Do the names Tom Putt, Ross Nonpareil, Charles Ross, Tan Harvey, Tommy Knight, Sidney Strake, Roy Rowe, Peter Lock, Johnny Voun, John Broad and Claygate Pearmain ring any bells? Could they all have been farm-workers at a long-forgotten Cornish estate? And what of Polly Whitehair, Ivy Pearce, Fern Pippin and Scotch Bridget? Were they the faithful ladies who prepared tea for the men at harvest-time?

In fact, every one of these curious names are species of apple which were, until the middle of the 20th century, familiar and important elements of Westcountry fruit harvests. How times change; look in the average fruit bowl today and the likelihood is the apples are from France, America, New Zealand... anywhere but from an orchard up the road.

In recent decades, Britain – a country that enjoys a climate conducive to the production of healthy, abundant and disease-resistant apples – has imported apples by the ton from abroad. And it was this somewhat perverse development which led a couple from the Tamar Valley – an area famed for its fruit production – to begin searching out and preserving the remaining old Cornish and Devon varieties that might have survived.

Thirty five years later, well-known painter Mary Martin and engineer James Evans have recorded their findings in a detailed book, complete with colour photographs and descriptions for easy identification.

A Cornish Pomona lists dozens of varieties, from Adam’s Pearmain to Zennor Beauty. Describing their size, colour, flavour, uses, heritage, cropping, location of specimen and a host of other details – including which ones have now been added to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent – Mary and James’s original research contributes hugely to our knowledge of the subject.

As well as recording the various varieties, the couple began their own orchard of native trees 21 years ago. Then, in 2007, they established an eight-acre “Mother Orchard” on the National Trust’s Cotehele estate. Containing 300 trees representing 120 varieties, this living collection will ensure that the surviving Westcountry apple types will continue to thrive.

Some might question the purpose of building an apple collection, but the answer is simple. With worldwide commercial production dominated by a small number of varieties – Golden Delicious, Gala, Pink Lady, Sunrise – the genetic risk of disease from such uniformity is enormous. Compare this to the disease-resistant qualities of apple trees developed and nurtured to flourish in specific soil conditions and climates. A Cornish Pomona lists more than 170 varieties that remain robust in the moist conditions of the South West.

However, a mission to save the stocks of indigenous fruits is not uppermost in most people’s minds when selecting something from the fruit bowl; it’s taste. And as anyone attending any of the autumn apple days led by Mary and James at Cotehele will know, the difference in flavour between a Hocking’s Green and a Gro-Bi-Night or a Banana Pippin and a Cat’s Head is revelatory.

Walking through their extensive orchard near St Dominic, trees dripping with apples of all shapes, sizes and colours, Mary and James share their passion for a fruit that has been enjoyed for centuries – raw, cooked and for cider.

“There’s nothing quite like that first apple – it’s such a joy,” said Mary, admiring the burnished skin of a Ben’s Red. “Sadly the domination of supermarkets has robbed of us of that pleasure of seasonality.”

Checking four grafts on a single trunk, James adds: “The thing about old Cornish apples is that they actually look Cornish. They’re often very knobbly, russety, and with a pinched pig’s nose. Because they’ve thrived here, they tend to be tough and disease-resistant – and the flavours and uses are varied too. People today don’t know what they’re missing.”

Mary, who grew up in the Tamar Valley has, since the 1970s, documented the decline of the area’s fruit-growing in her expressive paintings of old apple and cherry orchards. James is from nearby Trecarrell Mill and, as a boy, remembers a range of trees on his parents’ farm in the 1950s.

The couple’s first foray into the world of old apples came in 1980 when they revived cider-making in the Tamar Valley, helped by a number of older residents who remembered the practice as an annual event.

“One old chap suggested we should use Colloggett Pippins,” said Mary. “And that was the start – it set us searching. We did find a solitary Colloggett Pippin tree, but of course when you start looking for one thing you’re bound to find something else and one thing led to another.”

On their bikes or walking, Mary and James travelled around East Cornwall in search of surviving trees, before extending their quest throughout the whole of Cornwall.

“We started this in the nick of time,” said James. “Of course, if we’d started 10 years earlier it would have been even better – but at least we didn’t start 10 years later because if we had, many of these varieties would inevitably have been lost.”

Cornwall and Devon are the beneficiaries of their foresight. Hopefully, as increasing numbers of gardeners seek out native or naturalised varieties of apple tree for planting, so the old varieties may re-establish. The two “mother” orchards, meanwhile, will inform future generations.

A Cornish Pomona is a beautifully designed and produced book, which is both informative and entertaining and will hopefully also stand as a symbolic milestone in the movement away from globalism and back to localism.

With forewords by Gardeners’ World presenter Chris Beardshaw and pomologist and author Barrie Juniper, A Cornish Pomona: A Selection of Westcountry Apple Varieties by James Evans and Mary Martin is priced £7.50 and available from book shops in Liskeard, Saltash, Tavistock, Fowey, and Endsleigh Gardens Nursery in Milton Abbot. It can also be obtained direct from the authors at Ashbarn, Bury, Callington, Cornwall PL17 8BP. Mary and James will be signing copies of their book at Cotehele’s Apple Day on Sunday September 21. For more details visit marymartin.co

Apple studies bear fruit after 35 years for couple dedicated to preserving fruit


by Simon Parker, Western Morning News -Tuesday, September 2, 2014