Fruit Farming in the Cam Valley: outlets for my book

For anyone interested in purchasing a copy of my book, you can contact me directly via the comments field, (see previous blog on my book), or if more convenient purchase a copy from the following outlets:

Cam Valley Orchards Farm Shop, Whitecroft Road, Meldreth, now open, Thur-Sat from 9-5.

The Cambridge Museum book shop, bottom of Castle Hill.

The Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library, The Grand Arcade

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Fruit Farming in the Cam Valley, an horticultural, social and economic history, by Jonathan Spain

486pp. with illustrations, maps, bibliography and index, price £25.

Well, at long last and after various delays my book has been delivered from the printer and is available for sale. This is a self-published effort which I am marketing and distributing myself.

To order a copy leave a comment or contact me via email: . Local orders can be delivered by me or be collected. If required, postage and packing on top.

I finished writing the book just before the first Lock Down in March 2020 and have spent the last year doing the editorial work, checking references and producing the bibliography and index. My main historical sources for this, the University Library and the Cambridgeshire Collection, were closed for much of the past year or only allowing restricted entry. However it has been a good project to have, occupying my time whilst languishing at home.

Book Summary

My book is focused on the main fruit-growing villages of the Cam valley, looking at the horticultural, social and economic history, setting this within the wider regional and national context.

Part One contains chapters on the fruits grown in the Cam Valley, the Cambridge Gage, other plums, apples, cherries, pears and soft fruits, tracing their origins and commercial development. This reveals a long history of fruit cultivation in the Cam valley from medieval times through to the commercial era in the late 19th century. This story also sets the Cam valley within the wider global history of the domestication of fruits, which has never been restricted to national boundaries. It’s a story which begins over two thousand years ago.

Part Two looks at the geography and social history of fruit-growing, with a chapter surveying the spatial development of orchards in Melbourn and Meldreth, Bassingbourn and the Morderns, Orwell and Barrington, Shepreth, Foxton and Harston. These villages came within the organisational remit of the Melbourn branch of the West Cambs. Fruit Growers Association, established after the First World War. They shared the same soil and growing conditions and distributed their fruit via stations on the Cambridge to Kings X railway line, constituting a unified and coherent group. A further chapter explores the social history of fruit-growing in terms of the working lives of fruit growers and their employees, as expressed in the year-round demands of orchard management. Also village life – the central role fruit growers and fruit played in social gatherings and activities.

Part Three considers the economic history, the factors which brought about the rise and fall of the local fruit industry which, to be fully understood, includes the regional and national context. Rapid population growth and urbanisation in the 19th century led to rising consumption of fresh fruit in towns and cities, and the development and expansion of wholesale markets in London and the provinces to supply that need. The arrival of the railway network in Cam valley after 1850 provided the means of transporting fresh fruit to those distant markets. In the 1880s agricultural depression led local farmers and small growers to diversify into fruit farming, drawing on the strong local tradition of fruit horticulture. Of equal importance was the remarkable growth of the Chivers jam factory at Histon, established in the 1870s, which stimulated the expansion of the local acreage of greengages, plums and soft fruits. Changing patterns of demand for fruit preserves, and also for fresh fruit, continued to play a determining role in the development and ultimate demise of the local industry.

Another essential element of the narrative is the development of the European and pan-global trade in fruit, which began in the mid- to late-19th century, with the UK becoming the main market for this trade. The impact of mounting fruit imports on the domestic industry became a factor of increasing concerning after the First World War, leading to seasonal tariffs and import quotas in the 1930s and 40s. UK trade policy remained a critical factor, culminating in entry to the Common Market in 1973, which had a disastrous effect on the local apple and pear industry, following a surge of quota-free imports from EEC countries.

Changing patterns of fruit retail, in particular the rise of supermarkets, beginning in the early 1960s and superseding traditional wholesale markets and high street fruiterers by the mid-1980s, was an equally important factor, particularly in the demise of small scale fruit-growing. To strengthen the marketing position of the small fruit grower, a local fruit co-operatrive, Cambridgeshire Growers Ltd, was established in the late 1940s to pool sales and distribution costs. This was a small scale operation, restricted by a low and dispersed membership, lack of capital and a heavy overdraft. The increasingly difficult trading conditions of the mid-1970s, forced it into liquidation.

