Lamb Tales

Our frosted hills and fields, for so long hushed in a quiet stillness of waiting, will soon be alive with the joyous sight and sound of new-born lambs, and the low chunnerings of their attentive mums. Snowdrops will give way to daffodils, and our hearts will be gladdened by the promise of longer, warmer days ahead. This is lambing season: the busiest time in the calendar for sheep farmers, signalling weeks of early starts, late nights, and back-breaking work.

In 2017, respected landscape photographer, Roy Carr, spent an intensive year recording the work of sheep farmers in South Wales, and he has very kindly agreed to share an extract from his chronicle of this project, ‘A Year In Their Lives’, accompanied by his atmospheric and intimate photographs of the sheep and their lambs.

A Year In Their Lives

I spent a year following four sheep farms in south Wales during which I captured key events for the animals and the people who work with them across a year.

My photographic background is rooted deeply in classical landscape work, with people largely absent from it. This project posed the challenge of working with people, largely in their ‘home’ environment where the building of relationships was as important as photographic skills. It also demanded, at times, a quick reaction to what is happening in front of me, in contrast to the slow deliberate approach of my landscape work. At times the compositional approach and the patience I learned from my landscapes were important for this project as I waited for the animals or people to come to me to create the images I wanted.

I brought both ignorance and curiosity to this work, learning so much from the people I observed. It afforded me an insight into the challenges of their work and their generosity in accepting me. Not for them the shelter of an office. Their work makes huge physical demands in all weathers.

Waiting to give birth

Waiting to give birth

Lambing marks the beginning of the new cycle for the sheep farmer, providing the next generation of stock. Great care is taken to monitor the ewes as they approach lambing. Some farmers scan their ewes to indicate how many lambs they are carrying, others simply rely on their years of experience. Where there are concerns about the well-being of the ewes, they are brought in to pens where they can be closely monitored, ensuring help is on hand to deliver the lambs.

“New Born”

“New Born”

This lamb had been ‘pulled’ from its mother just five minutes before by Sue, the shepherdess. The ewe called to her offspring, enticing it to stand and feed. Licking the lamb helped the two animals to bond, as the ewe learned the scent of her new born which enables her to recognise it within the flock. This also provides vital nutrients to the ewe, stimulating the production of milk.

“Feeding”

“Feeding”

“Orphans”

“Orphans”

Not all lambs are able to feed from their mothers. Some ewes may die during the trauma of birth — fortunately a rarity on the farms I visited. Others may reject their young. In either event, they need to feed if they are to survive. Here the lambs are bottle fed in the shelter of a barn. Others may rely on their shepherds to ‘dress’ them in the skin and fleece of a dead lamb in order to trick the ewe into feeding the orphan in the belief it is her own, as she recognises the scent of the orphan’s ‘jacket’.

The ewes are immensely protective of their young, keeping them close to hand.

Lambs quickly gain their independence, though they will bleat for their mothers if they become distressed or their mothers will call for their return.

Curiosity quickly gets the better of the lambs as they bravely venture out into their home environments.

“Protection”

“Protection”

“Independent”

“Independent”

“Tentative”

“Tentative”

The work from this project fed into an exhibition at the Cynon Valley Museum, Aberdare, which ran from 15th June until 21st July 2018. If you would like to find out more about Roy's work, you can discover his site here.

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Many thanks to Roy for sharing these fascinating, informative, and sensitive insights into this busiest of farming seasons.

If you fancy experiencing the excitement and joy of lambing time for yourself, there are plenty of ways you can do this. Check out Farmstay.co.uk or BestofWales.co.uk for a selection of holiday accommodation offering the chance for you to get up close and personal with lambs, from watching them being born, to bottle feeding the orphans, and everything else besides! However, may I sound a note of caution: living as I do in sheep farming country in North Wales, I have heard many a horror story relating to lambing time from local famers and shepherds, so I am making a plea to my fellow dog owners - if you are taking your dog out for a walk in the countryside, please, please, keep it under control. Sadly, the NFU reports that there were in excess of 700 cases of sheep and cattle worrying on farms across the UK in 2018, the cost to farmers was in the region of £1million, the cost to the animals, immeasurable. The instinct of even the best-behaved dogs can cause them to chase lambs and ewes, so please keep yours on a lead around them and other livestock at all times, and don’t forget to pick up after them – their mess can contain parasites which are harmful to farm animals.

