“If you ever visit Tenbury take any road that comes
When April turns to beauty the cherries and the plums”
Last April was a quiet time in the Teme valley. As our everyday hustle-bustle came to a stop, a landscape opening into spring gave succour to all stay-at-home residents, fearful as they were for family, neighbours and friends. David Hockney, famous for trying to capture its wonder in paint, was reported as saying, “nothing can stop the spring” and how right he was. By wonderful chance, a lengthy spell of dry and sunny weather came along and the valley’s glory, its fruit blossom, put on the best display that I can remember. Wild cherries in woodland and hedgerow, then orchard trees of damson, plum, pear and apple contributed to the show. Although the sight must be vastly less than in its heyday, there’s still enough blossom in the valley to admire and in 2020 it was particularly welcome. Let’s hope for a repeat show in 2021.
Cherries are of interest because they have always done well in our area. We share with Kent the right conditions to suit them and, of course, the same is true of hops. Three cherry species are thought to have existed in Britain since the last Ice Age; Prunus spinosa, the sloe, Prunus avium, the wild cherry, also known as the gean, and Prunus padus, the bird cherry. This latter is less familiar and has small white blooms in spires, like tiny horse chestnut flowers.
Cherries were first cultivated by selecting wild cherries which bore good fruit. These were grafted onto hardy stocks to plant as orchard trees. In Tudor times new varieties were brought in from France and the Low Countries, they were promoted by Henry VIII who loved cherries. After the Civil War, following great destruction to all manner of crops, there was increased interest in fruit-growing. By 1665, an influential book by John Rea of Kinlet, recommended 16 different cherry varieties. Over a century later, another pioneering local horticulturalist, Andrew Thomas Knight of Elton in North Herefordshire, developed many more new varieties. Some, such as Elton and Knight’s Early Black, are still in cultivation today.
Bewdley once had a cherry fair and an old charter mentions that the custom of selling cherries near the church was already ninety years old by 1601.Cherry-growing has revived of late in Herefordshire. Plastic poly-tunnels are now used to protect the flowers from frosts and the fruit from rain and the trees are on dwarf stock for ease of picking. Gone are the days when people rose early to start picking the crop at 4am, protecting it from birds by clanging scrap-metal and packing it into wicker baskets for the lorry to Newnham Bridge station. Some of you will remember though, some of you will even have climbed those ladders.