by Mike Shorland

I sometimes wonder about fairytales. They do exist right? Not the dancing around talking to animals, and breaking into spontaneous song vibe, but in a more tangible, more human way. A real way.

With the best Disney tales we are swept up in a magical story, the narrative of good things eventually happening to good people, and then the tale ending with the characters finding happiness. The heart warming, feel good, conclusion.

Except the feels. The real feels. They happen as you go along. Every day, not ever after. 

Happiness is never a fixed state. Its not a make believe plateau that one day we will reach. When you are young every day feels like an event, and you live in the moment. Research suggests this is true in your later years too – the late autumn of your life. When my mum got ill she talked about adding “life to her years”, not as concerned with years to her life. But here in the middle we often feel lost in the woods, we don’t have the palace, there are chores to do and we often don’t feel appreciated. Sometimes it feels like a hundred year sleep is exactly what we need.

When we feel like this we need something to break the spell. A magical moment. A treasuring of life’s ups and downs. So let me tell you a tale.


There are days when I feel there is no more magical spot on the entire planet than here in Devon. If I was to ask you to describe your fairytale setting – you might start with gently rolling emerald green countryside. You might add an oversaturated blue sky, and a cobalty meandering river. The Dart, perhaps, or maybe Exe really does mark the spot.

And then as we add some detail, we draw in some trees. Not the dense canopy of a woodland. We can feel the warmth of the sun, and we are bathed in brightness, the grass decorated with wildflowers. There’s probably some apples. Most make believe tales feature them in some way.

So I think we are in an orchard. A place magical and enchanting. A place full of dreams and wishes. A real wonderland. And now I can add the final details. There are bees. The low pitched buzz of the bumble. Defying physics. Their wings technically too small for the size of their bodies. The magical transformation of the flower. From tiny bud blossoming into coloured petals. And then into fruits. Plums, pears, cherries perhaps.

And of course, the humble apple. The under appreciated orchard fruit. Out in the wind and the rain, baked in the sun. Providing so much but asking for so little in return. Is there anything more nourishing. Not just in a foodstuffs way, but a deep and fulfilling way.

So lets add some characters. A veritable cast for our tale. Who better a heroine than the Fair Maid of Devon. I can picture her grafting in the yard with her understanding companions Brown Snout and Pigs Nose. We need an overbearing familial protagonist. Maybe her aunt, Devon Crimson Queen. Small in stature, with bright red lips, auburn hair, and a fiery personality. Sitting atop her throne in the great hall. Major, is her greedy and rather rotund assistant, bristling with evil machinations. Tremletts Bitter and Ellis Bitter are the impulsive and courageous twins, ready to cause trouble.

Is there a role for Sweet Alford, a grandfatherly figure, I picture with a big white beard, a cane made from an old apple branch, and gentle word of advice. And we need a handsome, charming, and swashbuckling prince. I did consider Tom Putt, but this is my story, so lets call him Mike.

These are the names of apples of course. In the same way wine has its grape varieties that you can probably name off the tip of your tongue. Beer has its named hops such as Citra, Cascade, and Fuggle. Different varieties offering different options and flavour characteristics.

There are thousands of different apple varieties, – undoubtedly the most diverse offering of any fruit. Forget what you see in the supermarket, where cost and convenience have triumphed over flavour. Different apple varieties can be harvested from August to Christmas. They can be eaten fresh from the tree, cooked or baked in a whole manner of ways, and of course fermented.

Fairytales often feature a transformation of sorts. From rags to riches, from beans to magic beanstalk. And from our humble apple we can create cider.  The belle of the ball, with its ugly sisters, beer and wine, offering such simplicity in comparison.

Devon Crimson Queen, Queenie, produces a blushing erubescent juice and once fermented does have a sour kick, but brings a brightness to our drink. The Major apple is aptly named indeed – as a cider its quite full bodied in flavour, with a rough intensity, and loves meaty dishes. Tremletts and Ellis Bitter apples are coarse, a little aggressive when young, but develop and mature into exceptional characters.

And all these characters are traditional Devon apples. Sometimes with a history hundreds of years old – Sweet Alford, is a legendary apple and dates back to the 1700’s. Across the country many of our more well known cider apples date back to the mid 19th Century. In this Victorian age apples were treasured and showcased. Nurseries abounded, where skilled horticulturists (‘pomologists’) would research and experiment and graft. But of course, apples will grow from pips, and I think here in Devon, many of our apple varieties would have originated as wild seedlings. Appearing in hedgerows, compost heaps and uncultivated areas of farms. And given creative or playful names by farmers chatting at gateways.

Hangy Down, a messy tree with branches that droop towards the ground. One of my favourites is Stubbard – which looks like a toe that has been stubbed rather quite hard. Fillabarrel is very juicy. Hollow Core very light. Golden Knob, Farmers Glory and Slack ma Girdle I will leave to the readers imagination.

Devon has this fascinating history of apple names. Much more so that neighbouring Somerset, where place and appearance were key. Kingston Black, a dark red apple from Kingstone, near Taunton. Somserset Redstreak, with red streaks. I think you can probably guess where Yarlington Mill was found. Where is the imagination my old mendip muckers?

And what about Cornwall? They have a few – Cornish Aromatic, Cornish Gillyflower, Cornish mother, Cornish Rattler, Cornish…. Yeah we get it. The place that also brings us the Cornish Pasty, and Cornish Cream. It was, after all, only a thousand years ago that Cornwall was its own kingdom. What do you expect from a county that puts the jam on first!