Finally, some sheep facts for you! These animals have been farmed in the UK for over 8,000 years, and while today most farms are geared towards meat production, in medieval times wool was the driving force of the economy, with many a wealthy town and shire being built on the proceeds of the fleeces. Of the entire population of sheep in Europe, one quarter are here in the UK, and far from being the dull, stupid animals they are often perceived to be, they are, in fact, rather amazing animals. Having horizontal pupils with a 320 degree field of vision, they can see behind them without turning their heads, and amazingly, when running they can reach speeds of 25mph – what’s more, recent studies have shown that they are able to recognise the faces of others in their flock, as well as those of people!

Wherever you are this spring, look out for those first cute new-borns of 2019!

 
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Sonia Goulding

Sonia lives with her other half, Jon, and her two gorgeous dogs Alfie and Seren, in the pretty hill village of Cilcain, in the glorious Clwydian Hills. She is passionate about rural north Wales and enjoys researching and writing about the people she meets and the beautiful businesses on our doorstep. Sonia and Jon consider themselves very lucky to be able to live and work in such wonderful surroundings, counting their blessings every day!

Notes from a Nemophilist

Walking at twilight on a crisp winter evening with the light stretched thin across the landscape and the exquisite forms of unrobed trees exposed against the crepuscular sky, it is easy to see why artists lust after the beautiful contours and shapes created by their dark-limbed outlines.

Notes from a Nemophilist


As a fully paid-up nemophilist, I recently joined the Facebook group Britain’s Ancient and Sacred Trees, where I regularly share posts and photographs with fellow tree-huggers across the land – along with those who admire our trees from afar – to further indulge my passion for these quiet sentinels of our countryside. It was here that I encountered the extremely talented Marie Roberts, a trained fine artist, who produces astonishing work across multiple mediums - painting and printmaking, sculpture, and textiles, all informed and inspired by the natural world, although it was, quite aptly, a post of one of her ‘tree pictures’ which caught my attention.

Visiting Marie’s website is like wandering through rooms full of precious curios: there, amongst delicate gilded birds’ nests, decorated animal skulls, painted seashells reminiscent of small fragments of Delft china, and intricately embroidered bugs and spiders, you will find her joyous and expressive paintings in celebration of trees. Clearly enthralled by the natural world, Marie is inspired by the beautiful and diverse surroundings of the village of Kinver, in South Staffordshire, where she lives and works. Since childhood she has been fascinated by trees: “especially the older trees which have stood for so long and seem so noble and wise!”, and her local woodland provides rich inspiration for her work. For 2019, she has undertaken to paint a tree for every month of the year (January’s tree is shown here), each one depicted inside a mandala, or sacred circle, painted with water colours, earth pigments and ink, and embellished with 24 carat gold and pure silver.

Another happy find from the same Facebook group is Sarah Jameson, an artist originally from Wales, now living and working in the Shropshire hills. She too works across different mediums, including photography, monoprints, and pen and ink drawings, also gleaning her creative inspiration from nature. Her sensitive and atmospheric photographs and drawings demonstrate her obvious love for our trees and woodlands as she records them throughout the seasons. She says: “I have drawn trees since I was a child and am lucky to live in a part of the world where there are so many beautiful trees, woods and hedges.”

An indispensable book for any tree lover is ‘The New Sylva’, written by Dr. Gabriel Hemery, with 200 exquisite drawings by internationally renowned artist, Sarah Simblet. Subtitled ‘A Discourse of Forest & Orchard Trees for the 21st Century’, the book is an interpretation for modern times of the book ‘Sylva’, written in 1664 by horticulturist and diarist John Evelyn. Within its sumptuous pages, Gabriel, who amongst other things is a Silvologist (or forest scientist to you and me!), describes our most important British trees, with in-depth sections looking at their cultural, environmental and economic history. He also writes the forestry blog gabrielhemery.com ‘celebrating the wonders of trees, forests and woods’, and is Chief Executive of the Sylva Foundation, an environmental charity he co-founded in 2009, besides being a talented photographer of trees and forests, which he features in his website The Tree Photographer.

