Apple Lovers

Posted on: 28 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Michael Wale visits a Herefordshire orchard brought back to life by the public.

Norman Stanier is back looking out over the family orchard where he was brought up near Ledbury in Herefordshire.

It was a life changing decision that brought Norman, his wife Ann, and their two sons back to the countryside in 1990 from a lifetime working in first London and then Birmingham as Outdoor Activity instructors.

At first they helped Norman's father and mother run the 22 acre Dragon Orchard. Then his father died and they had to take over the running of the orchard. Norman's mother helped prune the trees from a ladder until she reached the age of 80! It wasn't a particularly good time for the English apple market, because the supermarkets were scouring the world looking for cheap product.

They added 15 acres of cider apples, which they now grow under contract as the fortunes of the cider industry have revived led by the marketing of Ireland's Magner brand. This, ironically, revitalised Hereford's major cider producing company Bulmers, which had gone belly up for a period when it ventured rather stupidly into the youth alcopop market and had to be sold. Another irony is that Magners make their cider from apples grown mainly in Herefordshire.

Things at first did not go so well for the Stanier family. As Ann told me, "People used to come and look at the orchard and say how beautiful it all was, and how wonderful the apples were. It was nice to hear but it didn't earn us any money."

So they thought up a revolutionary new idea which they called Cropshare. It was launched at the Ludlow Food Festival in 2001. For an annual subscription of £300 you get the right to visit the orchard at least once a season, and participate in a series of Open Weekends based at the orchard so you can experience the starkness of the orchard in winter, the blossom in the spring, the growing fruit in the summer leading to the harvesting in the autumn.

There is a chance to tuck into one of Ann's delicious home cooked meals in their house, as well as organised local walks, a chance to stay in local bed and breakfasts and visit local apple events. There are newsletters, but the real pay off is the right to take an annual two boxes weighing 30lbs of mixed eating apples and the same amount of cooking apples, plus a dozen bottles of single variety apple juice and a dozen bottles of table cider made from Dragon Orchard apples, as well as home made apple chutney, pears, jams and jellies.

The new bonus is that Norman and Ann have just made their own Dragon Orchard cider, and that will be ready to drink very soon.

Norman explains, "We've gone up to 7,000 litres of our own cider, which is the most you can make without having to pay duty. So we will have to see how it goes. There quite a few local cider producers now, which is really good.

"What we feel is good about the Cropsharing idea is that we now have about 100 people signed up and they come from all over - locals from Ledbury and Malvern, but others come all the way from London, Manchester, and Guildford. Usually 40 to 50 will turn up for the weekend events, which is manageable as far as being able to eat in our house if the weather is not that good."

Their house is something special in itself. They got permission to build it in 1995, and it is eco friendly and has already won awards. It faces south looking across the main orchard and has a lot of glass so that even on the very cold day that I visited them we were able to sit in a room that was warmed by the pale sun that was trying to get through the snow clouds.

They now have different schemes for involving outsiders in their orchard which cost less than the Cropsharing scheme, and they have just introduced a tree sponsoring idea.

Thankfully Norman and Ann have another business that they have built up which renovates old buildings using the minimal amount of equipment to get to the rooftops of historic sites. They have recently finished a project high up in the roof of Hereford Cathedral. Rather fitting really because Norman went to the Cathedral School when he was a boy.

But their real love remains their 3,000 fruit trees. So many different sorts of apples, plums and pears. When I visited the plum blossom was already on the trees. So was the quince. The rest were wisely waiting.

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