This morning was not the best time to turn up at Cilla Clive’s Fruit Farm, Redbank, close to Ledbury.
Cilla Clive Fruit Grower
Despite the pressures of harvesting, monitoring ripening apples and huge decisions to be made as the fruit market across Europe reels at the fallout from Russian blockades, Cilla was welcoming.
“I grew up on a farm growing hops, cider, blackcurrants and Hereford cattle. My father believed that women should have proper roles and, when I planned to go to agricultural college at Seale Hayne, he suggested I study agriculture, rather than specialise in dairy from the start. He didn’t want me to be tied to a cow’s tail”.
Cilla’s Father, Denys Thompson.
Her father wasn’t the only person to encourage Cilla to furnish herself with the knowledge that she needed to be an independent woman and fruit grower. In 1974 she embarked on a “crash” course in fruit growing with instruction from Dick Clive.
Dick Clive Grafting
The winter of 1976 found Cilla planting strawberries in the snow on the south-facing banks of Wall Hills, near Ledbury which became Red Bank – the nucleus of a many enterprises in later years. The strawberries were a cash crop to help fund the longer-term investment in orchards which have been Cilla’s main concern in the intervening years.
‘Long term’ is a phrase that crops up around fruit growing – commercial fruit tree nurseries and marketeers need to know what you will be planting in the next five years and what you will be harvesting in the next decade.
Preparing the Ground 1976-1977
Redbank before Fruit 1976
Clearing Orchard Boundary 1976
Planting the First Strawberries 1976
Building the First Apple Store 1978
First Strawberry Harvest 1978
Weighing them up 1978
Work starts at Red Bank at 8am at this time of year when workers arrive and the length of the day depends entirely on the season.Cilla at 73 yrs, has only just, under advice from medics, given up tractor driving but is firmly in the driving seat making decisions daily if not hourly.
Cilla Preparing the Ground 1976
First Apple Harvests
Buckets of Apples
First Apples for the Apple Store
Of course, Cilla takes advice and she takes it widely and with great care. I was struck by the way she is constantly comparing fruit growing across the world, listening and filtering facts and anecdote. What in her working day would she gladly be rid of?
“There is a ton of office work, which is a pain, but I am lucky to have the back-up of my son’s business, Haygrove, which allows some relief from it. I am a grower – that’s it”.
Orchards on a Misty Morning at Redbank, Sept 2014
So what to grow in the future and what drives her forward?“Inheritance Tax!” she exclaims, and, as it turns out, global warming. The champagne regions are on the move North and growing grapes for wine is becoming a real option in Ledbury. But this isn’t the first time that the slopes of Red Bank have been vineyards.
In 1266, Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford and last English Saint, visited his palace in Ledbury to hunt boar on the Malvern Hills, instructed that the vineyards on the south facing slopes of the Wall Hills be re-planted. Now Cilla is doing it again. Bacchus (grape variety) is gradually re-claiming the slopes, and in this, its first year, looking good.
“I realised that apple growing was unlikely to be of interest to my son whereas grape-growing and wine-making would excite him. I put it to him and was delighted by his interest.”
Cilla’s excitement at this new area of activity is tempered by her practical, business-like approach and years of experience; she explained that it is always important to grow for demand rather than personal preference and to spread risk in this weather-dependent realm of horticulture. The world of wine-making is short of Bacchus, hence Bacchus……
First fruitings of Bacchus at Redbank 2014
Cilla has no plans to retire, she enjoys being part of a multi-generational and international fruit growing community all around her home in Ledbury and making research trips nationally and internationally.
“I had a great road trip two years ago to see my first batch of young grape vines growing in a specialist nursery in Luxembourg. The nursery-man was surprised to see me, apparently nobody visits their young plants, but it’s good to make the connection and I think people make a special effort in response”.
Jazz Apples at Red Bank
Many thanks to Cilla Clive for an hour of her time – in the middle of apple picking! I look forward to a Spartan, Jazz, Cox or Bramley soon and a little later, a glass of something from Bishops’ Vineyard.
What a pleasant start to my day – a sunny walk around one of the 300 acres of Pixley Berries blackcurrant fields, with views to the Malverns and berries just starting to turn colour.
Ben Gairn ripening at Pixley this morning.
