We have over 40 fruit trees growing on the Museum site, but the most organised collection is the orchard behind the garden at Bayleaf farmhouse, the Museum’s early 15th century Wealden hall house. This was laid out in the late 1980s and consists of 16 apple trees and two medlar trees.
There are also two impressively large Warden pear trees growing in Bayleaf garden itself. The orchard can best be seen behind Bayleaf on the path towards Pendean farmhouse, where it is also home to the Museum’s embden geese.
Over the last five years we have undertaken a programme of restorative pruning of all the fruit trees in the gardens. This programme confirmed what we suspected, that several of the trees in the Bayleaf orchard were not thriving, probably because of the thin chalky soil.
As part of the renovation, some of these are being removed and appropriate replacement trees planted. Varieties chosen include Golden Reinette and Broad-eyed Pippin, both dating from the 1600s.
These are on strong rootstocks that should tolerate the conditions better than those they replace. However, many of the original trees are doing well and are now over 30 years old and are in their early middle age. Two of the most interesting varieties are Court Pendu Plat and Isaac Newton.
Court Pendu Plat is thought to be a Roman apple that was spread throughout their Empire, acquiring this name in France in 1613. It is also called the ‘Wise Apple’ because it flowers very late and often avoids late frosts. It was popular in Victorian times and has attractive blossom.
The taste is rich and fruity, and it can be stored until April. Isaac Newton was first listed in 1629. It is identical to the variety growing in Isaac Newton’s family home at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire. The original tree fell in 1820, but it re-grew and is still there today at over 350 years old!
Our tree is a magnificent classically shaped apple tree which gives a good crop of cooking apples, which are also good for making into juice.
Tindalls cottage fruit trees
In winter 2015/6 we planted six fruit trees in the garden of the newly reconstructed Tindalls cottage.
Varieties were chosen that were available in the mid-18th century to be contemporary with the house. We also wanted to plant Sussex varieties as far as possible. The varieties chosen are Mannington’s Pearmain (Uckfield, 1770), and two trees of Wadhurst Pippin (1800). Wadhurst is a village next to Ticehurst where Tindalls cottage was originally sited.
The other apple tree is an old English cooking apple called Catshead, so called because the fruit resembles a cat’s head. We also planted a Black Worcester pear. There are two similar ‘Warden’ pears growing at Bayleaf.
Warden is the generic name given to this group of cooking pears. They are not eaten straight from the tree, as they are hard and gritty, but are picked and stored for use in the kitchen throughout the winter. They are delicious poached in wine and honey.
The last tree to be planted was a damson, Shropshire Prune. This was introduced in 1670, so would have probably been a known variety by the time the Tindall family were living in the house.
All the trees are growing well and should soon start to crop regularly.