56 The cherry on top

Henry VIII or­dered cherry or­chards to be planted in Kent, the gar­den of Eng­land, where, as Nick Ham­mond dis­cov­ers, they con­tinue to flour­ish

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­tographs by Richard Can­non

Henry VIII or­dered cher­ries to be planted in Kent, the gar­den of Eng­land, where they con­tinue to flour­ish, says Nick Ham­mond

The hu­mid air hums with busy in­sects and a del­i­cate per­fume rolls on the breeze. In just 60 short days, these lit­tle pow­der-puff parcels of cherry blos­som will harden to dark, lus­cious fruits. For Sarah Neaves and her fam­ily, it is the cul­mi­na­tion of yet an­other 12 months of hopes and fears.

‘I find it very hard to de­scribe the emo­tions when we reach the sharp end of the sea­son,’ she ad­mits. ‘There is huge ex­cite­ment about the com­ing pick­ing sea­son, which al­ways brings such en­ergy to the farm. And there’s a fear of the un­known: bad weather, pests and dis­ease. What might go wrong? each year, it’s a mix of trep­i­da­tion and an­tic­i­pa­tion. It’s a pre­car­i­ous bal­ance.’

The Neaves fam­ily has grown fruit at Lit­tle Sharsted Farm near Can­ter­bury, Kent, since be­fore the Sec­ond World War. Although fruit of all sorts ripen here, cher­ries have al­ways been the pick of the crop. Brick earth soil and re­mark­ably high light lev­els, not to men­tion Kent’s warm, dry cli­mate, mean this is perfect fruit-grow­ing coun­try. ‘henry VIII’S gar­dener pin­pointed the best place in eng­land to grow cher­ries when he started his or­chards at Teyn­ham,’ points out Sarah, ‘and that’s only a mile and a half from here.’

After seven weeks of in­tense phys­i­cal and emo­tional en­ergy, the fi­nal cher­ries are picked from bare trees

For as far as the eye can see, the tun­nels, green­houses, vines and or­chards dot the rolling coun­try­side. Susan’s grand­fa­ther, Archie Neaves, grew tra­di­tional colt trees— of a num­ber of va­ri­eties, such as Frog­more, Mer­ton Glory, Gaucher and Early Rivers— some of which grew to 40ft– 50ft and re­quired special lad­ders to prune and pick.

These evoca­tive names still ex­ist, but modern de­mands for both perfection and quan­tity mean sub­tle changes have been made with new, hy­brid plants. Modern tech­niques have also changed the tra­di­tional im­age of row after row of blos­som­ing or­chards, open to the air and filled with chat­ter­ing chaffinches.

Through­out most of the year, the trees are ex­posed to the el­e­ments. How­ever, from April un­til Septem­ber, the fruits are grown un­der the par­tial cov­er­ing of poly­tun­nels. Some may dis­ap­prove of this modern ap­proach, but prac­ti­cal­ity has kept this farm vi­able. ‘In the past, we’ve lost 50% of our un­cov­ered har­vest due to heavy rains,’ re­veals Sarah. ‘We can’t af­ford to take such a dev­as­tat­ing hit—and the tun­nels al­low us to serve all the ma­jor su­per­mar­kets for as long as the sea­son goes on.’

It’s a mil­i­tary oper­a­tion to make the most of this nat­u­ral sur­plus. There are now some 90 acres of cher­ries un­der poly­tun­nel at Lit­tle Sharsted— Gisella root­stock that grow to no more than about 10ft and are there­fore eas­ier to main­tain and har­vest.

Early in the sea­son, lo­cal api­arists move their hives into the or­chards to al­low the bees to cre­ate honey and go about their cru­cial pol­li­na­tion work. Even bum­ble­bees are bought in each year—by post, in boxes—to sup­ple­ment the work. The or­chards are alive with in­sects while flow­er­ing lasts, which, in turn, brings in birds after food for their early broods.

If this brief ad­vent of blos­som is a de­light­ful sym­phony for the cherry grower, pick­ing time has a pound­ing rock beat. Stu­dents from near and far flock to the farm and pick­ing starts early in the day in the tun­nels, be­fore the heat be­comes too in­tense. Us­ing tra­di­tional Kib­sey bas­kets—wicker af­fairs that hang from can­vas belts— they are able to use both hands and carry fruit more com­fort­ably. There is lit­tle talk­ing; con­cen­tra­tion is key.

Lo­cals join the happy throng, but the ma­jor­ity of pick­ers are from else­where in Europe, where the end of term co­in­cides with the long pick­ing sea­son. Dur­ing its height, 60 pick­ers work at break­neck speed at Sharsted Farm. After an eight-hour shift, they re­tire to their digs nearby. ‘They can earn good money in

a short pe­riod of time,’ ex­plains Sarah. ‘And they al­ways bring a buzz to the place, a real sense of pur­pose. They put up foot­ball nets, en­joy bar­be­cues into the night and have a lot of fun once the pick­ing is done for the day.’

New va­ri­eties of cherry—mer­chant Kor­dia, Sum­mer Sun, Regina and Hert­ford Sweet­heart—are all de­signed to spread the sea­son and en­sure there is al­ways fruit to pick from June on­wards. The pick­ers’ trays are taken to the cold store, where it’s cru­cial to cool them down to a low, steady tem­per­a­ture as quickly as pos­si­ble. They’re then packed and loaded onto lor­ries, bound for de­liv­ery across the coun­try—lit­tle Sharsted cher­ries are typ­i­cally on su­per­mar­ket shelves within 36 hours of leav­ing the tree.

By the first week of Au­gust, the end is near. After seven weeks of in­tense phys­i­cal and some­times emo­tional en­ergy, the fi­nal cher­ries are picked from the now bare trees. Pack­ing will con­tinue for about a week more and then, as quickly as they ar­rived, the pick­ers up and leave, poly­tun­nels are taken down and the trees pruned and al­lowed to rest. Work­ers’ quar­ters are ti­died and the farm breathes a sigh of re­lief. ‘It’s a strangely melan­choly place then,’ ad­mits Sarah. ‘For seven weeks, it’s manic—with the noise, peo­ple and de­liv­er­ies, we barely sleep. Then it all goes very, very quiet.’

Cold is now needed for ger­mi­na­tion —about 1,500 hours in which the tem­per­a­ture is be­low 7˚C. Na­ture will take care of it. In the or­chards, all lies still once more.

Fam­ily legacy: Har­ris Neaves’s ( above) kin have been grow­ing cher­ries (and other fruits) at Lit­tle Sharsted Farm in Kent since be­fore the Sec­ond World War

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