If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then Paul Read should be able to hold an entire hospital at arm’s length.
I meet him at his farm house in north Suffolk and am immediately greeted by the sight of numerous different varieties of apples and tomatoes spread out across his kitchen table. To the side in the conservatory, more apples are arranged in display trays – being readied for an Apple Day event he is running with Suffolk Wildlife Trust this weekend. It is clear I am in the presence of a man who is passionate about fruit.
Paul is co-chairman of Orchards East – an initiative funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and based at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which works to gather information about the past and present state of orchards in Eastern England, and aims to encourage people to plant and nurture traditional fruit trees.
Now retired, Paul originally studied as a botanist before launching into a career working for Kodak, latterly travelling around Europe to advise companies on the restoration of old archive films. His latest vocation combines these two interests – history and plant science.
Since moving to this rural idyll near the village of Thrandeston in 1979, Paul and his wife have bought up pockets of land in the area, turning them over to a combination of sheep grazing pasture, wild meadow and orchard. He calculates he has around 500 fruit and nut trees across these different holdings, offering over 400 different varieties of apple, pear, plum, damson, quince, cobnut, walnut, medlar and mulberry – many varieties rare or endangered.
Paul says he doesn’t get hung up on whether his trees are local varieties, simply preferring to cultivate varieties that taste good.
“I see little point in having something that nobody wants to eat,” he said. “Take the 34 native Essex apple varieties, for example, – the majority of them aren’t really exciting.”
Driving around with Paul is a pleasure and an honour – his knowledge of old fruit varieties boundless. I learn that the practice of developing new varieties of apple has been going on since the Roman times, with a peak in the Victorian era when nurserymen and amateur gardeners alike started experimenting as well as giving new names to varieties that had already been around for centuries. We pass trees bearing fruits with wonderful monikers like Hoary Morning, Lady Henniker and Catshead – one of the oldest apples in England.
I ask him to name his favourite apple. “It depends what day it is,” replied Paul, who informs me that apples come good at different times. We stop at a tree bearing an apple call Red Ellison, which I’m told is at its peak at this moment. Maybe, all this talk of fruit has elevated my senses, but the taste is divine.
Beyond their tasty produce, traditional orchards are designated as a distinct UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) habitat by Defra – unlike modern, commercial orchards, the trees are less densely arranged, pesticide free, have more established root systems and are sited within longer meadow grass.
“Over time traditional orchards start to develop a unique flora and fauna,” Paul said. “Different kinds of wasp are found here and as the trees mature and as some of the wood rots it provides a home for unique beetles. The trees also support unusual lichens.”
At one point Suffolk had around 6,000 traditional orchards – virtually every farm and country house would have had one – but as land has been bought and sold, and its use changed, so they have been grubbed out and have disappeared.
An earlier Orchard East project, again funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, led to a survey of 1,000 old Suffolk orchard sites, using Ordnance Survey maps from the period 1905 – 1920. Around 550 were found to still be an orchard in some shape of form. In some places only a few old trees have survived.
The latest Orchards East project seeks to broaden the survey area, across not only parts of Suffolk yet to be surveyed but also into unexplored parts of Norfolk, Essex Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. For this, the project requires volunteers, who are given a map of their patch with the locations of old orchards marked. It’s a chance to learn more about the history of a locale and see a vicinity in a new light.
Aside from this ambitious survey work, Orchards East is also involved in planting traditional orchards for councils, community groups and private landowners and engages with the public at numerous open days and fetes where members of the public can bring varieties of apples and other fruit from their orchards to be identified.
Other projects supported by Orchards East include the ongoing development of the Fruit ID website (www.fruitid.com) where visitors can search a comprehensive catalogue of information and images to identify apples. The site is currently being broadened to include pears, plums and cobnuts.
There is also a tie-in with a research project at the University of Reading which is involved in the DNA analysis of different fruits and looking at the relationship between different varieties on a genetic level.
Paul says all this will help to further our understanding of an important part of our natural and social history that has been slowly slipping away for years.
“A lot has already been lost, so it’s important we gather as much data and information as we can,” he added.