From the 1980s onward increased consumption of exotic fruits from all parts of the globe displaced domestic consumption of the UK’s traditional hardy fruits such as apples, pears and plums. Jam, once an item of mass-consumption, experienced a long term decline in consumer demand and, latterly, so too canned fruits, reducing the market for stone and soft fruits. Declining sales and profits in the mid- to late 1950s led to the end of Chivers and Sons Ltd, as a independent family-run business, followed by a series of consolidations and rationalisations at the Histon jam factory, under the food conglomerate, Schweppes, later Cadbury-Schweppes Ltd, in response to ever-continuing decline in the market for jam.

Whilst the fruit industry faced major economic challenges, during the 1920s and 30s local fruit growers played an important role in the development of new techniques in orchard management and fruit marketing, working closely with scientists from Cambridge University and elsewhere on new and more effective pesticides and spray technology, counter-measures for fruit diseases and the introduction of cold and atmosphere controlled storage – a ground-breaking development in the new science of food technology. Local fruit growers were forward-thinking and progressive in their approach, willing to adopt new orchard techniques and practices.

During the two world wars the local fruit industry was in the forefront of the food campaigns, supplying the Chivers factory with fruit for the jam ration and to meet orders from the War Office for the troops. During 1917-18 and 1940-45 local growers overcame shortages of labour and materials to provide supplies of hardy fruits for the civilian population, in the face of a collapse in fresh fruit imports, due to the German submarine campaigns.

For over a hundred years, from the 1880s to the 1980s, there developed in South Cambs. a commercial fruit industry which transformed the landscape, giving the district a distinctive and special character, noted for its greengages and plums in particular. This book is a celebration of that industry and the families and individuals which brought it about. Its purpose has been to record that history whilst it is still in living memory. My thanks go therefore to local fruit growers, past and present, ex-fruit pickers and village history groups for their generous assistance with this project.

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News from the Home Front: VE Day celebrations 1945/2020

Out for my daily exercise yesterday, I cycled over to Ashwell via the green bye-way known as the ‘Stret’, and then back to Shepreth, with wonderful warm sunny weather. I passed through several villages bedecked with bunting and flags, people sitting on deck chairs on their drives and front lawns, chatting from a distance to neighbours across fences. Interesting to see a plethora of Union Jacks out rather than the red and white English flag.

Returned home to read through my notes from the Cambridge Independent News from May 1945 to see how the end of the war in Europe was celebrated in the Cam valley. In Melbourn there was a joint service of all the local churches in the parish church, filled to capacity. Pride of place was given to returning POWs, Flight Sgt. Jim Palmer (RAF), L/Cpl. Fred Field, RE parachutist, and Pte. Arthur Wardock, Royal Scots regiment. Local members of the Home Guard, Red Cross and British legion were all present.

In the afternoon there was a street party for children at Portway organised by the  council tenants. In the evening there was a huge bonfire in the field owned by Collis Palmer, a local farmer, where an effigy of Hitler was burned. Fire works were set off, some indiscriminately thrown about in the crowd.

On VJ Day, later in August following the end of the war against Japan, further celebrations were held in Melbourn, starting with a prolonged ringing of the church bells at 7am, various street festivities and a united church service. At 7.30 in the evening another large bonfire was lit at Collis Palmer’s meadow together with an ‘organised’ display of fireworks. Music and dancing took place in the High Street at Rose Inn corner with special lighting, lasting till midnight with as many as a thousand persons present. The news report added, all was quiet and orderly!

Between these two dates there had been a general election returning a Labour Government with a landslide majority and a Labour MP for Cambridgeshire for the first and only (?) time, overturning a Conservative majority of 8,000 by just 44 votes. This heralded a period of social reform and the creation of the NHS, which we have all been cheering on Thursday nights during the current Covid-19 lock down.

Might we turn our attention to our present social ills when the current crisis is over? The lock down has exposed the terrible problem faced by some women suffering physical abuse from their partners. More help and protection for them please. Better funding for the NHS and in particular for ‘public health’ administration – whose inadequacy has been so cruelly exposed by the pandemic. The reason for the severity of the lock down is that we did not have the capacity for nationwide testing and tracking in the early stages. Many of us had mild cold symptoms and are wondering was it Covid-19 or not? A government obsessed with Brexit has neglected so many areas where action is needed, in particular the crisis in social care for the elderly. This neglect has also been seen in the response to Covid-19 and the lack of PPE for care home staff.

If Brexit has divided us perhaps the Covid-19 crisis can unite us? A return to the spirit of 1945?

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News From the Home Front Part Five

During the present Covid-19 control measures small things become large and the picking of the first asparagus on my allotment for our evening meal last night was a joy. This follows on several pickings of rhubarb, which has supplied us with a breakfast compot and various puddings. The over-wintering chard is now producing some large leaves so we have fresh green stuff for a while until it goes to seed.

The onions which I set in late February are all looking strong and healthy. So too the strawberry patch which has received much care and attention. This year I have added a layer of well-rotted compost, dug in around the plants and paid attention to watering since we have had a long dry spell. The plants, once bedraggled and unkempt, are all ‘greening up’ and looking much healthier. I await the first green shoots of the potatoes poking through – with a light plastic tarpaulin at the ready to protect from frosts.

I have planted some small seed which is now showing – turnips and beetroot, and yesterday I added a row of early carrots. The greenhouse remains full of tubs with seeds and seedlings waiting for the end of May/early June for planting out, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans and courgettes. I have grown more kale and celeriac this year, still quite small and not ready for planting out.

All this talk of relaxing the control measures seems a bit premature although I would take advantage of nurseries and building supplies centers opening up again.

Instinctively, I think we are in for a long haul and what do we we mean by ‘back to normal’? We still have the existential threat posed by climate change – don’t we need ‘control’ measures to tackle that or are we just going to simply carry on regardless? A few less airline companies – no bad thing?

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Notes From The Home Front 2020 Part Four

Having implemented virus-control measures down at the allotments, tenants are driving to the site and working on their plots in isolation, getting on with the normal jobs at this time of the year, planting spuds, preparing the ground for seeds and seedlings busy germinating in greenhouses. Looking forward, we have suggested tenants set up a buddy system for watering etc, in case of infection later in the summer. The official infection rate rate in Cambridgeshire is around 100 just now which if we magnify by a factor of ten for the true rate, leaves us quite low in the league table.

I have been busy setting up a permanent runner bean trench. Just before retail outlets were closed down I bought two pieces of 8 foot 3×3 timber, and have some old post holders and scaffolding pipe, and have used these to create a rigid and gale-proof structure to which canes can be attached later in June when the runner beans are planted out. We have some old compost bays at the back of the site which are now providing good quality material, high in organic matter with a light texture which is ideal for filing the trench.

The rhubarb patch is getting going now although the stems are still on the short side. Still, we have had a small picking which has been stewed with raisins and dark sugar to produce a compote to go with our morning porridge or with yoghurt.

I have three propagation trays going at the moment. One with tomato seeds, all now germinated, which will produce around 20 plants, (Purple Cherokee, Brandywine, Green Zebra, Gillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Little Lucy – all heritage varieties from a friend in North Carolina, who has a business in this line). The second tray has celeriac coming through just now. The celeriac is interesting – since you lay the tiny seeds on the surface of the seed compost which has been well dampened and then cover. A higher temperature (18 degrees plus) is needed to kick start germination. These are now showing. The third tray has plenty of kale, green and dark purple varieties. This one is in the greenhouse and is now sending up small shoots.

In the next week or so I’ll be planting courgette and pumpkin seeds in large containers in the greenhouse. Still waiting for the soil to warm up down at the allotments before planting more small seed. At present I have a row of turnips and some chard under  protective cloche netting, together with a small seed bed of leeks for later transplanting. However beetroot and carrots await warmer weather before sowing.

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Notes From The Home Front 2020 Part Three

I’ve just returned from doing the weekly shop at Aldi in Royston, where they now have some good virus control measures in place at the tills. The store was fairly well stocked, with no signs of panic shelf-clearing. So I was able to do a normal shop for the first time in a couple of weeks. Hopefully this is a sign of things calming down.

Thinking back over the events of the past month or so, whilst there has been a lot of criticism of people not taking the virus seriously – my sister, who lives in Brighton, related to me how the beach last weekend was heaving with people from outside the town, coming down to enjoy the sunshine – the real blame lies with the government. They initially thought they could wing it with minimal controls, stressing how mild the symptoms were for most, etc. Then the situation in northern Italy blew up and they had to change course rapidly. The estimate of 250,000 deaths, without strict control measures, is similar to the mortality figures for our armed services in the Second World War. However, having preached one hopelessly optimistic line, (Boris Johnson’s forte), it’s taken a while for the public to come round and fully recognize what is required.

