The Cheshire Orchard Project and fight to bring local apple varieties back to the public

Katie Lowe inspecting some Cheshire 'Millicent Barnes' apples

Katie Lowe inspecting some Cheshire 'Millicent Barnes' apples - Credit: Archant

Cheshire once had a great name for apples. Now the fight is on to popularise the Cheshire varieties once again

Cheshire 'Millicent Barnes' apples

Cheshire 'Millicent Barnes' apples - Credit: Archant

Look at the apples in most supermarkets and you’d think England barely grew them, though Kent and Somerset may feature. Yet Cheshire once had a great name for the fruit, supplying Liverpool and Manchester, and the Cheshire Landscape Trust (CLT) and some of our grandest gardens are fighting to bring local varieties back.

‘There’s a long tradition of growing fruit trees in Cheshire, particularly in Victorian walled gardens,’ says Katie Lowe of the CLT: ‘And there were quite a number of nurseries here that developed their own varieties - places like Eaton Hall, the Duke of Westminster’s home. The head gardener at Eaton Hall at the turn of the last century, Nicholas Barnes, developed several.’

The Cheshire Orchard Project coordinated by the CLT has discovered some 33 local cultivars so far, and there may be others waiting to be identified and disseminated.

‘We work most closely with Norton Priory, they have an orchard at the museum of specifically Cheshire Varieties, established about 15 years or so. Tatton Park is another good one, with a fine orchard, they reinstated their kitchen garden a few years ago and planted fruit trees,’ says Katie.

Norton Priory is a good place to learn about the old cultivars: ‘We have apples in the walled garden and some at the museum,’ says Walled Garden Ranger Paul Quigley: ‘They’re labelled so visitors can identify them. Of the Cheshire varieties we have Arthur Barnes, Millicent Barnes, Sure Crop, Withington Welter and Lord Derby.’

To help spread the word, and the cultivars, Norton’s experts are teaching fruit-tree skills to the public: ‘We ran a grafting course earlier this year, and we’re hoping to do more – we’d like people to come along, learn how to graft, prune, and actually grow these old Cheshire varieties on,’ says Paul.

Most Read

Katie cites several reasons for maintaining the old varieties, among them bio-diversity and disease resistance, and of course taste: ‘Local varieties like the Withington Welter are very tasty indeed. The Lord Derby cooker is good, the Millicent Barnes is really excellent, a nice eating apple. One of the Cheshire apples is brilliant for cooking – the Withington Welter, it’s a huge cooker, the size of a grapefruit, that cooks down to a fluff so it’s cracking for purees and sauces, and it has a lot more flavour than the Bramley.’

Sentiment and history are further spurs to the project: ‘They are important too as part of our heritage and culture,’ says Katie: ‘A lot are named for local places, so they’re very specific to those spots – Eccleston Pippin, Moston Seedling, Elton Beauty, the Chester Pearmain, the Wareham Russet - Wareham is the old name for Weaverham - there are links to that still, a primary school in Weaverham and various roads there with russet in the name.’ At Norton Priory the trees are a reminder of the orchards the Augustinian canons kept in medieval times.

It’s not just great houses where the work is being done: ‘For the past few years we have been running a community orchard project, where we’ve got money via grants to plant them across the county. Over the last two years we’ve planted more than 30 sites like school grounds, or public spaces, so open for people to visit at any time,’ explains Katie. These orchards can be found across the county, for example at Hopyards near Northwich, at Anderton on Daisy House Meadow, Ashton Hayes Community Field, Delamere Primary School, Nantwich Riverside, Whitby Park in Ellesmere Port and Stanney Fields Park in Neston.

The grafting classes and tree planting will give future generations more chances to try the flavour of apples like Rakemaker, Rival and Rascal, but for those too impatient to wait Norton Priory offers a short-cut: ‘We sell some of the apples at reception, and celebrate Apple Day in October, this year the 13th, when people come along for various family activities,’ says Paul Quigley.

Some Cheshire varieties

Eccleston Pippin – keeps its shape when cooked, nice yellow flesh

Elton Beauty – soft fleshed dessert apple, suggestion of berry flavour

Lord Derby – sharp cooker suited to pies

Millicent Barnes – crunchy eater with bite

Sure Crop – dual purpose, rich cooker to Christmas, mellow eater afterwards

Withington Welter – great for flavoursome apple sauce