I MUST be stupid! Last week I agreed to give a talk to a lovely village a couple of miles from the Humber Road Bridge in North Lincolnshire, 128 miles from Birmingham!
It did, however, give me the opportunity to spend a couple of hours reminiscing as I drove round the villages and lanes of Lincolnshire where I had been brought up.
In the early days we lived in a cottage in Back Lane, Long Bennington. It was before fridges, freezers, or television; even mains sewage systems hadn't reached our village. By the time I was at Grantham Secondary School, things had improved. We knocked down the old cottage and literally built a new house on the lawns of the half-acre plot. The rabbits and chickens had to go, but in return we got mains sewage, telephones and television.
In my early years at Edinburgh Botanical Garden I would ship back spare plants which my father planted in our garden. Today it's more of a botanical collection of rarities that has overgrown many of the original fruit trees and bushes we had tended for many years. The Bramley apple is crowded out by huge conifers. The greengages still survive next to the original greenhouse, but much of the soft fruit has gone to make way for a new drive. During that intervening period of some 30 odd years much has changed, not just in the gardening field but in the area of fruit tree growing.
Our village was as the crow flies probably not more than 30 miles from the small town of Southwell just over the border in Nottinghamshire and home to the legendary Bramley apple which even to this day takes a lot of beating. It was a small nurseryman in this town that spotted the potential of the Bramley apple which helped establish the family name of Meriwether's of Southwell as a legendary fruit nursery supplying fruit all over Britain for almost 100 years.
In those days you would order your fruit by letter paying with postal order and at the appropriate time of the year. The trees would be lifted and stored in dank barns full of smelly rotting straw which kept the roots of your precious trees alive until they were dispatched by either train or lorry – couriers hadn't even been invented!
I well remember one of the early orders my father wrote out for the greengage trees and new red and blackcurrant bushes. It was before the time when anybody in the village had a telephone except for the doctor and the post office.
A few years down the line and my father and I visited this legendary nursery using buses and trains and walking a considerable distance.
Sadly, today it is a housing estate, but still bears the Meriwether name and further out of town is a garden centre bearing the Merryweather name selling the typical range of garden centre products. Sadly gone are their specialities, all the soft fruit and top varieties, many of which have been lost forever.
Looking on the more favourable side there have been huge strides in breeding all types of fruit and maybe it was time to let go of some of those varieties we would now class is inferior. Not all is lost. The legendary Bramley apple will probably live on forever, along with the Meriwether damson and their greengages. But what has changed in the world of top fruit is that we now have dwarf root stocks, enabling us to grow the very same varieties, but as much smaller trees.
Forty years ago, my father would bring home old wooden tomato boxes, I would tear up pages of the Newark Advertiser or Grantham Journal and carefully wrap apples before placing them neatly into the tomato boxes, which were stored in and unheated frost free part of our old cottage. These would be regularly inspected during the winter and as varieties like the Bramley ripened, those that had gone rotten would be thrown away. But by early March you could eat a Bramley as though it were an eating variety, something you could never do in the autumn when it was far too sour.
Breeders also improved our range of apple varieties with many new introductions, most of which bear their fruit on small side shoots known as spurs.
We used to have a huge patch of strawberries, growing Cambridge Favourite and Royal Sovereign. The latter had the better flavour, but was always difficult to grow . If you've experienced a wet winter like we had in the Midlands this year, then all your Royal Sovereign would have rotted. Today, much has changed. We've got new varieties that are easier to grow, but I'm not sure the flavour has improved compared with that distinct sweet tang of Royal Sovereign.
Seasons have been extended and while the Dutch growers have introduced horrible cotton wool like commercial varieties. It's great to see that there are many English bred varieties that are well worth growing. By using different techniques in growing and freezing dormant runners or young plants, it is now possible to grow strawberries in this country for more than nine months of the year.
My mother was always making jams and chutneys, so in addition to the strawberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants were essential. In my early orders from Merriweather's of Southwell I remember there being redcurrant bushes labelled Laxton No 1. It was a popular variety, but Long Bennington was also a cold spot and red and blackcurrants often would catch a late spring frost wiping out the that year's crop totally, much to my mother's disgust.
Meriwether's supplied me with two popular varieties of what I would term commercial blackcurrants in the 1960s.
These were Baldwin and Boscoop. Both were vigorous bushes which needed planting much further apart than today's modern more compact selections. The Scottish fruit research station has introduced many good varieties of soft fruit in recent years. Perhaps the Ben series of blackcurrants have been the most significant.
The Ben series is improved and the most recent introductions are heavier yielding, with sweeter bigger berries and are much easier to manage and hopefully this year my four new bushes will keep my dear wife very busy making blackcurrant, pineapple and cinnamon jam. No, that's a recipe we did not have 40 years ago!
While learning about horticulture at the Kesteven Agricultural College I remember growing blackberries with huge vigorous stems 15 feet or more in length covered in the most horrendous thorns. We did have a thornless variety but the fruits were very poor and tasteless. Today we have a superb variety called Blackberry Loch Marie, which has not only thornless stems, but the most deliciously sweet berries that ripen over 6 to 8 weeks and I find irresistible on my muesli in the morning.
We also grew gooseberries, Lincolnshire, of course, being due south of the main gooseberry growing area in Yorkshire. Years ago, there were not only hundreds of varieties, but also specialist gooseberry growing societies who held shows with classes for different types and sizes of gooseberry. Sadly, much of that has disappeared along with many of those legendary varieties. But all is not lost because we now have several good cooking varieties that are mildew free such as Gooseberry Invicta alongside the red yellow fruited versions of the variety Gooseberry Hino, which are deliciously sweet when eaten directly from the plant.
Going back to the 1960s the word blueberry had never been even thought of in this country and Goji berries might have been in existence the other side of the world 6,000 years ago in China but you would never see them in our shops. Today, with modern transport blueberries can be picked almost anywhere in the world and within 24 hours be flown to your local supermarket. There are many other berries that are said to have hugely beneficial health reasons for eating them. However, I'm not satisfied. I want to grow my own. If the berries are picked and eaten within 90 minutes the nutritional and other health benefits are more than double the value of the berries you purchase from the supermarket.
I'm even trying to grow my own goji berries, it is said, these have huge health benefits in many ways. I can't wait to see if there is any truth in the claims about the goji berries.