Cider & The Orchard

Nestled between the North York Moors National Park and the Howardian Hills, Ampleforth Abbey could scarcely occupy a more serene and picturesque location.

It’s fair to assume that the community of Benedictine Monks who settled here have always had some provision of fresh apples. As farms were acquired in the valley and both the community and school grew, it’s likely that apples would have played an important role in providing fresh fruit for a good portion of the year.

Remnants of the first formal orchard can be found within the grounds of the school – a Lord Derby by the Procurator’s building which continues to bear fruit after well over a hundred years – and further evidence can be seen on the banks below the road to Ampleforth village, where a few dozen large, ‘standard’ trees still flourish.

However, it was Fr. Edmund Hatton who planted the orchard as we know it today.

 

He dedicated much of his time at Ampleforth from the late 1940s to establishing and tending to the trees. As son of distinguished pomologist Sir Ronald Hatton, who himself was director of the East Malling Research Station in Kent, Fr. Edmund adopted the East Malling row system, whereby the trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstocks. Planted close together and kept low through pruning, the entire harvest could be picked easily and without ladders.

Such a system though relies heavily on manual labour, since all the trees must be picked by hand and require constant care. As the availability of fresh produce from elsewhere increased and the demand for apples waned, the monks found themselves with a glut of fruit (upwards of 30 tonnes in a good year).

It was sometime in the early 2000s that one member of the community had an idea to utilize the excess harvest by making cider. Initially a hobby, Ampleforth Abbey Drinks is now run by lay staff for the benefit of the community, supplying many local farmshops, visitors centres and pubs with our award-winning produce.

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Tree planting orchard
Tree planting orchard

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The orchard too continues to evolve.

 

Dwarf trees in a commercial setting are often grubbed-out and replanted on 12-year cycles, so it’s no surprise that our 40-year-old orchard is reaching the end of its life. We have now begun to take out the most diseased and least productive trees to make way for new ones on a more vigorous rootstock and wider spacing.

We currently have over 70 different varieties in our orchard. Contrast this to a commercial orchard which may only grow a few in line with retail demand, and yet there are over 2000 in the National Apple Collection at Brogdale in Kent. Our replanting programme is a fantastic opportunity to showcase much more of our apple heritage. As well as broadening our product range and extending our season, this will also go a long way to futureproofing our orchard, ensuring there is a good harvest – and a good supply of cider! - for many years to come.

Although not certified organic, we apply no chemicals to our orchard, preferring instead to manage it through careful husbandry, selective pruning, and by encouraging beneficial flora and fauna to flourish. In recent years we’ve witnessed this happening – small birds and mammals are now abundant, and where once the grass would have been close-mown and weeds sprayed off, it's now left to grow along with the meadow flowers that reside among it.

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