Country diary: a fruitful stroll through the cherry orchard

Birchenhayes, Burcombes and Bullions – the best of a succession of black dessert cherries once grown widely in the valley – have been picked over the past month. Tall leafy trees are laden, from twigs close to lichen-covered stocks (trunks) outwards to drooping branches, where fruit can be gathered from ground level. Birds have still to pitch in and gorge on this abundance, with plenty left high up, beyond the reach of family and friends who have been invited to pick their own delicious fruit for daily feasts, freezers, jam, juice and puree.

At the peak of local cherry production, more than a century ago, news of crops featured in regional newspapers, with accounts of “plagues of starlings” flocking from roosts in reedbeds opposite Halton Quay to strip and spoil bountiful crops. There were reports of cherry fruit fly and associated banning of imports from France, Italy and Germany. At Calstock’s horticultural exhibition, one of the prizewinners in the “gentlemen’s class for cherries” was C Langsford, an ancestor, who was a miller at Cotehele.

James and Mary's orchard

During evening, in the quietness of this orchard, where the earliest apples will soon be ripening, I pick pounds more fruit to stow away for winter. Beyond the shady canopy, meadow brown and gatekeeper butterflies flit through tall sunlit grasses; in the upper branches of a Rumbullion cherry is secured the barn owl box, occupied by tawnies and their owlets, secreted among leaves and shiny fruit. Earlier today, James and Mary (my brother-in-law and sister who began establishing this orchard of local varieties some 35 years ago) selected and spread out quality cherries for the local food hub, which will distribute to schoolchildren and sell some to housebound customers.

For the future, there is concern about how picking from the maturing trees could be better organised. Friends who are commercial growers in south Wales report excellent yields from their netted heritage varieties, which now include some Tamar varieties successfully grafted on to dwarfing stock, and relatively easy to pick. Meanwhile James’s persistent observations help refine his research into this most tempting of fruits. Soon he will complete his book, which he hopes will inspire others to plant.

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