Each season has a beauty of its own, and winter is undoubtedly the best time to fully appreciate the magical forms of trees, sometimes powerful, sometimes graceful, sometimes ethereal. Although our forests, woods and trees may seem devoid of life during the winter months, do not be deceived into thinking that nothing is going on as you walk through the quiet woodland; the trees are simply resting. Their leaf mould has become a deep and fertile layer providing food and cover for countless insects and animals, and will enrich the woodland floor with precious nutrients for the continuation of life. Soon, and almost imperceptibly, fresh leaves and buds will reappear on the twigs and branches, birds will return to claim their territories and set up home in the green canopy, and we will once again hear the soft hum of bees as they go about their business. Make the most, then, of the quiet grace of our leafless winter trees and the dark lattice-work of their branches against the sky, before we celebrate the return of spring, and with it, the vibrancy of new life.

 
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Sonia Goulding

Sonia lives with her other half, Jon, and her two gorgeous dogs Alfie and Seren, in the pretty hill village of Cilcain, in the glorious Clwydian Hills. She is passionate about rural north Wales and enjoys researching and writing about the people she meets and the beautiful businesses on our doorstep. Sonia and Jon consider themselves very lucky to be able to live and work in such wonderful surroundings, counting their blessings every day!

A Peculiarly Welsh Christmas

Marley was dead, to begin with.’ This well-known opening line from the most famous and best loved ghost story ever written sets the scene for the familiar story of a wicked, miserly old man whose shrivelled soul rejects the love and friendship of his fellow men in favour of the cold, dead glint of money, all set against a background of nightmarish supernatural visitations...

A Peculiarly Welsh Christmas

‘A Christmas Carol’, by Charles Dickens was published in 1843, during a time when the nation was re-evaluating its old Christmas traditions and discovering new ones – for instance, the first printed Christmas cards were introduced in the same year, while carol singing was enjoying a revival, with new words being devised for old tunes - and just a few years later, the custom of decorated Christmas trees was introduced to the country by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband.

Of course, the telling of this life-affirming story of how the ghosts of Past, Present and Future changed the outlook, and of course the future, of old Ebenezer Scrooge, has in turn become a Christmas tradition in itself – and who doesn’t love a good ghost story at Christmas!

With this in mind, I decided it would be interesting to take a look at some of our own peculiarly Welsh traditions, in particular those with their origins reaching back to time immemorial, caught somewhere between pagan rituals and early Christian practices: as I found, some are weird, some are wonderful (some are both!) – but all are fascinating.

PLYGAIN (at Cock-Crow) Candle

PLYGAIN (at Cock-Crow)
The very act of singing is the living, breathing embodiment of the spirit of the Welsh people, and is an important expression of their identity and heritage. Not for nothing is Wales known as the Land of Song, and it isn’t surprising to find that passion being given a voice in Plygain carol services across parts of the country on Christmas morning. The word Plygain stems from the Latin for cock-crow, and indeed these services take place in the cold, dark hours before dawn, with the church or chapel glowing with a halo of brightly burning candles, signifying the coming of Christ as the Light of the World. Originally, the carols would have been sung by the men alone, in three or four part harmonies, and it was considered bad form for anyone to repeat a hymn that had already been sung.

Although Plygain services have largely fallen out of favour since Victorian times, this most Welsh of traditions continues in some areas. For instance, the village of Lloc in North Wales is well known for its service, and the village ofCilcain, nestled in the Clwydian Hills, has enjoyed a long and unbroken Plygain tradition dating back to at least 1532, when the north aisle of St. Mary’s Church in the village was destroyed by fire, thought likely to have been caused by an unattended Plygain candle. Nowadays it is celebrated at the village chapel, Capel Gad, where everyone is warmly welcomed to take part in singing or reciting poetry, in either Welsh or English.

THE HUNTING OF THE WREN (Hela’r Dryw)

An old folk-tale tells of a contest between the birds of the air, to see who could fly the highest, with the winner to be crowned ‘King of the Birds’. A powerful eagle had seemingly won the competition, when a cunning wren, who had concealed himself in the eagle’s feathers, suddenly popped out and flew even higher, thereby winning the crown. The eagle was so incensed that he threw the little bird to the ground, breaking his tail in the process, which explains why, to this day, wrens have short tails.

Revered by the druids as a sacred bird, the wren has also long been held in high regard across European folklore as the King of Birds (the name wren is thought to derive from the Welsh word ‘ren’ which means ‘king’ or ‘queen’), although it seems that the royal title bestowed on this tiny bird has been something of a curse.

