October 2023 meeting: Apples! The myth and mystery of England’s favourite fruit

On 9 October 2023, Tim Healey spoke about Apples! The Myth and Mystery of England’s Favourite Fruit.

Tim Healey is a freelance writer, broadcaster and musician and previously entertained the group with a fascinating talk ‘Pagans and Puritans – the story of May morning in Oxford’ back in April 2021. Tim’s talk this time weaved its way through the many fascinating myths and mysteries surrounding apples.

Through our culture the apple has had a fairly regular presence, how we often associate the apple with Adam and Eve but also how the apple is linked to the place ‘Avalon’ (Island of Apples) featured in Arthurian legend. Apples have often been associated with birth and fertility, and are often considered a lustrous fruit. If you cut an apple in half laterally a five-pointed star will be observed in the centre. Apples have featured in paintings by notable artists such as Raphael and John Everett Millais of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to Rene Magritte and the widely recognised ‘Son of Man’ painting. More recently apples have appeared in A Dish of Apples, a collection of poems by Eden Phillpotts (1921), in the book Cider with Rosie (1959) by Laurie Lee, and in several best-selling songs by the Andrew Sisters.

From a historical perspective, the apple most likely originated from Kazakhstan c. 8000 BC as a wild apple (Malus pumila) and was spread by people travelling via horse as the apple could be consumed by both rider and horse on their journey. In Roman times Cicero urged his fellow Romans to save apple seeds in order to develop new cultivars and, in Roman religion and myth, the goddess Pomona was associated with fruitful abundance and plenty. In 1204 the Pearmain variety of apple was recorded in England as being associated with cider making and some rents were payable in apples and cider to the Church under the Tithe Tax. In 1390 the first apple pie recipe was recorded and later Henry VIII took an interest in developing new cultivars of apples. After an apple fell from a tree in front of Isaac Newton, he developed the theory of gravity and so physics has much to thank apples for! In the early days of settling North America, apples were spread across what would become the United States of America by Johnny Appleseed.

In the modern day, approximately two-thirds of the apples purchased in the UK are grown and imported from outside the UK and apples undergo a number of preservation treatments before being presented to the consumer. The annual tradition of Wassailing, which involves blessing the apple trees in the hope of a good harvest, continues still to this day and those curious to experience this apple rite are highly recommended to check out the annual event in Brightwell-cum-Sotwell. The talk concluded with the notable history of apples in Oxfordshire and the varieties developed in the area such as the Hanwell Souring, the Bampton Fairing and the Blenheim Orange. Tim also highlighted that, if you are interested in owning a rare or Oxford breed of tree, then you can visit Bernwode Fruit Trees at Ludgershall (between Bicester and Aylesbury). Or if you want to view the largest collection of fruit trees in England, then the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm in Faversham, Kent is also well worth a visit.