Cider Country - How an ancient craft became a way of life

James Crowden with his book Cider Country and a bottle of Stoke Red Sparkling Cider from Burrow Hill

James Crowden with his new book Cider Country which he will be talking about, along with a cider tasting, at the Bridport Literary Festival in November - Credit: jamescrowden.co.uk

James Crowden reveals the Dorset cider makers that feature in his book Cider Country which he will talking about, with a glass of local cider, at the Bridport Literary Festival

Back in 1793 John Claridge estimated that there were 10,000 acres of orchard in Dorset. And with 269 parishes in Dorset that averages out at about 37 acres per parish. So, with about five farms per parish that is seven acres a farm which is about right. Dorset farm workers were a very thirsty bunch and not just that, the cider went up to London by sailing vessel and, like the Devon cider, was often used to dilute or fortify the foreign wines which needed perking up. Cider also went out to Newfoundland on the cod fishing vessels. Big business from Poole and Bridport. Dorset cider was rather useful for washing down salt cod which was, after a few weeks on the trot, rather boring. 

Cider was still very important in the 19th century, and cider apples were imported from Normandy, Brittany and Jersey. Even in the 1960s French cider apples went by goods trains from Poole Harbour right up to Bulmers in Hereford. Always at night under steam. And with a full moon the smells of 600 tons of ripe cider apples trundling through Dorset was very beguiling. 

Cider making was a gentlemanly art - John Worlidge 1678. An illustration from Cider Country 

Cider making was a gentlemanly art - John Worlidge 1678. An illustration from Cider Country - Credit: jamescrowden.co.uk

There were also other links with France. During the Second World War, one Dorset cider maker, Jim Webber from Stoke Abbot, famously disapproved of D-Day or at least the timing of it.  

‘We had all these American soldiers turn up and they liked the cider. So, in the autumn of 1943 we bought in extra cider apples and cider barrels. And spent many happy evenings making cider. And when the cider was just getting good in June the next year, they b*****d off to Normandy…’  

Maybe Jim should have had a word with Eisenhower when he was visiting Parnham House in Beaminster. Jim died aged 105 3/4. I served mulled cider at his funeral 'tea' party. 

Fifty-years-ago artisan cider makers in Dorset were very thin on the ground. Netherbury was one outpost with two cidermakers, Hubert Warren and Mr Oliver. Netherbury and Melplash still have many cider apple orchards today. Good climate, good soil, good terroir. They supplied Bridport - ropemaking and net-making was thirsty work. Then further afield there was Frank Hillier at Okeford Fitzpaine, and Captain Thimbleby at Wolfeton House, Charminster just outside Dorchester, as well as the North Chideock cider gang… 

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Back in the 1980s I was a sheep shearer and shepherd in North Dorset. Farm workers still made cider for themselves. At one farm my brother and I bought an old mobile Victorian horse drawn cider press and scratter (a device that smashes the apples into a pulp known as ‘pomace’ which is  pressed to make the cider). All in for £50. Everyman must have a scratter…  

So, for a few years we made cider in Durweston near Blandford. Then my brother emigrated to New Zealand. He took the cider making equipment with him and put it to good use out there. Luckily, the local thatcher Andy Banwell carried on the cider making tradition. A few years later Andy encouraged Rose Grant of Winterborne Houghton to start cidermaking (Cider by Rosie), and so it went on. Rosie has also taught a few people. Cider makers are often very generous with sharing their skills and secret arts. 

Dorset Moonlight made by West Dorset cider maker Nick Poole at the West Milton Cider Company

Dorset Moonlight made by West Dorset's award-winning cider maker Nick Poole at the West Milton Cider Company - Credit: westmiltoncider.co.uk

One very important innovator is Nick Poole of West Milton. Not only does he make excellent cider – as the West Milton Cider Co - he also kick-started the famous Powerstock Cider Festival (taken over by the Melplash Cider Festival a few years ago with Nick’s blessing) and established the West Milton Cider Club. Along with the ex-Long Ashton pomologist, Liz Copas (look out for her new book Cider Apples: The New Pomona out this autumn), the duo has been identifying old Dorset cider apple varieties which have now been propagated by Adam's Apples, an apple tree and fruit tree nursery at Payhembury in East Devon. So those traditional local apple varieties have been saved for future cider makers.  

Click here to read about 8 Dorset cider brands to sample and a recipe for Dorset Apple Cake 

Harry Juniper cider jug from Bideford, one of the photographs in James Crowden's book Cider Country

Harry Juniper cider jug from Bideford in Devon, one of the photographs in James Crowden's book Cider Country - Credit: jamescrowden.co.uk

Dorset is now well and truly back on the national cider map and heaving with cider makers. All sorts of orchards, large and small, have been planted. There’s even a perry pear orchard near Salwayash. 

These and many more stories about the history of cider can be found in my latest book Cider Country: How an ancient craft became a way of life. And I will be giving an illustrated talk about the book, along with a cider tasting, at Bridport Literary Festival. I hope to see you there!  

James Crowden’s talk is on November 10 at 11.30am at the Electric Palace, Bridport. Book your tickets at bridlit.com 

James talks about this new book at the Bridport Literary Festival in November

James talks about this new book at the Bridport Literary Festival in November - Credit: James Crowden

About the book: Cidermaking has been at the heart of country life for hundreds of years. But the fascinating story of how this drink came into existence and why it became so deeply rooted in the nation’s psyche has never been told. In Cider Country: How an ancient craft became a way of life, James Crowden traces an elusive history stretching back to the ancient, myth-infused civilisations of the Mediterranean and the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan. Meeting cider experts, farmers and historians along the way, he unearths the surprising story of an apple that travelled from east to west and proved irresistible to everyone who tasted it. Turning to the present day, Crowden meets the next generation of cider makers and unearths a unique philosophy that has been shared through the ages. In the face of real challenges, these enterprising cider makers are still finding new ways to produce this golden drink that is enjoyed by so many. Spanning centuries and continents, Cider Country tells the story of our country through the culture, craft and consumption of our most iconic rural drink.

Cider Country: How an ancient craft became a way of life is published by Harper Collins £18.99)