The tradition of Hunting the Wren appears to have its origins in a pagan custom connected with good luck, which formed part of the Winter Solstice celebrations. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so lucky for the poor bird, which was hunted and captured by a gang of men and paraded in a cage, dead or alive, and hailed in song as ‘The King of the Birds’.

Where the bird was killed, its death (marked by a ceremonial burial and accompanying dirge) celebrated the demise of winter, but in later years the wren came to represent the unpopular English kings and overlords, prompting the subversive question from revellers: “Would you like to see the wren in a box?”- read ‘king’ for ‘wren’ and you get the gist!

Thankfully, this tradition died out long ago, although ‘wren songs’ connected to the custom still exist.


Y FARI LWYD (The Grey Mare)

Y FARI LWYD (The Grey Mare)

With the roots of its tradition lost in the mists of pre-history, the Mari Lwyd is a strange and almost other-worldly celebration, which again marks the passing of the dark days of winter.

The sight of the Mari Lwyd is quite terrifying as it comes into view from the darkness, accompanied by singing, music and the rhythmic beating of a drum. A real horse skull is bedecked with colourful streamers and mounted on a tall pole with a white sheet hanging below, hiding the operator beneath. The eye sockets are often decorated with coloured baubles, and the jaws are wired to enable a startling snapping sound!

This strange horse, accompanied by a group of people, goes from house to house, or more usually these days, pub to pub, to initiate a ‘battle’ of song and poetry (pwnco) in order to gain entry. Consisting of a leader, a fiddler and other characters, the group ensures fun and merriment once entry is gained – with maybe a few festive drinks thrown into the mix!

Flintshire has its own Mari Lwyd tradition, brought to the region since the year 2000 by Mold-based Dawnswyr Delyn. The group will be going from pub to pub in Flintshire on Friday 28th December, calling at The White Horse Inn, Cilcain(7.00 – 7.45 pm), The Druid Inn, Llanferres (8.00 – 8.45 pm), The Miners Arms, Maeshafn (9.00 – 9.45 pm) and from 10.00 pm onwards they will be found at The Owain Glyndŵr Inn, Gwernymynydd. If you’d like to immerse yourself in yet more Welsh Christmas tradition, Dawnswyr Delyn will take part in a Crôl Carolau (Carol Crawl) on Saturday 22ndDecember, visiting Y Delyn Wine Bar, Mold (7.30 pm), The Oak, Hendre (8.15 pm), The Crown Inn, Pantymwyn (9.00 pm), The Miners Arms, Maeshafn (9.45 pm), and from 10.30 pm they will be found at The Owain Glyndŵr Inn, Gwernymynydd.

KEEPING CHRISTMAS

Of course, while it is fascinating to read about these customs and to learn of their place in our social history, it is our own personal Christmas traditions which are closest to our hearts. As we put up the decorations and dress the tree, memories of Christmas past come crowding joyously back to greet us with every old, familiar trinket we unwrap, shining and precious - treasures to be stored safe again come Twelfth Night, and lovingly rediscovered when this most wondrous of seasons comes around once more.

 
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Sonia Goulding

Sonia lives with her other half, Jon, and her two gorgeous dogs Alfie and Seren, in the pretty hill village of Cilcain, in the glorious Clwydian Hills. She is passionate about rural north Wales and enjoys researching and writing about the people she meets and the beautiful businesses on our doorstep.Sonia and Jon consider themselves very lucky to be able to live and work in such wonderful surroundings, counting their blessings every day!

Rooted in History

There’s something wonderful about walking through a wood in the company of trees. Whether enjoying the soft, green light filtering through the fresh, unfurling leaves of spring, the crowded canopy of summer, alive with the sound of a thousand things, the glowing cathedral of stained-glass autumn leaves with the wistful whisperings of their memory underfoot, or the coldly naked silhouettes of winter, woodlands are magical places, and trees hold a special place in our hearts: we’ve climbed them, played amongst them, dreamed beneath them, even hugged them – and I’m sure we’ve all simply just wondered at them.

Here, I’m taking a look at two of the longest-living and most iconic trees of our islands - the mighty oak and the venerable yew, both of which feature large in our collective mythologies, and in particular, I’ll be shining a light on the dark and mysterious tales surrounding some notable trees here in North Wales.

