Apple Day - a look at the autumn tradition in Derbyshire

The obligatory morris dancers

The obligatory morris dancers - Credit: Archant

Richard Bradley runs the rule over a fairly modern tradition now firmly rooted in Derbyshire.

Longest peel competition

Longest peel competition - Credit: Archant

Being a folklorist is a very different discipline to being, say, a physicist. It’s not an exact science, and part of the beauty and mystery of studying something like the ancient Castleton Garland Ceremony is that because it has taken place since long before an age of mass literacy, its meaning has now become obscure to us, and therefore we can only speculate: is it a bound-beating ceremony, an ancient Pagan fertility rite to mark the return of summer, a ritual Morris dance, or an annual event held to mark the restoration of the Stuart monarchy – or a mixture of all of the above?

No such mystery surrounds this month’s featured October custom. It is a relatively recent tradition, so the facts surrounding its origin are well documented.

Apple Day was instigated by the environmental charity Common Ground in 1990 out of a desire to create a brand new calendar custom and autumn holiday, ‘intended to be both a celebration and a demonstration of the variety we are in danger of losing, not simply in apples, but in the richness and diversity of landscape, ecology and culture too’, as well as ‘play[ing] a part in raising awareness in the provenance and traceability of food’, according to their website.

The designated day chosen by Common Ground to hold an Apple Day is October 21, however this is flexible, and in practice people organising Apple Days tend to choose a weekend date in mid-October to stage their own events in order to maximise attendance. From the first seed of the 1990 Apple Day arranged by Common Ground at London’s Covent Garden, the custom has blossomed to over 600 events taking place right across the UK in recent years.

Apple varieties

Apple varieties - Credit: Archant

The longest-running Derbyshire-based event is Cromford Apple Day, which first took place in 1995 and was initially organised by Scarthin Books, the village’s legendary independent and second-hand booksellers. In the past decade the running of the event has been taken over by Celebrating Cromford, the village community organisation, but still takes place in the shadow of the bookshop.

Cromford is of course the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution – the first factory village, meticulously planned out by Richard Arkwright with cottages to house his workers on and around North Street and Cromford Hill, with a Market Place designed to be the focal point of the community. And a sense of industriousness was very much to be found on display at Apple Day.

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When I arrived in Cromford to document their Apple Day back in 2016, scenes of great activity were taking place in the car park of The Boat Inn, just off the Market Place. An efficient factory-style production line process of which Arkwright himself would take pride was in full sway, with communal picnic benches laden down with chopping boards and knives for quartering apples. Stage two of the process involves three mincing machines into which the quartered apples are tipped. Turning the wheeled handle dices the apples (and anything else placed into them – all three have the instruction ‘NO FINGERS’ sternly marker-penned on them) into small chunks. For stage three, these chunks are deposited into either of the two old fashioned screw presses on site, or into a large wooden contraption looking like it has been unearthed from a Medieval torture chamber. This consists of a giant lever with a long wooden arm upon which several local schoolchildren are obligingly sat, in order to weigh it down to crush the apples inside the press.

Apple Day is a very family-friendly custom, and I arrived at Cromford accompanied by my parents and eldest son (then aged four). We had spent the morning harvesting apples from a tree in the garden of my parents’ neighbours at Two Dales, and arrived at Cromford with three bags full. We had no clue as to what variety they were, or whether they were cooking apples – we suspected they were, and if so, weren’t sure they would be suitable for juicing. A quick scan of the all-knowing internet revealed that they were indeed usable, and that the most successful apple juices often come from a blend of sharp cooking apples and sweet varieties.

The finished product

The finished product - Credit: Archant

My dad set to work at the chopping board and my son Oscar had a go at the second phase, the dicing. Finally, I added our diced apples to the bottom layer of sweet apples that remained in the press from a previous participant. In theory (if the internet was to be believed) this should create the perfect juice. And, upon tasting the liquid that came out of the tap, it did prove to be extremely tasty. You will have to forgive my deficiency of journalistic skill here, but the only way I can convey it in words is that it simply tasted more appley than the juice that you buy from the shops – leaving you to wonder what exactly goes into the shop-bought stuff in order to preserve it (the trade-off being, the organisers of Apple Day advise drinking your Cromford juice within 48 hours of pressing).

This being an English rural event, by law there are required to be Morris dancers present, and the Ripley Morris Men were ably fulfilling that duty, with their squeezebox, bells and capering hobby horse. At one point they plucked a woman from the crowd and hoisted her onto one of their member’s shoulders.

Other diversions on offer included a stall with an old-fashioned set of weighing scales used for the judging of the Heaviest Conker Competition (we had also spent time that morning collecting fallen conkers from Whitworth Park, but failed to enter ours in time before the cut-off point for judging). There were some old-fashioned racks of test tubes in the ‘Apple Science’ display, with advice from the Darley Abbey Cider Project on acidity and fermentation for anyone who homebrews their own cider. Visitors could construct apple sculptures out of chunks of apple and cocktail sticks, peel an apple into a continuous spiral of peel using another impressive contraption, buy apple trees and numerous varieties of apples from a community orchard in Hackney, and construct tessellations (a pattern constructed from a repeating arrangement of shapes) on a giant board outside Scarthin Books – a particular passion of bookshop owner Dave Mitchell, which he was sharing with visitors.

The following year I went along to Baslow’s Apple Day, held in the village’s community orchard, which was established on land off Over Lane in 2012. Here again were to be found a great variety of activities happening within a concentrated area: the Baslow branch of the WI had a stall selling tea and cakes; a small orchestra were playing music under a tent; there was a competition for the longest continuous apple peel, the results being pegged to a washing line; children could make their own rockets to launch out of empty pop bottles; and an oak tree was providing a natural climbing frame for the many children present. And, of course, there was again the opportunity to chop, dice and pulp the apples you had brought along into juice.

Cromford Apple Day was initially organised by Scarthin Books

Cromford Apple Day was initially organised by Scarthin Books - Credit: Archant

Whilst it may be a modern custom, in the 30 years since it was first staged Apple Day has become well established, and a well-tailored celebration specific to early autumn time, before the shorter days again return.

It has also spread across the county, so if you are a Derbyshire-based reader, wherever you live there should – had 2020 been a normal year – be an event happening not too far away. Other Derbyshire locations that have celebrated their own Apple Days in recent years include Swadlincote, New Mills, Bamford, Calke Abbey, and the Dove Valley Centre near Longnor.

Alas, despite their outdoor nature, given the ongoing social distancing arrangements none will be going ahead this year – so a glass of supermarket juice it will have to be this time around…

Baslow Apple Day

Baslow Apple Day - Credit: Archant

Hard at work at Cromford Apple Day

Hard at work at Cromford Apple Day - Credit: Archant