This Apple Fair, rediscover the secrets of 1835 at The Lawns, Bath Road
They inspired Newton, shaped our countryside, and strike at the very core of Britishness. Now, after years of decline, native apples are back in fashion. On the eve of the Colnbrook Apple Fair, we reprint this abridged version of an article originally appearing in The Independent on the eve of Apple Day, five years ago.
No tourists head for Colnbrook; it’s a location that has lost its sense of place. Officially it’s a village, but a village a mile from the end of the main runway of Heathrow Airport is not the sort of village that gets into a guidebook. These days it’s just part of the vast semi-suburban hinterland where Greater London starts to dissolve into the countryside; a straggle of roads whose older buildings are interspersed with modern houses in small estates; even its geographical location is blurred. Originally it was in Buckinghamshire; then it was in Middlesex; now it seems to be in Berkshire, part of Slough.
I am looking for a block of flats called The Lawns, and though I drive up and down the high street several times, I can’t find it. I ask in the Post Office and am directed further back towards the airport perimeter, and eventually I spot it, next to the Arora Park Hotel with its its Kathmandu Kitchen restaurant (“Spice Up Your Sunday!”): three storeys of Seventies-anonymous red brick, with an arched entrance into the rear car park. I drive through and get out.
So it was here. Here, where this grey asphalt is portioned off in white lines, here where the notice warns “Wheelclamping In Operation 24 Hours”, here where Heathrow’s roaring jumbos and Airbuses rise up overhead so abruptly they seem like sea monsters surging from the depths. This is where a minor miracle occurred, and the Cox’s orange pippin was born.
It is hard to believe. Then, of course, it was a garden, this dead rectangle dotted with Toyotas. I try to imagine it, the garden of Richard Cox, a wealthy brewer from Bermondsey who in the 1820s retired to the country to pursue his hobby of horticulture. Were there rose beds here? Herbaceous borders? There must have been lawns, wide green lawns. (The Lawns was the name of Cox’s substantial Georgian house.) But what certainly graced this ground were apple trees.
Colnbrook was indeed in the countryside then, a proper village bestriding the Bath Road, surrounded by market gardens and, especially, orchards – and there was Richard Cox’s particular interest. He knew about apples, and the amazing genetic tricks they play. One day, around 1825, Cox took a noble English apple variety, the Ribston pippin, and pollinated it with another such, the Blenheim orange, planted the pips from the resultant fruit in this garden, today so brutally sealed under asphalt, and sat back to wait.
He waited for about a decade. At length, the trees that grew up here bore fruit themselves, and with one of them, Richard Cox found he had brought about something quite astonishing: apples so delectable they put even their noble progenitors to shame. “When perfectly ripe, [it is] deliciously sweet and enticing, with rich, intense, aromatic flavour,” notes Joan Morgan, the great authority on the English apple, describing the Cox in The New Book of Apples. “Spicy, honeyed, nutty, pear-like… subtle blend of great complexity…”
It was the acme of apple. The zenith of apple. The pinnacle of apple. The Bermondsey brewer had produced what was to become, with its flawless balance of sweetness and acidity, one of the most esteemed fruits in the world – certainly, Britain’s most popular native fruit, representing half of all the apples grown in the UK.
Yet, about 40 years ago, this miraculous variety, the apple’s great glory, found in no other fruit, came under siege. Supermarkets arrived, and brought with them a buying power that began to impose a narrow uniformity on the fruit shelves. As the supermarkets became our greengrocers in the 1970s and 1980s, the Blenheim orange, the Ribston pippin, the beauty of Bath and even the Worcester pearmain, let alone a myriad rarer varieties, vanished completely. In their place came a trio of red, green and yellow things: Mackintosh red from Canada (dry and characterless, I thought it, as a young apple-fancier), Granny Smith from Australia (too sour), and above all, golden delicious from France (bland, insipid. I remember once thinking, the effect of it was to displease in its very attempt to please, like an ingratiating subordinate, not that I had any subordinates.)
These invaders swept through the shelves. By 1981, French golden delicious or Le Crunch, as the marketing men called it (such wit!) reigned supreme: insipid or not, its sales were worth £100m annually in a British apple market worth £235m. English varieties? Well, for a few weeks from late September there were Coxes on sale, and there still were Bramleys, because there weren’t any foreign cooking apples worth importing; but that was about it.
It wasn’t just a catastrophic loss of taste and tradition; this change brought about immense damage to the countryside and the landscape. For as the traditional varieties of English apples lost their market, farmers began to grub out the orchards that produced them, some of them hundreds of years old. They could get a grant from Europe to do it. The scale of the destruction was vast, especially in the traditional fruit-growing counties: Worcestershire has lost 63 per cent of its traditional orchards since the 1970s, Somerset 60 per cent since the 1960s. Kent lost 92 per cent of its traditional orchards between 1946 and 2003. England as a whole has lost 57 per cent of its orchards since 1950 – about 170,000 acres’ worth.