With the global pandemic now fully established we are going to need the level of international cooperation and control of resources akin to that achieved by the Allies in the defeat of the Axis Powers in WW2. We can expect the UK government to take control of more and more of the economy and of our daily lives. Unless, that is, we have something of a miracle…but we had that with the Sars outbreak.

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News From The Home Front 2020 Part Two

Following the introduction of virus control measures we have been enforcing precautions at the allotment site; taking care over use of communal facilities, such as wheelbarrows etc. and most importantly – social distancing. Our site is an isolated rural location away from built up areas, a place where tenants can safely come by car to get their allotted daily exercise. So we hope this will be allowed to continue. What we also fear is an increase in pilfering later in the year as crops come to the point of harvest. This has always been a problem, worse in some years, but food shortages may prove too tempting.

The dry sunny weather continues and one hopes that an increase in direct sunshine will kill the virus on open surfaces and reduce the spread of infection.

On the radio this morning it was reported that 9,000 UK citizens have signed up for work on the hop farms later in the year. Usually only a handful do so. Last year the top fruit industry wasted one million tons of apples, due to a lack of pickers to harvest the full crop, as the normal supply of labour from the EEC dried up. Movement restrictions this year pose a challenging problem for fruit growers during the harvest season, which begins with soft fruit (under covers) in April. Here is another opportunity for young service sector workers recently thrown out of work, and others, to find gainful employment and save our fruit industry.

Hold on to your egg cartons – there is a shortage of packaging as the large quantity of eggs for the catering trade, sold in large packs, is being redirected to retail outlets. We may well need these boxes to collect our eggs from local shops.

The only sounds I hear from outside, apart from the occasional car driving by, is that of birdsong. No planes in the air. A peaceful calm.

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News From The Home Front 2020, part one

May you live in interesting times, as the saying goes. Yesterday I did my first shop at a supermarket, having used local village shops around Shepreth for a couple of weeks. A somber sight I can tell you. However there was enough on the shelves to make the trip worthwhile. Since we don’t eat ready-made meals and processed foods much and do not seek comfort from having a year’s supply of toilet rolls (ready to hand) we can get by.

In order to reduce the frequency of shopping trips we are paying attention to meal planning and thinking about calorie/protein intake. No bad thing. Being a person who has always attempted a degree of self-sufficiency it’s a question now of putting more of this into practice. Down at the allotment things are taking shape. I’ll be planting potatoes later today. If the virus lasts for more than a few months food supply chains will start to feel the strain later in the year. I can easily foresee the government taking measures to increase food production. We are already seeing an increase in applications for plots, but unfortunately we are currently at full occupancy.

At home with my wife, Elisabeth and daughter, Robin, we are working out new ways of living. The thing to do is ration exposure to news and focus on the practical steps which can be taken to adapt to the situation. We are working out exercise routines, seeing what sessions are now available online from local trainers. The garden is receiving a lot of TLC at present. I have a list of DIY jobs to do around the house and we are going to do a lot of spring cleaning and clearing out of unwanted items.

Perhaps it take a crisis to deal with a crisis. We are stumbling forward to a climate change catastrophe. Drastic measures to curb travel for virus control point the way forward to stricter control of global mass-tourism to curb carbon emissions. With the economy – the threat of mass lay-offs of employees on zero hours contracts in the service sector has forced the government to bank-roll wages. We will all be paying for this through higher taxes and borrowing for years to come, sharing the burden jointly. Now perhaps we will start to value and appreciate all those workers who keep the economy ticking over for us, making deliveries to supermarkets, working on the production lines in the food processing factories, currently operating at 24/7, to make sure we have enough to eat.

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One last job on the allotment

It’s Sunday the 23 December. A grey, heavy and overcast day with a steady drizzle. At home the Christmas tree is up and decorated. The lights have been fixed to the porch. We are fully provisioned for the coming feast-days, with wine, meat and fish. The homemade Christmas pudding, patiently stored in a cupboard for a year, is ready and waiting. What better than to pop down to the plot and finish that one final job? In my case, pruning out the dried asparagus bushes for burning on the communal bonfire heap.

The ground on my plot is pretty wet now, best left alone. In any case I managed to get it all dug and turned by November. It has that loose saturated look, as if rising up with the moisture content. Not to be walked upon without sinking deep.  The over-wintering broad beans are looking healthy under their protective wire mesh and the green shoots of the garlic are showing though. In one of the raised beds the autumn planting of main crop turnips is doing well, though not quite ready to pick. The globes needing to swell and firm. These will go well in our hearty winter soups. There is still some chard which I’ll come back and harvest in January. Walking around the plot I’m musing on growing kale next year for a winter crop.

