Blessed apples

Julian Brown – Interpretation Manager

Belgian and French monks, as we know, spend their days brewing hellishly strong fruity beers to sell to hipsters in the East Village and Shoreditch. Beer being the new wine and all that, and hipsters being the kind of eejits who will pay top dollar for a beer that tastes of strawberries and – many hours later – peels off your skull from the inside.

We generally eschew that sort of thing in the UK, where it’s clearly understood that beer is not made out of fruit. Your dad’s terrible wine is made out of fruit, but beer – no.

The only monks in the UK who have understood this proud homebrew heritage are the Benedictines, who between them are responsible for the infamous Buckfast Tonic Wine – ‘Buckie’, the drinker’s friend – and Ampleforth cider.

The former, made by the monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, has a reputation that precedes it into hospital casualty departments and When Drink Goes Bad viral videos.

Ampleforth cider, however, is making a bid for respectability, on the back of rising interest in artisan-produced drinks. After all, you can’t get much more back-to-the-earth than a monk in sandals picking fruit from trees.

Apple Orchards, Ampleforth Abbey. Copyright NYMNPA.

It might be fresh-faced and wholesome, but it also turns out to be fairly big business for Ampleforth Abbey. Seven acres of orchards, two thousand trees, forty traditional varieties of apple – and a fistful of awards at serious food and drink festivals and ceremonies over the last few years.

To be fair, everything is still done by hand – from the picking of the apples to all the work in the cider mill, in which hangs a heavy miasma of fermented apples and buzzing wasps, which the operatives take in their stride.

The monks brought the knowledge with them from – where else? – France, back in 1802, when an exiled Benedictine community set down roots in the North Yorkshire countryside. They’ve been making cider, beer and brandy ever since, at first in small quantities for – ahem – personal use, but latterly to generate revenue for the abbey.

They run tours throughout the year, and there are different things to see at different times. Fantastic blossom on the trees between April and June; heavy crops of apples from July to September; and then pressing, fermenting and bottling in the autumn. The apple juice is allowed to ferment for eight months before being used, which is about seven months and 29 days longer than any multinational commercial cider maker manages.

The monks even have their own pub. I know! Let’s all sign on, right now. It’s a vocation, sure, and you have to get up at the crack of dawn, but come on, an abbey with a pub!

Disclaimer – I don’t really like cider. If I wanted to get drunk with apples, I’d eat apples while drinking beer.

But Ampleforth cider shows how local produce and artisan methods can gain a toehold in the most unlikely of places. And the orchards are stunning – serried rows of head-high trees, shaped by hand and cosseted, fed, watered and plucked by basket-carrying monks maintaining a 200-year-old tradition in the green North York Moors countryside.

Apple Orchards, Ampleforth Abbey. Copyright NYMNPA.

There are quite a few people making cider, beer and other beverages in and around the North York Moors – have a look here.

Sharing ground

Abi Duffy – Conservation Trainee

Every year one of the fifteen National Parks in the UK hosts a Farm Liaison Officers Meeting when staff who work with farmers and land managers and are involved with agri-environment and rural development initiatives, come together to discuss issues and opportunities, share their knowledge and learn specifically from the host Park. Although each National Park differs in terms of geography and local priorities, we all share two purposes and one socio-economic duty, and each Park landscape is nationally important.

Shave Wood Inclosure, New Forest. Copyright Julie Melin-Stubbs, New Forest National Park Authority.

This year, it was the New Forest National Park Authority’s turn to host the event. We got a fascinating insight into their landscape, their commoning cultural heritage, and their quality food and drinks producers making the most of their local assets.

View of a New Forest heathland landscape. Copyright Julie Melin-Stubbs, New Forest National Park Authority.

Commoning (exercising common rights to make use of common land)

Commoners have helped to shape and define the New Forest landscape over hundreds of years by turning out their animals to graze the common land. It is this created landscape which has led to the area being designated as a National Park.

The feral/tame animals which roam the New Forest have owners who have the ‘Rights of Common of Pasture’. These common rights are attached to properties, rather than to individual people. We met the Head Agister for the New Forest and a practising commoner at the Beaulieu Sales Yard to learn more about commoning as a way of life. What was made clear is that local people are very passionate about their commoning heritage and want to see this way of life continued through future generations.

Beaulieu Sales Yard. Copyright Julie Melin-Stubbs, New Forest National Park Authority.

Working in partnership the New Forest Verderers (responsible for overseeing common rights and employing the Agisters) and Commoners, the New Forest National Park Authority, and the Forestry Commission (one of the largest landowners) were successful in applying to Natural England for funding for Europe’s largest agri-environment scheme (Higher Level Stewardship) which aims to restore and enhance the New Forest’s mosaic of habitats over time.

To help sustain the commoning culture within the New Forest, the Commoners Dwelling Scheme has been set up by the New Forest National Park Authority. New Forest Commoners can sign up to an agreement with the Authority committing themselves to continue to common and to only sell on to another committed commoner, and they can then apply for planning permission to build outside of villages which is usually heavily restricted. We met a local lady who built a house through the scheme and owns cattle, sheep and New Forest ponies which graze in the fields by her home and outside on the expanse of common land. We also heard about a project where Commoner’s old photographs and associated stories are being recorded so that this intrinsic part of the New Forest’s history is not lost.

Local Produce – the New Forest Marque

The New Forest Marque scheme is supported by the New Forest National Park Authority, as part of the socio-economic duty of all National Park Authorities to foster the social and economic well-being of their local communities.

The Marque is awarded to quality produce which has been reared/crafted/produced locally and demonstrates to consumers that they are purchasing a product made with local ingredients identified with the image/ideal of the New Forest. The scheme helps to champion businesses which produce quality local products, which in turn champions traditional farming techniques that are distinct to the cultural heritage of the New Forest. We visited the Lyburn Cheese Factory, which is a member of the New Forest Marque. Lyburn Cheesemakers is a family run business which produces high quality cheeses for local deli counters, the restaurant trade and even Waitrose.  We learned about the process of cheese making from the milking of the cows through to the packaging up of the end product. We were also lucky enough to sample some of the cheeses which were absolutely delicious.

We also got to visit the Dancing Cows Distillery and Brewhouse where they create artisan beers and spirits. They use local fruit and barley in their ingredients and their products are sold at markets and in pubs across the New Forest. Following on from the cheese tasting, we also got to imbibe some of the spirits which was very much appreciated!

Future agri-environment support

We spent a good part of the time discussing the future of agri-environment policies. National Park Authorities across the UK recognise that a high level of coordination and collaboration is needed to plan for the future of environmental policy after Brexit. Working together National Park Authorities are hoping to be able to help shape the future which is so important to our landscapes. We’re all wanting a new effective and acceptable framework in which land managers and organisations can work together to achieve sustainable farming that produces good quality products whilst delivering positive environmental outcomes. Collaborative local decision making within National Parks working with farmer networks and environmental interest groups can help to achieve this. We’ll keep you posted.

Conclusion

Our visit to the New Forest National Park reinforced my understanding of the National Park family – we are one of many and all National Park Authorities are trying to do similar things for the nation. It has been very interesting to visit somewhere so different to the North York Moors and learn about the landscape and cultural heritage that make the New Forest special, but there are also shared issues which don’t seem 300 miles away.

View of the New Forest landscape. Copyright Julie Melin-Stubbs, New Forest National Park Authority.

It will be our turn to host the Farm Liaison Officers Meeting in 2019.