Until 1989 when the fightback began with the launch of Common Ground, a pressure group with an aim like no other’s: the preservation of local distinctiveness. They were the first, really, to see what the Starbucks culture would do, long before Starbucks was known to us: how the spiky distinctiveness and difference of every high street, often centuries-old and cherished by local people even if they could not say why, would be steamrollered flat by globalised business and its universal brands. As would the countryside, regional foods, local dialects, parish customs and a thousand individual ways of doing things.
That moment marked the turning point for the native English apple, the moment when a lifebelt was thrown into the water. For Common Ground had found its ultimate emblem: nothing has local distinctiveness in the way apples do.
“Like with Friends of the Earth, at the beginning, the whale was going to stand for the world… well, the apple emerged as the thing that was going to stand for the world for us. What we were trying to do was make the link between nature and culture, and we couldn’t have thought of anything better.”
The result: Apple Day. They chose 21 October 1990, a date when the English apple season is in full swing.
Common Ground’s highlighting of the value of the apple has done much for the rebirth of English cider-making – “boutique” cider makers are flourishing in the West Country, given a boost by cider’s new fashionability thanks to the Magners advertising campaign.
But for English apples themselves it has demonstrated to supermarkets that there is a lively consumer interest in more than the same few standard types.
The threat, now, seems to be from the skill of breeders in other countries who are producing marvellous apples of their own. Braeburn is the great example. Bred in New Zealand in 1952, it is crisp, juicy, sweet, refreshing, and now the king of the apple market in Britain; we eat 100,000 tons of it yearly. Following close behind it is gala, another New Zealand variety, which children enjoy because it is simple and very sweet. Next in the popularity stakes comes Granny Smith, yes, the green thing, followed by golden delicious, yes, the yellow thing, and it is not until we reach the fifth most eaten apple in Britain that we reach a British variety: the Cox’s orange pippin.
It must be remembered that this is largely because the other varieties can be imported from all over the world, all the year round – we import more than 70 per cent of our apples – while the Cox has a relatively short growing season, in Britain alone. It does not travel well, the Cox. It isn’t really grown abroad. It seems that the genes of the Blenheim orange and the Ribston pippin had long become used to the moist but steady temperate climate of southern England and it is only here that their prodigious child can flourish, But how it flourishes! I’ve loved it all my life, and although I fully see the attraction of the Braeburn, its fresh appeal is essentially one-dimensional; it doesn’t remotely compare with the honeyed, perfumed subtlety of Richard Cox’s foundling.
I think of this, standing in the car park of The Lawns. I’m delighted to have found the site, tarmac or no tarmac, but I am cast down that there are no traces of Richard Cox himself. I had read that the remains of his summer house, all that was left of his garden, should be visible, but there seems to be nothing whatsoever. A family emerges from the flats; when I ask them about a summerhouse they look at me as if I am crazy. So I get ready to go, as the jets leaving Heathrow thunder overhead.
And then my eye catches something, One side of the car park, covered in ivy, is not wood-and-concrete fencing like the other two sides; it is brick wall. I approach it, and see that the brick is old. I follow it to its corner, and there, smothered by ivy totally, is a bulge; and I can just glimpse from the base that the bulge is made of stone.
I begin to pull the ivy off, and suddenly, to my amazement, I find wood planking; it is an old wooden door. And then, with even greater surprise, as I scrabble more ivy off, I see that the door has an old brass knob.
My heart starts to beat faster as I turn the knob and gently push. And it pounds faster still when the door begins to open. For an irrational but intense split second I am certain that, like the children in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I am about to step from the car park under the Heathrow flightpath into a different world. I don’t, of course; but I do step into a pitch-dark warm space full of dead ivy stems, and with a sense of wonder, I think, here.
Here it was, maybe, that that he tasted it, when he first took it from the tree; here in this summerhouse he took a bite, on a warm autumn evening; and here it was that he uttered his exclamation, the exclamation of surprise and delight that has surely accompanied every apple discovery, all seven thousand of them, down the centuries: “Upon my soul, this is most uncommon toothsome!” – or words to that effect.
Never mind that the wheelie bin pen maintained by Slough Borough Council is a few feet away. I am back in 1835, filled with the mystery and miracle of apples, filled with their romance.
Let’s truly celebrate the birthplace of the Cox’s Orange Pippin during this year’s Apple Fair.
The Apple Source Book, by Sue Clifford and Angela King (£16.99), is published by Hodder. To order a copy for the special price of £15.50 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk