Our Waterfurlong Apples

Denis Smith

Our Apple Varieties

The search for our Waterfurlong heritage apples began in 2016 when a visit to Stamford Apple Day threw up more mysteries than firm identifications. The Stamford Community Orchard Group (SCOG) kindly sent round local apple guru Denis Smith to investigate and with Denis’s expert help the picture of the Gardens’ apple heritage began to unfold.

 

We have so far discovered 168 veteran trees of 53 different heritage varieties, with three further (as yet unsolved) mysteries. Many of these varieties are unusual, several are local to Stamford, and a few, such as Nelson’s Codlin and Lady’s Delight, are so rare they have excited national interest. Several more are still being evaluated.

 

Most of our trees seem to be between 50 and 150 years old, although a few are almost certainly older, including one huge Blenheim Orange with a girth of 1.9 m.

Click on a variety for its full profile.

 

What Do The Apples Tell Us About Our Gardens' History?

Our plots are unusual for having been in continuous garden cultivation for nearly 150 years in most cases, closer to 200 in some. All our Waterfurlong Georgian and Victorian gardening predecessors grew fruit for the table and a few, like Charles Evans, also grew apples for their greengrocers’ shops. Today we still see stands of the same variety on some plots, the most popular being Bramley’s Seedling, Newton Wonder, Blenheim Orange, Ribston Pippin and John Standish. These are all heavy-cropping trees producing fruit that stores well into winter - vital considerations in the days before refrigeration and importation.

 

Our trees provide an interesting insight into changing tastes and cooking habits. Only one in eight apples sold today in supermarkets is for culinary use (all Bramley). By contrast, 53% of the Waterfurlong apple trees are cookers, with a further 25% dual-purpose; in other words used as cookers when first picked, then stored as eaters for the winter months (or vice versa). At one time all the gardens would have had racked sheds dedicated to fruit storage.

 

English cooking apples have never been widely grown abroad as few hold their shape when cooked, instead breaking down quickly to the purée beloved of Mrs Beeton and her contemporaries. Some varieties would have been planted for specific culinary purposes; Dumelow’s Seedling – reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite apple – was traditionally used for mincemeat; Loddington was prized for apple dumplings; Schoolmaster was ideal for home-canning as it did not discolour; Blenheim Orange made an exceptionally fine apple pie; and red-skinned varieties, such as Red Victoria and Discovery, gave a pink tinge to cold desserts like apple snow. 

Some varieties, like Warner’s King, produce huge fruit, with a single apple sufficient for a decent-sized pie.

 

Despite the high demand for cooking apples in years gone by, not one of the gardens lacks a heritage dessert apple, or at very least a dual-purpose apple known to be a good eater - a treat to look forward to all year in the days when most fresh foods were strictly seasonal. The Victorians and Edwardians valued unusual flavours, such as the aniseed undertones of Ellison’s Orange, the nutty aroma of Blenheim Orange, the fresh strawberry of Worcester Pearmain and the pineapple tang of Allington Pippin. Ribston Pippin is a parent of Cox’s Orange Pippin and still prized for its rich, complex flavour. 

The 17th century Ashmead’s Kernel fell out of favour because of its dull, lumpen appearance but in a good year the flavour is sublime. In the early 20th century pomologist and food writer P. Morton Shand wrote:

'What an apple, what suavity of aroma. Its initial Madeira-like mellowness of flavour overlies a deeper honeyed nuttiness, crisply sweet not sugar sweet, but the succulence of a well-devilled marrow bone. Surely no apple of greater distinction or more perfect balance can ever have been raised anywhere on earth.' 

 P. Morton Shand, BBC Radio, 1944.

Although we have so far found no confirmed specialist cider apples (we do have one suspect among our three mystery varieties), Bramley windfalls have long been used in cider making. Georgian-era Queen Caroline was traditionally added to English cider for a bittersharp note, and Belle de Pontoise and Calville Blanc d'Hiver were used to sweeten Normandy blends.

Where Did The Original Saplings Come From?

The choice of trees available from local nurserymen was huge compared with today’s meagre offerings. Brown’s of Stamford listed nearly 100 varieties before the First World War, many grown a stone’s throw away from Waterfurlong at their nursery on what is now Exeter Gardens. Browns and the smaller local firm of Goddards (established by Morley Goddard, son-in-law of our Waterfurlong gardener Charles Evans) probably supplied most of our trees but a surprising number of rarities appear in no local nurseryman’s catalogue. Of course, many of our gardeners (or in some cases, the staff they employed) would have been skilled in taking grafts from unusual varieties grown by friends and relatives or in the grounds of nearby Burghley House and other local estates, whose head gardeners had access to more than 2,000 English and European varieties in the late 19th century.

Thomas Laxton

We are also researching another intriguing possibility. Our most famous Waterfurlong gardener, the apple-breeder Thomas Laxton, had access to numerous rare varieties through his extensive network of horticultural friends and correspondents (including Charles Darwin) and may well have given some to his gardening neighbours. This could potentially explain how apples that were hard to find by the late Victorian era, and virtually unknown in our part of the country, came to be planted in Waterfurlong.

What About Local Varieties?

Despite occasional forays into the exotic, our gardening predecessors took pride in planting local varieties. Five of the six Stamford apples still known to be in existence: Allington Pippin, Barnack Beauty, Lord Burghley, Peasgood's Nonsuch, and the rare Schoolmaster, are found in the Gardens and half our Waterfurlong apple trees originate from the surrounding 50 miles. These include Annie Elizabeth, Bramley’s Seedling, Crimson Bramley, Dumelow’s Seedling, Ellison’s Orange, Laxton’s Fortune, Laxton’s Superb, Lord Lambourne, Newton Wonder and Red Victoria.

 

As we manage to DNA test our unusual varieties, there is every possibility some which return with no match will prove to be among Stamford’s ‘lost apples’.

Beauty As Well As Utility

Whilst providing good, reliable apple crops for family (and, in some cases, customers) would have been the top priority, our forebears also valued beauty and this is reflected in their choice of trees. Several varieties have outstanding blossom, such as Lord Lambourne with its dusky pink buds. The ancient Nonpareil, brought to England at the time of Bloody Queen Mary, was grown in pots to decorate Georgian terraces and parterres, and Lord Suffield makes a small, ornamental tree widely used in Victorian shrubberies. Keswick was prized for its neat shape and scented blossom, whilst Barnack Beauty

 

Annie Elizabeth blossom

and Annie Elizabeth were grown as much for their beauty as their fruit in gentlemen’s ornamental orchards.

 

The fruits themselves are often highly ornamental. Lady Sudeley was given its name by her husband, who said the crimson and gold apples reminded him of his wife’s favourite court-dress. Its even more decorative sport, Red Lady Sudeley, appears as if studded with jewels in the late August sun.

What About Other Fruits?

Apples are by far and away the most widely-grown fruit on our plots, but we also have a few interesting old pear, plum, damson and cherry trees, along with cobnuts, walnuts and two magnificent Mediterranean pines. Some of the pear trees are evidently ancient and might pre-date the gardens. These include 18th century Williams bon Chretien and the early 19th century Belgian variety, Beurre de Diel.

The beautiful rose-pink buds of Annie Elizabeth © Landed Forest Gardening

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018

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