Herefordshire has a long history of growing blackcurrants, the climate and rolling hills here seem to suit the crop and for many years 95% went to to make Ribena, blackcurrant cordial. At Pixley Berries, Edward Thompson credits Ribena with investing in research and development in the industry that has benefitted all the growers. In the fields surrounding Pixley’s Pressing Plant varieties are chosen for the particular conditions of the growing sites and each field has a grass-planted margin to encourage birdlife – birds that feed on the insects that could infest the bushes. But most importantly, varieties are selected for flavour. Returning to the offices from the field I sampled the pure juices and can say that these cordials give you the sharp aroma of blackcurrant leaves brushed through the hand as well as the sweet-sharp juice of the berries themselves. These cloudy cordials have a really, fresh blackcurrant flavour and fantastic colour too.
Top left, blackcurrants in flower, right blackcurrants in the press. Below, working on the harvester
The slopes surrounding Marcle Ridge, near Ledbury are favourable to blackcurrant growing. As with most fruit growing, it is crucial to protect blossom from frost, planting on an incline provides some protection as the cold air moves down the slope as the temperature drops on cold spring nights. Nowadays, frost resistant and later flowering strains have been developed but formerly, and rather counter-intuitively, farmers would spend cold spring nights spraying water on their blackcurrants. The constant spray of water freezing actually stopped the damaging penetration of frost to the flowers – see below!
Les Brace, Farm Manager, Baldwins Farm, inspects frost-protected blackcurrant bushes.
This year, the harvest will probably be at least two weeks late, normally the farm is buzzing with Eastern European harvest workers in July and August, nevertheless the crop looks pretty promising. Herefordshire has always seen its population soar in the summer with harvest workers; until the 1980’s it was customary for families of pickers – grandparents, mums and dads with their children of all ages, from the surrounding cities (Gloucester especially) and travelling families to set up summer camp and work the complete soft fruit harvest. One such operation, Baldwins Fruit Farm – (farmed by Alex Clive’s family, partner at Tinsmiths), kept a pretty good photographic record of farming activities in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Here are some images from their substantial archive.
This large family of pickers at the Baldwins Farm (Clive family farm) worked the harvest for many, many years.
Blackcurrants were sent for pressing in small wooden crates, so that they remained uncrushed on the journey.
Alex Clive (bare-chested) and Lucy Clive work the blackcurrant harvest.
Gang in the fields
Families deliver their buckets of gooseberries.
Stacking the crates
Handing in the Fruits
Harvest stacked neatly for transport to Coleford for the
Back to current day –
There are growing numbers of farmers choosing to add value, quality and variety by processing their fruits “on the farm” and selling to retailers large and small, their fruit juices, cordials and alcoholic drinks.
Adding to their well-recieved cordials ( Blackcurrant, Blackcurrant and Raspberry, and Cranberry and Apple) Edward Thompson of Pixley Berries, near Ledbury, has introduced some exciting new combinations of fresh juices – all made from non-concentrated pressings – eg., apple, blackcurrant and rhubarb and some sophisticated, dry, non-alcoholic alternatives to wine like Pixley Rouge, Blanc or Noir.
Above: A few of Pixley Berries Cordials and Juice. Below: Edward Thompson, surveying his fields of blackcurrants at Pixley
A couple of my favourite applications of the good old Pixley Blackcurrant cordial are to pour over vanilla ice cream or drop a couple of thimbles-full into the bottom of a champagne flute – Herefordshire Royale. Delicious. If you want a fully alcoholic Herefordshire Kir Royale try Jo Hilditch’s British Cassis, made in Lyonshall, nr Leominster – available at Teme Valley Farmer’s Market.
If you’d like to try Pixley’s bounty get along to Ledbury Poetry Festival on 14th July when they will be part of the Food and Drink Market in Ledbury High Street, just a stone’s throw from the Market House – if you can’t wait until then, visit them at the Cotswold Show 6/7th July, 2013. Or just pop into a Waitrose, Spar or Co-op (Midland region) store.
If you are feeling a bit “bah humbug” about Christmas I urge you to read (or re-read) “The Box of Delights” by John Masefield. Written in 1935, our family has a ritual of reading it every year on the run up to Christmas, a ritual which I am sure is mainly for my benefit and enjoyment!
The narrator is Kay Harker who, on return from boarding school for Christmas holidays, becomes entangled in a battle to control a magical box, which allows the owner to go small (shrink) or go swift (fly), go back into the past and meet magical characters like “Hern the Hunter”.
John Masefield was born in Ledbury and lived here during his early childhood. When reading the book I clearly picture Ledbury and it’s environs. The 1984 BBc adaptation was filmed at Eastnor Castle and other local places, the passages of the book which involve Kay inside “Arthur’s Camp” always bring to mind “British Camp”, the Iron Age Hill Fort on the top of the Herefordshire Beacon on the Malvern Hills.
So, escape the maelstrom of Christmas preparations and immerse yourself in this box of magic and delight.