Devon has all the attributes to be the British heartland of orchards – the perfect ‘terroir’ (a French term to describe all the environmental factors that could affect the fruit). It has the famous devon red soil – a perfect slightly acidic clay/loam combination, long sunshine hours, and the wild and rugged Dartmoor – 250 square miles of elevated granite creating microclimates on the surrounding countryside. In times gone by granite was taken out of the moor, chisseled, broken and then shaped to create circular troughs with a horse powering a granite crusher to break up the apples.

Mirror, mirror on the wall. I think its clear which county has the best apples of them all.

But away in the distance is the haunted wood. The evil witch. The proverbial wolf trying to blow our house down. Factories made of steel, tankers of concentrate, industrial and unnatural.

Nearly all the ciders you find in the supermarkets will be industralised – made from concentrate. Cider with its heart ripped out. All our apples with their own personalities and flavours homogenised –  boiled down under pressure into a uniform characterless sugar syrup. All their traits lost. Then rehydrated as and when needed. Have you ever tried made from concentrate orange juice compared to the fresh pressed?

If you ask the biggest producers they are honest. They say that they concentrate down the apple juice. Some showing off their concentrators on television. Some brands buying in concentrate from wherever. But, of course, they say it as a positive. It allows them to make cider all year round, and to make a consistent product. Don’t be fooled. This is not done for your benefit. This is about scale, and the mighty dollar. You can make a very consistent product from fresh pressed juice, or you could allow orchard characters to tell you their story – more authentic, more natural. Better.

These major producers are not interested in the nuanced flavours of our humble apple characters, or the fairytale spaces with old gnarled trees trees hunkered down in back gardens and smallholdings, our orchard heritage. They want monocultures, all ripening at the same time, good reliable croppers, that can be machine harvested. Maximum yields for the lowest cost.


The number of small traditional orchards in Devon has reduced by 90% since the 1950’s. If you look at the old Tithe maps of the 1840’s our county was absolutely filled with orchards of various sizes. And each would have contained a whole cast of different fruit varieties. They were still valued across the worn torn years and the depressions of the first half of the twentieth century evidenced by the post war aerial photographs. But by the 70’s we had started to lose our connection with the countryside, we were on the search for efficiencies, and life had started to become fast and busy.

Thankfully there is, across the country, but very evidently here in Devon a resurgence in orchard love. New orchards being planted. And new caretakers and custodians taking over old orchards. Old varieties being safeguarded. They see orchards as having value, not in the monetary sense, but as magical places full of life and vigour. And colour. The late great Terry Pratchet wrote of a colour called Octarine – a yellow / purple that is visible only to wizards and signifies the presence of magical energy. These orchard conservators have the robes, the hat, and the staff. Orchards have woven their spell.

They are making investments that are not financial. And they understand that if orchards are not valued then they are at risk. Orchards are not essential, but they are beautiful, full of ecological diversity and life. They are our heritage, culturally and socially. When I introduced some old apple varities before, and a few of their attributes, I bet you had already started to picture them for yourself.

But orchards are also slow. The main investment is that of time. If you plant a new orchard it may be 30 plus years before the trees start to fulfil their potential. If you plant perry trees then it will be your children or more likely your children’s children that are enchanted by them, staring up at their majesty. Even if you just make cider then you may be waiting many months for the fermentation. There is no instant gratification to be had here. You need patience. And in today’s world that is difficult.

We all feel it. There is no time. Days, weeks, months fly by. Life in fast forward. In my previous job I would go into the site office of a morning and be faced with a wall of Gantt charts and spreadsheets. This is where the job needs to be today. On the way home I was a lane changing, second saving, station surfer. Lunch was twenty minutes – I would set an alarm. And when I watched tele I prefer if its pre-recorded so I can skip through boring bits.

I think we all have a tendency to want to act. Films do well when they are action packed. No one goes to the cinema for the latest snoozer. John Wick sits quietly or Mission: Mindfullness.  The Slow and the Steady probably wouldn’t have had 9 sequels. But life is not a race. We enjoy the film all the way through, we don’t skip to the end. We can make our lives simpler if we are present in the moment. If we are take our time, look around us and enjoy all the tiny little details, then maybe our spirits can be lifted.

I was in an old Devon orchard recently with my own Fair Maid, called Claire, my amazing partner, and our ten year old dog. We were pruning, and I had got myself into the tree. The low sun dappled through the branches. A robin chirped from the hedgerow. Pruning is a slow activity. You deal with one branch at a time. I was in the moment, and I found myself talking to the tree. “Ok, old fella”. “How do you feel about this branch here? Its crossing and we could do with getting a bit more light into the middle”.

Don’t tell anyone, but I think it talked back. “Makes sense” it whispered. “Thankyou” it said as I trimmed the branch off. Magical and ever so polite, even as the cold hand of winter has it locked in its grip.

We touched upon the French term that encapsulates the geography, the climate, the characters that make up their wines – the terroir. But the French have further phrases that we can use to help us appreciate the joy that each day can bring – ‘l’art de livre’ – the art of living. ‘joie de vivre’ the joy of being alive. Maybe ‘dolce far neinte’ – the sweet doing of nothing.

Life is about the here and now. Being in the moment. And if we can then connecting with the land and the people that you are with. Maybe visit an orchard, and talk to some old trees. That, my friends, is when dreams come true.