Nestled on the edge of the Norfolk Broads, our parish village, Rockland St Mary with Hellington, is dotted with apple trees – in gardens, pocket community spaces and allotments.
Residents on our Close recently organised an Apple Day, an idea discussed by a local action group, enthusiastically named ‘Save the world – one Close at a time’! The aim is to contribute to the Green goal of transformatively adapting our community to the climate and nature emergency. Start small, and spread.
With the cost-of-living crisis, and people often too busy with long shifts and family life to harvest and use their ripening apples, many hands can make light work. We all contributed to the apple harvest, relying in part on the goodwill of our neighbours who were happy for us to harvest their apples for them. Apple and fruit cakes were prepared and toffee apples made a welcome reappearance – we had forgotten how good they are! The day entailed lots of washing and chopping of apples ready to go into the crusher. The result was 18 litres of delicious pasteurised apple juice, carefully labelled as ‘Rockland apple juice’ with the obligatory rook logo (Rockland was originally named for the Rooks that roost in our trees).
Planning for the day emerged from a number of local discussions about how the village can respond to the climate crisis. One suggestion was how to share things we own instead of duplicating them with individual ownership. Another was how we make use of and appreciate the food that is sometimes in abundance around us.
Apple Day has become something of a fixture of the rural calendar in the UK since it was formally established in 1990 by conservation charity Common Ground. The idea was to connect people to the land, to celebrate local heritage and apple varieties and to deepen cooperation in local communities. Since that time Apple Days have grown and are held annually across the country throughout September and October. Apple Days have been held across the country during the ‘apple calendar’. In the Eastern region, the Apple and Orchards project helps to drive interest in protecting local heritage apples, offering workshops and visits to their orchards. Of course, the apple season begins with the harvesting of the earlier varieties. Early apples can be enjoyed for eating all through the summer. By autumn some apples can be stored but others need eating or processing to make the most of the goodness while it lasts.
Apple Day can include making apple juice and, of course, cider making. But as well as the hard work of sorting and chopping and juicing lots of apples, local communities have built up their own ways of celebrating with dance and song. The orchard wassails have been an integral part of the apple season, singing to the apple trees to encourage a good crop or a winter celebration with the cider produced earlier in autumn.
Here in South Norfolk, we are lucky to be within cycling distance of a local community orchard in Bramerton Village and a few publicly accessible apple trees that have been planted for community use. Many of us have fruit trees in our gardens. But those doyens of horticulture at Gardens Illustrated recommend that those of us with balconies or limited outdoor space invest in a Maloni mini apple tree which can grow in a container. If we all plant one or two fruit trees in our local areas then we can enable cross-pollination and ‘bee corridors’.
The apple season is slowly coming to an end but the idea of bringing people together around food harvested is a fine one rooted in our rural histories. For making apple juice, you will need to borrow, beg or find funding for some essential kit. For our small-scale gathering we were lucky that several of our neighbours had invested in an apple crusher, apple juicer and a pasteuriser machine and clean bottles and lids. Our host who generously opened her home and small orchard for the day made a simple flyer and shared it with a trusted network in our neighbourhood. We all found much joy in the gathering and local novelist, Sally-Anne Lomas, managed to capture the day in pictures.
Help in organising similar gatherings is on offer with the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Big Food Share’ initiative. There is a free information pack that you can sign up for on their website. This contains templates for flyers and health and safety preparation. The Common Ground website has a fascinating range of books, including one dedicated to understanding more about the games and customs in local communities during the apple harvests.
If the harvest in your area is still happening when you read this, then it’s not too late to create an Apple Day. Or why not think about this for where you live next year?
Here are some helpful links to get you started:
Juliette Harkin is a RHS-qualified plantswoman, parish councillor and trustee of Norfolk Organic Group, based in Rockland St Mary, Norfolk. She recently stood for the Green Party in the District Council elections in Rockland.