Rooted in History


OAK – THE GUARDIAN

Known as the King of Trees, the oak provides food and shelter for a greater variety of wildlife than any other tree species in Britain. Symbolising wisdom, strength and steadfastness, oaks have long been regarded as guardians and protectors, and were believed by the Druids to be portals into the spirit world, along with the ash and the thorn. This trinity of trees was believed to be inhabited by guardian spirits - touching wood for luck is rooted in the age-old custom of touching a tree to ask for the favour and divine blessing of the spirit dweller within. The name ‘Druid’ possibly derives from the Proto-Celtic “deru weid”, meaning “knowledge of the oak”.

Old country lore also attributed oaks with great healing powers – in some places their curative power was thought so great that it was enough to simply walk around an oak tree, wishing one’s illness or ailment to be carried off by the first bird to alight on its branches - and in Wales, rubbing an oak tree with the palm of the left hand on Midsummer’s Day was believed to keep you healthy all year! Toothache could be cured by driving a nail into the trunk, and a further attribute of the oak was that carrying an acorn in your pocket was believed to prevent ageing (I’m sensing a new business opportunity here!). Chirk, in North Wales, boasts two of the oldest and most important oaks in Wales, and indeed, the UK, and although one has unfortunately fallen, their tales are intriguing and fascinating…


THE OAK AT THE GATE OF THE DEAD

One of Britain’s oldest oaks can be found on Offa’s Dyke and goes by the magnificent name of ‘The Oak at the Gate of the Dead’, a tree believed to be over 1,000 years old, and so-named because of the nearby burial of the dead from the 1165 Battle of Crogen. The area was commonly known up until the 19th century as Adwy'r Beddau (The Pass of the Graves), and according to one account, some of the graves could still be seen as late as 1697, with land on either side of the dyke known as Tir y Beddau (Land of the Graves).

The battle took place in the Ceiriog Valley, near Chirk, between the forces of Henry II of England and an alliance of Welsh princes, led by Owain Gwynedd. Henry brought a massive army to Oswestry, while the Welsh army gathered in Corwen, and the two sides eventually clashed in battle on the Dyke. Ultimately, the English were driven back, but not without bloody losses on both sides.

The tree can be found in the Ceiriog Valley, around 300 metres from Chirk Castle. It is the younger cousin of the famous Pontfadog Oak (see below) and was a finalist in the 2014 European Tree of the Year awards, the first Welsh tree to be entered. A beloved local landmark, this tree was even one of the first in the world to have its own Facebook page!


THE PONTFADOG OAK

Once known as Wales’ national tree, and estimated to have been around 1200 - 1600 years old, this wonderful old tree was blown down in the early hours of 18th April 2013 by fierce gales which swept across the country – until then, it was believed to have been the oldest and largest oak in the UK, with a girth of 16m (53ft). The hollow trunk was of such a size it was said that 6 people once sat around a table inside it, and a 19th century story tells of a bull, which had been missing for two days, eventually being found safe and well within the tree!

It’s amazing to think that this tree was already ancient when Owain Gwynedd rallied his troops to it before going on to defeat Henry II at the Battle of Crogen in 1165.

The loss of such a great icon of the countryside was understandably met with great sadness and consternation, especially from the locals, for whom this tree had been a constant and reassuring presence. However, scions (cuttings) have been taken from the ancient tree, and it is hoped that a clone can be successfully planted in the future.

YEW – THE SENTINEL

Often associated with grave-yards, yew trees are exceptionally long-lived, and apparently aren’t considered ancient until they’ve lived for around 900 years (in comparison to 400 for an oak)! Such a long life span means that many have been present at important dates in our history: for instance, the Magna Carta was signed and sealed beneath a yew tree; that same tree is also said to have been used by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as a meeting place for their trysts.

The Druids revered the yew for its association with death and rebirth: ‘that darkness is the matrix from which light springs forth, and that out of death, life arises’, and it was later taken up by Christians who regarded it as a natural emblem of everlasting life because of the tree’s amazing ability to regenerate itself.

North Wales is home to many yew trees, but here we have two with extraordinary tales to tell!

THE LLANGERNYW YEW

Believed to be around 4000 years old, this yew stands in the grounds of St. Dygain’s Church, in the County Borough of Conwy. One of the world’s oldest trees and probably the oldest living thing in Wales, it was planted sometime in the prehistoric Bronze Age, and is still growing!

As old and beautiful as this tree may be, it is also associated with a chilling legend, that of the Angelystor, or ‘Recording Angel’.

Each year on 31st July and again at Hallowe'en, the Angelystor is said to appear in the medieval church to solemnly announce the names of those parish members who will shortly die.

