Pears and heirs

Pears and heirs

There is a gothic beauty to Gregg’s Pit orchard in early April. Filigree branches, pregnant with buds, are etched against a bruised sky. Perry pear trees tower over their cider apple neighbours. At the far end, next to the marl pit that gives the orchard its name, stands the mother tree. Sixty feet tall and at least three hundred years old, she still yields three tons of pears in a season. When her buds burst into billowing white blossoms she will look like a galleon in full sail.

Records for this orchard in Much Marcle, Herefordshire, date back to 1785. It’s humbling to think that ‘Big Mamma’ as orchard owner James Marsden likes to call her, was producing Gregg’s Pit pears before the Battle of Waterloo. But she is not the only veteran tree in the village. Down the road at Hellens Manor an avenue of perry pear trees planted to mark the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702 still greets visitors.

As traditional orchards have been grubbed up to make way for more profitable pasture or arable, perry pear trees have almost disappeared from the Three Counties’ landscape. More than three-quarters of the perry orchards in the area have vanished in the last fifty years. But a small band of artisan perry makers are reviving a craft that has been practised in the area for centuries. In doing so, they are preserving these magnificent fruit trees for future generations.

Tradition has it that the best perry is made in the sight of May Hill. An iron age fort, crowned with Corsican pines, it sits on a ridge above Much Marcle. According to legend, a giant walking on the slopes of the hill passed a perry pear tree. He picked fruit and slipped it into his pocket to eat later. Pausing at the summit to admire the view he took a bite and promptly spat it out, scattering flesh and pips into the rolling countryside below, sowing the seeds of ancient perry orchards.

Perry pears, unlike their sweet, curvaceous dessert cousins, are hard, round and mouth-puckeringly sour. They arrived in this corner of the Three Counties not in a spray of giant’s saliva, but through entropy. Roman orchards left derelict at the end of the occupation began to self-seed. Over time, the cultivated pears crossed with indigenous varieties to create wild hybrids, losing their sweetness along the way. By the Norman Conquest, these wildings were scattered through fields, hedges and woodland.

Farmers and villagers cultivated the feral fruit gathered in these ‘shadow orchards’ from the 16th century onwards. Locals called them ‘choke’ pears on the grounds that it was impossible to swallow even a single mouthful. But although perry pears were inedible raw, fermented they took on an entirely different character. Writing in 1629, the horticulturist John Parkinson observed: “The Perry made of Choke Pears, notwithstanding the harshness and evill taste, both of the fruit and juice, after a few months becomes as milde and pleasant as wine.”

Now there was a purpose for this otherwise irksome fruit, perry pear cultivation intensified. At its peak in the late seventeenth century, the Three Counties produced an estimated 15,000 tons of pears. Perry became the drink of the gentry, a socially acceptable alternative to champagne. A landlady in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones serves perry to some distinguished guests, maintaining that it is “well tasted, and as wholesome as the best Champagne in the Kingdom”.

More than a hundred varieties were cultivated on the Herefordshire-Gloucestershire borders close to May Hill. Confusingly, there are twice as many names as there are fruit varieties; they change from village to village. The taxonomy of perry pears is fascinating. Varieties are named after people, places and their effect on the body. Blakeney Red is also known as Painted Lady, Painted Pear and, thanks to its diuretic properties, Circus because it goes “once around the body and out again”. Holmer, another suspect with multiple aliases, is also known as Cluster Top, Tun Pear and Startlecock.

The hyper-locality of perry pear varieties was largely down to the logistics of grafting. Fruit trees rarely grow true to seed. Only by grafting a cutting (scion) from the original tree onto a rootstock can you ensure you get the same fruit. Until Marsden started sharing graft wood cuttings with other fruit growers, Gregg’s Pit pears only grew in his orchard and one other less than a mile away. “Graft wood needs to be kept damp,” he explains. “Today, you can put it in a damp cloth and send it through the post. In days gone by, it would have been wrapped in a wet rag and stuffed into a saddlebag. It would only have travelled as far as a man or woman could have ridden in a day on a horse or on a mule.”

“Plant pears for your heirs,” the saying goes. But your heirs may not thank you, as perry pear trees are notoriously difficult to cultivate. Their height makes them difficult to prune and hard to harvest. They take a long time to mature – it can take twenty years for a tree to produce a meaningful crop – and they are capricious. Many varieties only fruit every two years at best, some simply fruit when they feel like it. They blossom early, so are vulnerable to frost. Fire blight, a common disease, can destroy an entire orchard in a season.

Perry making is no easier. Unlike apples, pears do not keep. If they’re not picked at exactly the right time, they have a tendency to ‘blet’ or rot from the inside out. The juice is temperamental, it spoils easily, turning vinegary or developing the dreaded ‘mouse’ flavour during fermentation that smells like rodent droppings and tastes like stale muesli. With such unpredictable results, traditional perry making is not viable on a large commercial scale which leaves the fate of the perry orchards in the hands of a small, but dedicated band of craft producers like Marsden.

To engage the local community with its disappearing rural heritage, small-scale cider and perry producers around the Marcle Ridge have banded together under the umbrella of the Big Apple Association. Through blossom time and harvest festivals, cider and perry tastings and guided walks, it brings people together to celebrate the orchard seasons and preserve ancient traditions like the wassail.

The Big Apple also champions the conservation role of traditional orchards, which support an extraordinary diversity of plant and wildlife. Grassland beneath the fruit trees, unploughed and unimproved for centuries, sustains woodland and meadow flowers. Drifts of rare wild daffodils on the orchard floor are the first sign of spring here. Under grazing by sheep or Herefordshire cattle keeps vigorous plant species at bay that would otherwise smother delicate flora. Ageing trees are left to hollow out, providing habitats for nesting birds, bats and fungi. Deadwood and log piles provide havens for invertebrates.

Beyond the efforts of the craft perry producers and orchard evangelists, what is being done to stop these magnificent trees from vanishing completely? Three decades ago, Charles Martell a local cheesemaker and distiller of pear spirit, took the first steps to securing their future. Martell scoured the farms of the Three Counties for old perry pear varieties; the fifty-nine that he discovered were planted around the agricultural showground in Malvern. In 1998, conservationist and historian Jim Chapman replicated and extended Martell’s Malvern planting in his home village of Hartpury, creating the National Perry Pear Collection.

Chapman is concerned that many remaining trees are reaching the end of their long life. “Every year we lose a few more ancient perry pear trees, hopefully, most are now conserved in the collection, but what a loss to the landscape,” he observed in a recent interview.1

It will take centuries for the scions of the mother tree at Gregg’s Pit to achieve her great stature. But with luck and good stewardship, Much Marcle’s heirs will be making perry from their fruit for generations to come.

Karen Heaney
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Karen Heaney is writer with a particular interest in how nature connects people to place. Based in Dorset, she is currently studying for an MA in Nature and Travel Writing at Bath Spa University.


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