A quiet site since I am the only one present, apart that is from the cock pheasant I can see skulking in the bushes, waiting for me to disappear and return to his normal pursuit –  strutting arrogantly around the plots. There is a definite end-of-year feel about the site, winter-dormancy has set in. We have just passed the shortest day but summer solstice seems far far away. Low cloud on Chapel hill blankets the sky. There is no hint of sun.

Time for me to have a look around and see what needs to be done by the winter working parties in the new year: consolidating the communal composting bays, firing the bonfire heaps, clearing brambles, strimming out the bank along the ditch. We get a good turn out of tenants for these jobs, which is important since Haslingfield allotments is a self-managed site. We’ll get the jobs done then stand around the fire, warming our hands. Out comes the flask of tea… or something stronger. There is a good deal of friendly chat and banter; a good feeling which you only get from partaking in this sort of communal activity.

Oh well, the drizzle is getting heavier and I am feeling decidedly damp and muddy. Time for home….

Looking forward now to going through my box of seed packets, what to keep, what to throw away. Thinking about next year’s plantings. A job for January.

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The Allotment year 2019

I have been growing fruit and vegetables at Haslingfield Allotments in South Cambridgeshire for more than a decade now. This last year has been one of the trickiest. Our site is at the bottom of chalk down-land, (Chapel Hill) with meadow land beyond leading to the River Cam or Rhee. We are prone to flooding but this year prolonged heavy rain in March/April left the site inundated for several weeks. Those plot holders who had not cleared and prepared the ground in the previous autumn where caught out rather badly. Sowing was delayed and then a long extended period of heat and drought did not break until mid-July. Some of our less experienced tenants gave up the fight, leaving the land idle for the year. Others have quit.

My onion and potato crops produced low yields. The strawberry season was very short. Bush fruit turned dry and mealy. Then things began to change for the better. Courgettes and pumpkins enjoyed the heat, producing excellent yields. Late sowings of carrots, turnips and beetroot fared far better than expected. Raspberries and other cane fruits did very well. My first effort to grow aubergines met with success. We tend to get a long finish to the growing season in Cambridgeshire, with sunshine and reasonable warmth extending into October. This allows the crops to make good after early season hindrances. Finally, my small desert apple trees, (Chivers Delight, Blenheim Orange), produced a bumper crop. Combined with the harvest of apples from my garden, we have been juicing apples with our own press throughout the autumn. last year (2017) spring frosts resulted in a poor crop and no juicing.

I have been making some structural changes to the allotment; grubbing up a row of redcurrant bushes which produce too much fruit. The soil has been turned and cleared of weeds and several brambles, which had become entwined with the bushes. I now have a new bed and the plan is to put in some rows of early potatoes (Charlotte) next spring,
further loosening the soil, uncultivated for ten years. The fruit trees have been pruned back, taking out the lower branches, thinning out the middles and reducing height. I’ll be planting another redcurrant bush in the garden at home for our domestic needs.

The strawberry patch has received a lot of attention. This is a new bed, made up of three rows of Malling Centenary, planted in the spring. The poor weather conditions killed off some of the plants and the early summer drought ended any prospect of a harvest. However the plants produced a heavy covering of runners, enabling me to restore the original rows, filling in gaps, and plant an additional three rows in this bed and a separate row elsewhere on the plot. This had been my original plan and it was satisfying to see it’s completion. The great difficulty with strawberries is to prevent weed infestation and the gradual breakdown of separate rows into an irregular mass. It’s a job that has to be kept on top of, with continual hoeing and a major clean up job in the autumn. Eventually nature will have its way and then its time to start again. Strawberry beds generally last for three to four years and then of course these is the problem of disease build-up in the plants.

My last last job will be to lay manure on the main vegetable beds, already dug and turned, as a winter mulch. For winter crops I have some main-crop turnips, planted in September, and the remains of the chard. I do not grow sprouts or over-wintering brassicas because they get pilfered – our site is an open rural site with no perimeter fencing. Pilfering has become more prevalent, a problem experienced on every site in the country. Last year was a peak year for us, leading to the installation of a field gate, to make it more difficult and prevent idle trespass. We shall see.

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