Legend tells how, one Hallowe'en, local tailor, Siôn ap Robert, laughingly ridiculed the idea of the existence of the Angelystor while drinking in a local pub.

To take him down a peg or two, locals dared him to go to the church there and then. With a certain amount of bluster, off he went, determined to make a mockery of the tale.

On arriving at the church however, he could hear a deep voice from within, and on getting closer, he heard his own name being recited! Coldly and suddenly, his bravado evaporated. "Hold, hold!" he cried. "I am not yet ready!”, but to no avail: he died later that year.

Many villagers today still believe in the existence of the Angelystor – would you go and test the tale yourself, even after a few drinks at the pub?! On a happier note, in recognition of its place in the nation’s heritage, the Llangernyw Yew was designated as one of ‘50 Great British Trees’ to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1977.

THE PULPIT YEW

Believed to be around 1500 years old, this ancient yew can be found in the churchyard of St James’ Parish Church, in Nantglyn, Denbighshire. Amazingly, it was converted, possibly in the 18th century, into an outdoor pulpit with the addition of local Welsh slate steps leading up to a podium from which to preach. Many sermons have been preached from here, even, it is said, by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church.

Following nominations from the public, it was shortlisted by the Woodland Trust for their ‘Tree of the Year’ competition in 2017, but it sadly lost out to The Hollow Tree in Port Talbot, which went on the represent the UK in the 2018 European Tree of the Year.

There are many more remarkable yew trees across North Wales; some (possibly dating back as far as the Tudors), can be found clinging to the limestone cliffs in Llandudno - and further afield, in Nevern, Dyfed, the famous yew trees there bleed a red sap every year.

BACK TO OUR ROOTS

The myths, legends and stories recounted here have been chosen to give just a glimpse of the extraordinary tales which surround us every day, hiding just out of sight. However, if you are prepared to take a closer look, the secrets will reveal themselves, or at least, part of themselves, and if you listen, ancient tales can still be heard, whispering to us from dark corners.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of the beautiful and fascinating trees of Wales, and that like me, you’ve been caught up in the threads of the folklore wrapped around their roots and branches.


JOIN IN! CELEBRATING TREES IN YOUR AREA

National Tree Week (24th November – 2nd December)

This a great chance for communities to do something positive for the trees in their local area. Each year, around 200 schools and community groups support the initiative by setting up fun, worthwhile and accessible events. Up to a quarter of a million people take part, getting their hands dirty, having fun, and planting around a million trees! For more information:

Tree Dressing Day (first weekend in December)

Organised by Common Ground - Tree Dressing Day is designed to encourage people and communities to get together to celebrate the trees within their local area. It aims to provide education and highlight the responsibility of looking after our trees.

 
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Sonia Goulding

Sonia lives with her other half, Jon, and her two gorgeous dogs Alfie and Seren, in the pretty hill village of Cilcain, in the glorious Clwydian Hills. She is passionate about rural north Wales and enjoys researching and writing about the people she meets and the beautiful businesses on our doorstep. Sonia and Jon consider themselves very lucky to be able to live and work in such wonderful surroundings, counting their blessings every day!

Cymru - Cider Country!

Well, here we are in autumn, with its velvet-soft mornings sharpened by cool, still air - a reminder that winter is on its way. This is the celebrated ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’; the time for harvesting summer’s bounty from our trees and hedgerows and I feel that arguably one of our most popular fares, the British apple, is worthy of a blog post today.

Cymru - Cider Country!

Now that we have joined other European nations as wine and Prosecco drinkers, it seems to me that we largely overlook the production and associated traditions of our own native drink, cider, which has been made in this country for millennia – indeed, when the Romans invaded, they found that the locals were already old hands in fermenting apple juice to make this delicious drink!

Yet springtime orchards in blossom are things of great beauty rivalling (and surpassing, in my humble opinion) any vineyard, and artisan cider is made with the same attention and devotion as any fine wine.

Although cider production might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you consider what North Wales has to offer, among the soaring mountains, rolling hills and glittering seascapes, that’s exactly what you’ll find: passionate, small-scale producers extracting the sweet, golden juice of our native fruit to produce their heady blend.

From ciders made from just one or two apple varieties, to those which are a blend of many, each one is lovingly crafted using methods and techniques, and of course, fruit, peculiar to each artisan, ensuring that each one has its own distinct personality.

