There was a different vibe on the first Sunday of the month. Even as a young child I felt it. The hoover would wake me up early. The smell of polish hung in the air. Breakfast was soundtracked by furious peeling and chopping, and an unnerving lack of morning chit chat.

Granny and Grandpa would be coming for Sunday lunch. They would arrive exactly at 12.52 as our house was just a few minutes walk from Mass. I would avoid the stiff hallway greetings by playing with my toys on the living room floor. Quietly and tidily. And dressed in Sunday best.

“You had to get comfortable as these stories were brilliant. My great-great grandfather was a legend.”

As my mum led Granny out into the garden, my dad busied himself in the kitchen. Which meant Grandpa would come and lower himself into the armchair next to me.

For a while we both sat in silence. He was not known for his small talk, and I wonder if he found the interactions as awkward as I did. I desperately wanted him to ask me what game I was playing, or even offer a simple “vroom vroom” as I pushed my little cars around.

Sometimes I thought he had fallen asleep, but then his deep gruff voice would break the silence. “Back in my day…”. Words that would make me run out the room metaphorically screaming. Or worse…”When I was your age..” I am not sure what he was expecting from a young boy who could spend a full morning pushing play cars around the living room furniture. Even if I could make them leap from side table to side table.

But every so often the lecture would start with “Have I ever told you about my grandfather?”

These stories I loved. I would park the cars up, and turn and sit cross-legged. Elbows braced on knees, hands clasping calves. You had to get comfortable as these stories were brilliant. My great-great grandfather was a legend.

He was a Devonian ditch digger. Ivor was his name. Ivor pick and a spade by occupation.

Not a career path you aspire to nowadays, and even back then mostly regarded as the lowest rung in the farm workers hierarchy. At the top were the stockmen who held prestigious full time employment with the large estates. Hedge layers and stone masons were well respected too. Even the ratters were held in higher esteem.

Local inns would have signs. “No skulking loafers, flea bitten tramps, or dirty ditch diggers!”

But if you wanted a ditch, a trench, or a drain dug then there was only one person you wanted. Nobody was faster, cleaner or more accurate. Or if you wanted a bank cast up, or a track levelled. Crews of 3 or 4 would not achieve what Ivor could.

You would send out word for Ivor, and a few days later you would hear back

“Is he on his way?”

“No, me lord, he’s added you to the list.”

“The list? I want him here now!!”

“If you want Ivor, you wait for Ivor. Me lord.”

Then one morning out of the cold and caliginous mists a shape would appear. You could tell the man was lean. 364 and a half days a year of back breaking physical labour tended to keep you in shape. He carried just three things. A spade and a pick rested on one shoulder and slung from a string a large ceramic flagon.

“Not said in a disrespectful or recalcitrant manner, but just a quiet and composed surety that made it clear there was no conversation about pay, conditions, or even the nature of the work, until the apples had been checked.”

And Ivor was no dirty ditch digger. He was in fact, immaculately presented. Classic hand woven peeked cap, long clay pipe framed by a manicured moustache, white button down cotton shirt fastened at the wrists, decorative bow tie with matching herringbone waistcoat and jacket. A pair of pressed, plus twos completed the look. He was of course, like all Shorlands, ruggedly handsome.

He would nod and respectfully touch his cap as everyone arrived for work. He was no “flibbertigibbert” (grandpa’s word for a gossip) and would wait to speak until either the land owner or the farm manager arrived. But before they could start telling him their requirements he would simply state

“Show me your apples then.”

Not said in a disrespectful or recalcitrant manner, but just a quiet and composed surety that made it clear there was no conversation about pay, conditions, or even the nature of the work, until the apples had been checked. Authority was taken aback but nevertheless off they would go.

First the apple cellar. In seems strange in these modern times when you can get anything at any time, but back then fresh fruit was a real treat. In the right conditions and with the right apples you could store them right through winter until early summer. By which point you would have a summer  of berries, before apples came again. The cellar had to be north facing, sunk into the ground slightly and with ventilation that you could open and close off. In effect creating refrigeration before even the concept was understood.   

Ivor would have been able to tell everything he needed to know from just that room. If you knew your apples then he had confidence that you knew what you were doing. If you looked after your apples, then you probably looked after your workers.

These were incredibly hard times. They were in the middle of something like a twenty or thirty year recession. Bad harvests followed bad harvests, but there was no scarcity to drive up prices. Instead defensive Corn Laws had been repealed, and cheap Yankie imports were flooding the market. Huge US farms now with railway access and access to steam ships exported grain, and the opening of the Suez canal allowed cheap Australian and New Zealand meat and wool to undercut British farms.

“You could see his cheeks and jaw flow as the liquid was moved around. The moustached wriggled and wambled in an exacerbated rolling motion.”

