A history of cherry growing in Worcestershire and the Bewdley Cherry Fair

_wsb_300x225_Uncllys+cherry+orchard+2+smallWritten by Brian M. Stephens June 2012

There is a long tradition of a Cherry Fair in Bewdley. When the local trade in cherries developed is uncertain, probably during the Industrial Revolution when large urban markets emerged, but certainly it flourished with the building of the railway after 1861 and the perishable fruit could quickly reach the conurbations of the Midlands, Northern England and the South.

The relatively small district round Bewdley, Wyre Forest and the Teme valley of North Worcestershire, west of the River Severn, became, apart from Kent, the largest centre for cherry production in the country, being ideally placed for rail distribution. Cherries prefer well drained soil, suitable temperature regimes with winter cold chill and moisture. Locally, the many small-holdings with well-drained sloping fields, not suitable as arable land, proved profitable for orchards. From the Middle Ages livestock rearing was a mainstay and under orchards this could continue, with other crops grown between the trees, such as soft fruit, daffodils and hazel nuts.

A fair was set up in Bewdley with a Charter of King Edward IV in 1472 for St. Anne’s Day, 26th July. There is no mention of cherries in the Charter, but the date is the nearest of the ancient fair-days to the cherry season, so this day seems to have evolved into a Cherry Fair, when or how we do not know.

Our familiar tree or top fruits of temperate climate (Family Roseaceae), evolved in the forests on the mountain slopes of the Tien Shan and westward to the foothills of the Caucasus. Trade along the Silk Road brought fruits to Mesopotamia and the Middle East, where grafting and orchard cultivation developed about 4000 years ago. Subsequently, invasions and migrations brought fruits to Europe.

It is believed that some fruit species established in Britain after the ice ages. The Romans later realised the value of Kent for growing fruit; some also came from Germany (German apfel and English Apple) and later arrived with the Normans and the Crusades. These ancient stocks were not supplemented until Henry VIII sent his Fruiterer, Richard Harris, to France and the Low Countries in 1533 to collect grafts of new varieties and set up an orchard in East Kent near Teynham. Interest in fruit continued with Elizabeth I, in an attempt to render England less dependent upon imports.

Cultivation progressed during the Seventeenth century, largely in the gardens of large country estates with professional gardeners, and encouraged by important books on horticulture, not least that of John Rea of Kinlet (1605-1677). This famous nurseryman, in his book ‘Flora, Ceres and Pomona’ (1665), recommends 16 varieties of cherry. He first introduced the term ‘Dukes’ for hybrids between acid and sweet cherries. One named by him, ‘Carnation’, still exists in the National Collection.

Local interest continued with the researches of the pioneer of scientific horticulture, Thomas Andrew Knight (1759-1836). Son of the rector of Bewdley, of the famous family of Ironmasters, first President of the (later Royal) Horticultural Society, FRS, he lived and worked at Elton Hall and Downton Castle on the River Teme near Ludlow, experimenting and propagating new varieties of fruit and vegetables. Several varieties of cherry, which he raised, are still growing in local orchards. There is evidence that his study of garden peas was the inspiration for the work of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), the father of genetics, eighty years later.

In 1886 over 110 tons of cherries passed through Bewdley market. On July 26th 1907, 200 carts came into Bewdley, their owners selling and buying cherries. The police took proceedings against some for obstruction, but the case was dismissed after reference to a Markets Charter of James I in 1601 and the “ right of Custom some 80 or 90 years old at least, of selling cherries near the church” (Gaut, 1939 p422). There are undated photographs of stalls by the church of late 19th or early 20th century origin. So the tradition of a Cherry Fair goes back 195 years for certain, that is, to about 1817.

Some of the recorded varieties grown were :- “Bigarreau, Bigarreau Napoleon, Black Eagle, Early Rivers, Elton, Governor Wood, Imperatrice Ugenie, Knight’s Early Black, May Duke, Mumford (or Mountford), Oliver’s Black, Ox Heart, Smokey Dun, Waterloo, White Heart.”

Great interest in fruit developed in the late 19th century. In 1883, 1545 varieties of apples were displayed by the Royal Horticultural Society. Now, one hundred years later there has been another surge of interest, this time with a realisation that in the face of modern cultivation and marketing many old varieties of apple were in danger of disappearing completely. Many old varieties of cherry are also in great danger of being lost forever and, unfortunately, the discovery and rescue of old types of cherry is neglected. There are about 300 varieties of cherry now listed, many grown around Bewdley and some exclusive to the West Midlands, making a significant contribution to the local economy.

The 1957 National Fruit Tree Census showed 737,000 cherry trees: 76.6% in Kent; 8.0% in Worcestershire; 2% in Herefordshire. The remaining 13.4% were scattered, mostly in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, East Anglia and the Tamar valley in Cornwall. So 55 years ago north Worcestershire produced 8% of the national crop of cherries. Soon after 1957 the trade ceased quite abruptly and any orchards which remain are derelict and only of value as wildlife refuges.

An attempt is being made to find and propagate what remains of this dwindling heritage of genetic variety, to rejuvenate old orchards and restock with traditional varieties, many characteristic of the West Midlands. Several groups are involved with this task: Natural England, the Wyre Forest Landscape Partnership and Bewdley Civic Society being some. Bewdley Civic Society is staging a revival of the Cherry Fair as a contribution to this effort. In reviving the Cherry Fair, albeit in a very modest way, we are hoping to generate interest and awareness among local people.

Modern cultivation of cherries on dwarf stocks (Colt and Gisela) and the introduction of new self-fertile varieties mean that cherry growing in protected conditions can once more be a commercial proposition. This should be encouraged. With more demand and increased supply perhaps prices may fall and more home grown cherries will become available as a main crop and not just a special luxury.