With all this in mind, I decided to discover a little more out the tradition of artisan cider producers here in North Wales…

DEE CIDERS

Dee Ciders in Flintshire is run by father and son team, Richard and Scott Johnson.

On his retirement back in 2010, Richard had a cherished dream of whiling away his quieter years with small-scale cider making, and planted some apple trees, choosing the varieties either by their vintage or the glorious silliness of their names (Broxwood Foxwhelp and Brown Snout, for instance!). He planned to make himself a simple basket press and produce enough cider to see him through the year.

Unfortunately, the first year of pressing was missed due to Richard having an argument with a chisel when making his press, resulting in a 3 day hospital stay and a prolonged period of being unable to walk!

Things improved the following year though, and a bumper crop resulted in over 350 litres being produced. Inspired by watching BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’, Scott took some samples of their cider to The Bluebell Inn, Halkyn (CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year winner), who agreed to stock them. This gave the pair the confidence to continue, and they now deliver their cider and perry to many hostelries and restaurants across North Wales and beyond.

Richard and Scott’s aim has always been to produce the highest quality pure juice cider and perry, using fruit carefully picked and processed by hand with no water or concentrates added. Several years of hard work in planting new orchards and bringing old ones to life have literally borne fruit, and the amount of cider being produced continues to increase.

Retirement – what retirement?!


JASPELS, ANGLESEY

After spending many memorable weekends together on the beautiful island of Anglesey, there was only one choice for husband and wife team, Janet and Ade, when they decided to relocate for a change of lifestyle in 2013.

However, they soon noticed that the fruit of many apple trees on the island was largely going to waste, and having previously produced cider on a small scale as a hobby, the couple hit upon the idea of harvesting this fruit to produce a commercial Anglesey craft cider. They put out an appeal on social media for donations of unwanted Anglesey apples and pears, and were overwhelmed by the response, with offers of fruit coming in from all over the island, from single apple trees to orchards! They now have a growing network of ‘Apple Donors’, who in return receive samples of cider the following spring.

Jaspels Cider is made from the freshly pressed juice of these apples and pears, which is extracted using a handmade traditional-style hydraulic press, and allowed to ferment before being blended to produce ‘a true taste of the island’, in the words of Janet and Ade.

They also produce a damson fruit cider and a mulled cider, which they serve at food festivals.

The couple are particularly keen to graft from old and interesting Anglesey trees, and to establish many more orchards across the island, firmly believing that Anglesey has the landscape and climate to become a prime cider producing location.

Jaspels produce 5 unique craft ciders that they sell in their own shop in Amlwch, as well as through stockists across Anglesey, North Wales and Cheshire.


ROSIE’S CIDER

Rosie’s Cider can be found in the rolling countryside of Llandegla, and was founded thirteen years ago by Steve Hughes, whose first serious attempt at cider making from his own crab apples blended with other locally sourced apples gleaned a gold medal at his very first show, the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) Bottled Cider Competition in Reading back in 2006.

There are three award-winning ciders in the Rosie’s stable: Triple D, Wicked Wasp and Black Bart, together with a Perry (pear) cider – however, Steve finds it difficult to find enough fruit to make much of this, so if you have a productive perry pear tree, let him know!

Steve now grows 860 apple trees made up of 69 different varieties, and all Rosie’s cider is made by pressing fruit with no concentrate, water or ’fruit flavours’ added, to give a 100% full-juice cider, which is ‘super slow fermented’ over the winter months, and is usually ready by the end of May the following year.

Rosie’s sell cider from their own farm shop, which is open from 10.00 am – 6.30 pm weekdays, and from 9.00 am – 6.30 at the weekend, as well as to local hostelries. They also attend local food fairs and country shows.

In Steve’s words: “Good cider isn’t cheap. Cheap cider isn’t good…”

With these words in mind, and in the name of further research only, I took myself off to the Bluebell Inn, Halkyn, which serves both Dee Ciders and Rosie’s, to conduct a taste test and to chat to the friendly landlord, Gary Jones. It was a busy evening, but I managed a quick word with Gary, who took over the running of the pub 18 months ago and has carried on the tradition of selling only ciders from Wales, which, he tells me, continue to be popular.

After perusing the ‘cider blackboard’, I plumped for the Dee Ciders ‘Richard’s Dry’. It was a different experience for me, as although I do drink cider, I’m used to the widely available carbonated varieties. However, although this cider has a more complex taste than I’m used to, I did enjoy it and found it dangerously moreish!

