Many consider it one of the most important trees in Britain but a few years ago when I visited it, the original Bramley apple stood forlorn, bark peeling from its gnarled branches, the garden around it overgrown and wild. A plaque from the Tree Council at its foot proclaimed it to be one of fifty great British trees, but it looked like death was imminent.
The Nottinghamshire tree’s history goes back over 200 years. Like children, apple seedlings rarely grow to display exactly the same characteristics as their parents. This welcome fact helps explain why we have so many varieties of the fruit today.
Some time around 1809, Mary Brailsford (1791-1852) planted some apple pips in the garden of her parents’ tiny little terraced cottage in Church St, Southwell.
One of the seedlings grew to yield beautiful, large apples, with a sharp-flavoured flesh that melted to a perfect, sweet mush when cooked.
Mr Bramley apple
In 1856 Henry Merryweather, the 17-year-old son of a local nurseryman, who had begun working in orchards at the age of ten and was already a fruit expert, encountered George Musson, gardener to the Vicar Choral of Southwell Minster, carrying a basket of fine apples.
Impressed by their size, he asked where they had come from and was told from nearby Tatham’s Orchard – the produce of trees top-grafted several years earlier from a fine tree in Church St.
By then the cottage was owned by local butcher Matthew Bramley. In 1924, then a sprightly 86-year-old, Merryweather recalled what happened next*:
“I at once went to see Mr Bramley and his apple tree, which was full of beautiful fruit. I was a young man at the time but knew most of the apples of any consequence and on seeing this tree I was at once struck with the marvellous appearance of this wonderful variety and asked for its name. He said: ‘It is my apple raised in my garden and it is called Bramley’s Seedling.’ I asked for some grafts and was told to take what I wanted. From that time I worked all the plants I had room for and by degrees I had a fine stock of young plants. I then began to have fruiting trees in the Nursery, which more than ever confirmed my opinion of its great value and I considered it the finest apple I had seen”
The Merryweathers recorded the first sale of the fruit in October 1862 – “Three Bramleys apples for 2/- to Mr Geo Cooper of Upton Hall.” Only three years later they sold two of the trees to the well-known Victorian garden writer, Rev Reynolds Hole, at nearby Caunton.
The Merryweathers went on to show the fruit widely at competitions, winning awards and its popularity spread, particularly among commercial growers.
By 1924, 80% of Kent’s 2,469 acres of orchards were devoted to Bramley’s Seedlings. The 1944 fruit census shows that more than two million Bramley’s Seedling trees were in commercial plantations in England and Wales. Today 95% of the apples sold in the UK for cooking at home are Bramleys – around 80,000 tonnes are grown here every year.
The original Bramley apple tree was hit by lightning and fell over in the early 1900s, but re-rooted itself and sent up a new trunk. Over 90 years later biologists from the University of Nottingham found it under attack from honey fungus and, concerned about its state, used groundbreaking biotechnology methods to clone the tree. The man leading that project was Professor Ted Cocking.
He said: “The lady who lived in the cottage and owned the tree was Nancy Harrison. She died about 18 months ago at the age of 94. She was passionate about the tree and kept it going.”
Nancy Harrison left the cottage and its adjacent cottage to her nephew, Coulson Howard, 55, who has lived with and around the tree most of his life.
Nancy bought both cottages at auction in the 60s and lived at number 76. She let Coulson’s mother live in 75 when the family returned to the UK from Northern Rhodesia. He was six at the time.
Coulson had a big garden of his own to tend and the struggle of maintaining the Bramley Cottage garden was a hard one. “I’ve looked after the garden for years while Nance was alive but it’s difficult to motivate yourself when the tree has dead branches and hardly any leaves on now, ” he said.
Professor Cocking shared my concern: “The tree is suffering from an untreatable fungal infection. We’re very much now at a terminal stage. It’s been going for 200 years. It’s been struggling for the last ten years. Having seen it, with the bark peeling off, the signs are that within a year or so it is going to die. It’s sad really that it has been neglected. It feels like a matter of civic pride. It’s not fitting that Southwell should neglect its heritage in this way when for a few hundred pounds a year the garden could be looked after.”
The plight of the tree, raised by this blog, generated international media exposure, with coverage and offers of help coming from Japan, Canada and France. The concerns and offers of assistance encouraged Coulson, who was keen to point out the many people over the years who helped care for the tree. “I have tried to look after the garden, but I’ve never touched the tree – it’s too precious for an amateur like me. I’ve always had support from people in Southwell and from experts like local fruit farmer Sir John Starkey and Nottingham Trent University’s Brackenhurst campus.”
He was keen to pay particular tribute to Claude Coates, a fruit farmer from Wisbech in Cambridgeshire who came over four times a year for over a decade in the 60s and 70s to spray, prune and tend the tree. “There are lots of people over the years who have played a part in the Bramley apple story but Claude gets no recognition. Soon after Nance bought the cottage at auction he came over to see her and he showed real devotion to the tree.”
In the wake of the coverage I received a request to visit the Brackenhurst Agricultural College run by Nottingham Trent University. They were upset as they had been looking to create a Bramley Apple exhibition. I suggested they might want to buy the cottages for student accommodation, with students (under supervision) responsible for caring for the tree. I heard nothing back.
An advert for the Bramley apple from an early Merryweather catalogue
To my delight in April 2018 Nottingham Trent purchased the cottages, planning to refurbish them for postgraduate student accommodation. I am not taking credit, but I am pleased.
The Merryweathers nursery that made Bramley famous succumbed itself a few years ago and the land was sold for housing.
More recent pictures show the famous old tree is in a much healthier state. Maybe it will hang on in there for a bit longer yet.
Budding fruit on the Bramley apple tree in my garden, which prompted the research into the tree’s history and visit to see the original.
*I am indebted to Celia Steven, the great granddaughter of Henry Merryweather and her brother Roger, for much of the history.