James’ and Mary’s Collection of Apples and Cherries

by James Evans and Mary Martin

In 1980 we came across a derelict but complete cider press and Cornish pound at Westcott Farm, near Callington.  Subsequently a group of friends helped us restore this to working order complete with horsepower to pull the huge granite roller.  Whilst cider making we were told by Mr Peter Hambly Sr that we should use ‘Pigs’Snout’ apples or ‘Colloggett Pippins’ and ‘Grow-by-Nights’ if we wanted to make the authentic local product.

Fired with enthusiasm we set off on a mission, a collecting mania that, over the next 20 years took us all over Cornwall and to parts of North and West Devon, resulting in a collection of some 200 healthy dessert, culinary and cider apples.  Most of the original old trees from which we cut graft wood have died.  These old varieties were often recorded in pomological literature but due to their regional or even parochial provenance most had never been propagated in national collections.

Our collection very quickly broadened to include the once famous Tamar Valley cherries which were well known to Mary from her time spent painting the derelict orchards.  The Tamar cherries are black, sweet, juicy and full of flavour.  From a cultivation point of view, they are very vigorous, not subject to bacterial canker and the fruit less prone to splitting than varieties selected for drier climates.  They are the only types likely to succeed in the Southwest.  If grown commercially today, on dwarfing stocks with the fruit protected from birds, they could be used to make delicious ice-cream, yoghurt and jam.

Saving the cherries was a real challenge as all the trees were so old and the varieties impossible to identify, except with the help of the few remaining elderly market gardeners who could describe the fruit or habits of the trees.  One or two could point to individual trees and name them: ‘Burcombe’; ‘Bullion’; ‘Fice’; ‘Birchenhayes’ etc.  We became obsessed with trying         as many as possible of the 15 or so varieties reputed to have existed before WW1.  Mary’s house was originally a cherry packing loft over a stable, and the steep land surrounding it had been a cherry orchard in her grandfather’s day.  Up to about 1950, fruit trees predominated in our now wooded valley (the Cothele tributary of the Tamar).  Daffodils, strawberries and other soft fruit were also cultivated and over 90 men worked the slopes.

Mary standing amongst ‘Burcombes’ in Towell Orchard, St Dominic

We eventually managed to pin down 12 varieties of cherries and, along the way, discovered long-lost pears and some very interesting plums.

The first practical business was for James to learn to graft and, practising on gribbles (suckers) dug up from the woods, produced total failure in the first year.  In following years, better graft wood was obtained by climbing forty feet up often decrepit trees and, using colt or seedling cherry rootstock, we got better results.  Initially we cleared a patch in the woodland garden to make a nursery bed.  From this we gradually planted out young trees until a couple of acres were well filled with competing with our other plantings of magnolias, camellias, old daffodils and the vegetables.  We had already supplied several nurseries and orchard projects in Cornwall and Devon with propagating material, but, by now, were completely out of space.

Then in 1992, we bought 7 acres nearby, allowing us to establish a formal cherry and apple orchard.  Since we were determined to maintain the correct identity of each variety, it was essential to carefully label each tree and the separate branches of ‘family’ trees.  Together with accurate plans and a card
index this allowed us to locate and describe each variety.

Over the years we have collected many reference books. With these and our own apple and pear displays we have attended Apple Day events, helping people to identify their apples.  In the process it has become clear that nearly every old tree, seen nowadays in gardens and orchards, is probably one of about twenty once popular national apple cultivars.  The old local sorts are now very rare and well outnumbered by undistinguished seedlings, grown from discarded apple cores!

In 1996 we produced a book:  Burcombes, Queenies and Colloggetts*, illustrated by Mary and written by her sister Virginia Spiers.  We hoped this would stress the importance of the Tamar Valley’s once extensive, beautiful orchards and inspire more planting for the future.

We are currently working on a project with the National Trust at Cotehele, which was set up by former head gardener John Lanyon (now at Knightshayes).  A double avenue of some 50 standard cherries is now established and, working with David Bouch, a 7-acre apple orchard of 120 of our varieties will be planted in autumn 2007 – a gene bank with accompanying database.

Over the years our developing mother orchard has attracted visits from various fruit groups.  Last July (2006), we hosted a party of 45 Belgians from the NBS (Nationale Boomgaarden Stichting) who promote their own local fruit varieties.  They are now trialing some of our Cornish apples!

*Burcombes, Queenies and Colloggetts, the makings of a Cornish orchard, published by West Brendon.  ISBN 0 9527641 05

For a current list of names, which can be sent by e-mail, contact us.
James Evans and Mary Martin, Ash Barn, Bury, Callington, Cornwall, PL17 8BP  Tel:   01579 351329