In the interests of avoiding a hangover I decided not to try any more, but was assured by one of the locals that Rosie’s ‘Wicked Wasp’ was like ‘drinking nectar’ - in fact, he will only drink it while his wife is with him, as she keeps an eye on his intake!

I was keen to find out how this year’s challenging weather has affected cider fruit crops, and in turn, their business, so I managed an early morning chat with Janet from Jaspels Cider in Anglesey. She told me that the apple crop was slow to get started, but when the rains finally came in August there was a surge in growth which produced apples with a higher sugar content than in previous years, and although the harvest was 3 weeks early and the physical size of the fruit was smaller overall, the yield was greater.

Jaspels enjoys a steady and plentiful supply of fruit from their ‘fruit donors’ and the business is continuing to grow, with 100 new donors coming forward this year alone. Janet and Ade are continuing their search to pinpoint suitable sites for orchards across Anglesey, and they have been approached by local farmers, some of whom are already donors, who would like to work with them. She was keen to point out that comparing craft cider to commercial cider is like comparing a house wine with a fine vintage, with commercial cider only having to contain 30% pure apple juice (the rest of the flavour coming from apple concentrates and syrups). This is compared to a craft cider, which is 100% pressure-pressed pure juice, and then fermented, like wine – definitely not brewed!

Thankfully, with the advent of the ’slow food movement’ and the growing public appetite for small batch artisan food and drink, awareness of craft ciders is greatly improving, and cider production is on the increase in North Wales. Once they have established an orchard, Jaspels are also looking to reintroduce the ancient tradition of ‘Wassailing’ (from the Old Norse ‘ves heill’ meaning ‘good health’).

A crowd of people gather in the orchard for this night-time event, usually in January, and make lots of noise to scare away any evil spirits lurking in the trees (sometimes referred to as “howling”). Slices of cider-soaked bread or toast are then hung onto the branches, and cider is poured onto the roots of the trees. This ceremony is said to “bless” the trees to produce a good crop in the next year. Cider is passed around the company and drunk from a Wassail Bowl, an intricately made and decorated wood or clay bowl. Beautiful and highly decorated pottery Wassail bowls continue to be made to commission in both traditional and contemporary styles by Gwili Pottery in Carmarthen. This is an exciting development and will be an excellent new tourist attraction for Anglesey - I wonder where the nearest B&B is, because I’m in!.

CRAZY FOR CIDER?

If you are interested in finding out more for yourself, head over to Erddig Hall, Wrexham, whose own orchard contains 180 varieties of apple, where they are celebrating their annual month-long Apple Harvest until Sunday 29th October this year.

This is one of the largest Apple Festivals in the UK, featuring apple tree talks and walks, storytelling, live music, a Welsh Cider and Perry exhibition, and cider press demonstrations – amongst many other things!

Head Gardener Glyn Smith has been instrumental in the planting of a museum orchard at Erddig as part of the ‘ModernStory of Orchards and Cider Making in Wales’ Project, in conjunction with the Welsh Perry and Cider Society. He says that the project will be a real step forward in maintaining the heritage of cider apples and perry pears in Wales.

As part of the same project, 2017 saw 43 new varieties of apples believed to be found only in Wales, being discovered during research carried out jointly between the Society and the University of South Wales: “It’s incredibly exciting for us. The project has unearthed far more unique varieties than we ever expected – fruit that is probably only in Wales, and which has never been recorded. For cider lovers with a patriotic streak, it could be just what they’re looking for!” said Jayne Hunt, the Society’s Heritage Project Manager.

I hope all this has whetted your appetite to seek out our local producers and sample some of their delicious ciders and perrys, and that you will join me in raising a glass or two to this great Welsh cider revival! In the words of Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw: “Having lost its ancient tradition completely, Wales is now back on the cider map with a BANG!” – World’s Best Cider Book

 
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Sonia Goulding

Sonia lives with her other half, Jon, and her two gorgeous dogs Alfie and Seren, in the pretty hill village of Cilcain, in the glorious Clwydian Hills. She is passionate about rural north Wales and enjoys researching and writing about the people she meets and the beautiful businesses on our doorstep. Sonia and Jon consider themselves very lucky to be able to live and work in such wonderful surroundings, counting their blessings every day!