One story goes that as Ivor was being led through the house, he was told “don’t open that door or they’ll be in”. The outside barns were in such poor state that the animals were being kept in the living room. As a child sat on the living room floor I pictured chickens chilling on the couch, or sheep snuggling on the sofa. The reality would have been very different.

We hear about Victorian walled gardens, pomologists, and great feasts decorated with apples. Head gardeners trying to outdo one another with new varieties. But this was not true for most. Nostalgic visions of rural life and farming did not match with reality. Money was so tight, that if you wanted good workers, you had to look after them. Hence the apples. And the next inspection – the cider barn.

Grabbing a ceramic mug hanging from the wall Ivor would open the tap on the barrels and allow a good serve to splash out. A quick sniff to check there was no obvious fault, followed by a good mouthful. You could see his cheeks and jaw flow as the liquid was moved around. The moustached wriggled and wambled in an exacerbated rolling motion. Sometimes there would be a pause as the flavours were checked, before moving to the other side of the mouth. I would giggle as Grandpa demonstrated.

The farmer or manager would watch on nervously. It is said that every so often, Ivor would spit out the liquid, thank the farmer for his time, and head on up the road to the next farm on his list. A devastating and excoriating blow, all because the cider was not of sufficient quality. If Ivor swallowed the cider, then you weren’t booked in yet, but all was not lost. Every so often Ivor would turn back to the barrel, fill his flagon, and then speak.

“Where do I start”.


I often wonder if this was the golden age of cider. So vital to rural communities, but so unheralded. Apple at its apogee. There was a deep understanding of apple varieties, and the flavours that could result. Farm workers at harvest time would take absolute care over its quality. Carefully hand picking the fruit, then building up straw cheeses over the course of many evenings. Slowly releasing the juice. Each evening a new layer would be built, and the lower straw trimmed and added. The oak presses they used would have been built like top end joinery of today.

They were not trying to flog the stuff to unsuspecting tourists. They knew that this was an investment for the next year. Most farm workers were peripatetic, so they might not even be on that farm for its consumption, but there was an honesty and integrity to it. You would make the best cider you could, knowing others would try and do the same. A basic tenet of trust and solidarity.

A mixed orchard would be ready for harvesting throughout the winter months. This allowed you to stagger the picking and pressing around you daily work tasks. And as the juice was pressed you would add it to the barrel. Everything was handpicked with the rule that if you wouldn’t eat it you don’t make cider with it.

You would start with early season ‘Sharps’ to get the fermentation of to a clean start. Sharps were apples with a good hit of acidity, ph’s down towards 3, too sour to eat. It may have included the very slightly bruised eaters, the excess cooking apples, but most likely the orchard had been planted with varieties like Browns. This acidity would help kill off any unwanted bacteria’s and as it would still be quite warm the fermentation would kick off almost immediately.   

“The story goes that Ivor went to Somerset once. He never went back. “

And then over the next 10 weeks you would add different apples. The fermentation would slow and the flavour would change. October and November would all be about ‘cider apples’. Apples with tannin to provide body and depth.

By December and the coming of the frosts the fermentation is just ticking along. The airlock just bubbling once or twice a day. It would taste sweet, but you could tell now there was depth to it. And besides there was still 6 months of fermenting still to go. The last pressings were apple varieties like Ellis Bitter, big hefty tannic cider apples, and you would want to have the all the juice pressed and cleaned up for Christmas Eve.

Very slowly the yeasts are running out of energy, and although they didn’t understand the actual science, these techniques and rituals had been passed down from farmer to son over generations. 

There was no rats, roasting joints or ham bones added to Devon cider. That was across the border in Somerset. Over there they liked their ciders bone dry, with tannins that pulled your cheeks in, and tugged at your teeth. Technically the Somerset ‘additions’ would have provided nitrogen and amino acids and these would have fed the yeasts, which in turn would have converted all the sweetness into alcohol. Drier and punchier. In Devon, ciders would have been softer and more rounded. With a little residual sweetness. The story goes that Ivor went to Somerset once. And never went back.


With a full flagon Ivor would be led out into the field. The flagon, like a fisherman’s catch, has grown over the years. Grandpa tells me it stands knee high and weighs the same as a small boy.

The jacket and waistcoat would be removed, folded in half and laid carefully down. The shirt sleeves rolled up. The cork removed and a big gulp of cider taken, and then the flagon thrown in the direction of the dig. And he would start.

Breaktime would be taken when he got to the flagon. It didn’t matter if it was soft loam or solid rock. The flagon was the target. A moment or two to rest on the spade, and another big gulp of cider taken. Then once again the flagon thrown and the human metronome would swing again. When the flagon was empty he was done for the day.


A shout from the dining room would interrupt us. “Lunch is served”

As we sat down with plates of hot roasties and veggies my grandpa would take a swig of water and roll it around his mouth. Then as Dad came in with roasting joint displayed proudly on the platter, Grandpa would subtly hold his finger up to his lips and smile at me. We were not flibbertigibberts. You save the stories for someone special.