Peer into the average person’s shopping basket, fridge or fruit bowl and you will, almost with 100% certainty, find an apple or two. That mythical, symbolic orb, which has weaved its way through storytelling from the beginning of time – from Adam’s temptation of Eve, to the glossy red vehicle of poison gifted to Snow White.

But where do today’s apples come from? Take a closer look. Maybe France. Perhaps Poland. New Zealand even.

The globalisation of food and food trade has for humanity been a game of two halves. On one hand we’ve had a whole world of exotic delicacies lavished upon our shores, from cocoa and coffee, to bananas – all staples today.

But necessity and ‘newness’ has come at a cost. By relying on importing the current food du jour, and cultivating relationships with cheaper farms across the pond, we’ve left some food producers behind.

Did you know, for example, that 90% of British orchards have been lost since the 40s and 50s? Cleared for wartime efforts, forgotten about and left to rot and ruin, the decline of this homegrown industry is surely one of the biggest blows to our food and farming heritage in the last 100 years.

One that, in 2019, left star chef Raymond Blanc aghast. How could it be, he mused, that a land known for the humble apple, had no native varieties on supermarket shelves? Raymond leapt into action, planting 2,500 trees at Le Manoir in Oxfordshire, and urging us lot to find a spot in the garden, dig in, and join a revolution.

It’s a clarion call we should all take heed of. Particularly in East Anglia. Since the 60s Norfolk has lost 60% of its apple population, while Suffolk, which once had 6,000 orchards, has seen a decline of up to 50% in recent times.

Step in the East of England Apples and Orchards Project. This collective of environment and tree enthusiasts can rightly be called the Indiana Jones’ of the fruit world. The band of ordinary folk with a shared passion have worked tirelessly for over 20 years, seeking out lost ancient relics of the natural world, and rescuing at least 270 varieties from obscurity.

Trustee and co-founder Claire Stimson is much too modest about the achievements of the EEAOP, which has managed to sell a staggering 30,000 trees native in the region to private buyers, community projects, schools and others.

Based at West Raynham, the orchards are the go-to place for advice on identifying, buying and planting fruit trees, allowing the likes of the New Costessey Seedling, Norfolk Beauty, and Clopton Red to live on in our gardens.

“We started out, really, as a loose connection of people based at Gressenhall Museum with various expertise,” says Claire. “We worked closely with Ranworth Trees nursery, which sold a lot of local varieties. We planted those at Gressenhall and had a fantastic identifier, Gerald. He was in many ways the inspiration for us.

“He’d been working with a volunteer at the museum researching old varieties of tree, and had unearthed all sorts of things. We worked with them, and then took the project and made it more of an organisation.”

Putting down roots, it wasn’t long, Claire adds, before the group saw they could take what they were doing further. Having inherited and sold 500 trees from Ranworth before the business closed, the collective identified a hunger for regional plants from local buyers.

“We were very much responding to public interest. We ended up going all over the place. One day we looked at the map of East Anglia and thought, why not make it a regional group?”

The EEAOP was established as a charity in 2003, expanding to sell apples, plums, pears and cherries. If you bring something to them and they can’t identify it, they will investigate. It's something, Claire says, they pride themselves on. There is a thrill, she adds, in being part of the story. In playing your part in living history. “I’m just so proud that we’ve managed to reintroduce an old variety every year. It’s fantastic.

“And this is important for the environment too. Trees are essential in agroforestry. They’re very good for bees and birds. Plus, fruit trees have such a close relationship with us. In the past, as soon as anyone had land, they’d put in fruit. Every pub had its own orchard to make cider, and farms would make cider to pay workers. They were everywhere.”

Why should we be investing in popping an apple tree or two in our gardens?

“For starters,” Claire smiles, “they’re certainly attractive. Then there’s the fact they just have so much more flavour than supermarket fruit. If you grow your own you can pick and eat the apples when they are ripe and ready, rather than when the supermarket decides you can have them. They’ll pick apples early and put them in gas or cold storage, rather than giving them time. It’s such a difference.”

Then there are, as Claire says, the stories. The fact that every single tree has a past. And a local past at that – all uncovered by the group’s “patient and amazing” identifiers.

“The public’s interest in heritage fruit varieties could be deemed backwards-looking but nostalgia can be a powerful force for change. Local varieties have cultural links to local people and places. By providing the public with the chance to buy trees we have given them an understanding of these associations, a sense of pride in their locality, as well as the experience of home-grown food, with all its health benefits and first-hand access to nature. The public are helping to safeguard these rare and at-risk orchard fruits and in doing so have helped to create much-loved green spaces beneficial to people and biodiversity.”

To find out more about EEAOP and its work, to buy trees or book a place on one of their orchard skills workshops, visit their website, or call 01328 838403

On Sunday (October 17) EEAOP will be at the Gressenhall Museum Apple Day, with displays of over 250 apples. If you have an unknown apple on an old tree, take them along to be identified.

Did you know?

  1. The Dr Harvey apple, commercialised in Norfolk in the 70s, is considered the classic cooking apple for the county – but it’s actually from Essex.

  1. In 1662 Thomas Fuller described Norwich as “either a city in an orchard, or an orchard in a city, so equal are houses and trees blended in it”.

  1. The Mere de Menage apple, found across the region, is thought to be incredibly ancient, with old trees found in small farm orchards especially in Suffolk. It has over 60 names in the UK, including Queen Emma, but the same name is used for a different apple in France.

  1. The original Dunwich Heath Dessert apple can still be found next to a car park at the top of the cliff at the National Trust site. It's been picked for years by visitors, and only in recent times has it been discovered these trees also grow in some local gardens.

  1. A relatively recent Suffolk discovery is the Suffolk Stiles Pippin, found in a village garden in Horringer, where it was propagated for Ickworth House before the owner Mrs Chessell moved away in the mid-noughties. It’s apparently one of the oldest types of Catshead apple in the country.

  1. Norfolk’s oldest apple is the Five-Crowned Pippin, first mentioned in the 1500s. But the best-known is the Norfolk Beefing – used by the Victorians to make ‘biffins’- which see the tough-skinned fruits slowly baked until caramelised.

  1. The Thorpeness or Roger Deakin’s Apple can be found on the village’s shingle beach. It has been propagated since 2008 and although other trees are said to exist, none have been found yet.

Claire’s tips for buying apple trees

  1. The EEAOP sells bare root trees from December to mid-March which is the best time to plant them. You can buy them mail order, or collect them at West Raynham. All trees are on half standard root stock, growing between 3.5m to 4.5m tall.

  1. Most apple trees need a pollinator. If you have lots of varieties you don’t need to worry about which type they are unless you’re choosing very early or very late apples. If you’re growing only one or two, ensure there are apples growing within half a mile, with nothing to block the way for bees.

  1. The rootstock dictates the type of ground apples can tolerate. The MM106 trees we stock can pretty much cope with anything as long as it’s not pure sand or waterlogged. And we recommend mulching and watering regularly. A big bucketful of water rather than little and often.

  1. Keep the area around the tree clear of grass and weeds.

  1. Feeding is helpful but not essential. A good mulch and good hygiene will keep your tree healthy. If you notice any disease it’s important to clear it straight away. And if you get aphids, make or buy some garlic spray. It works wonders.

  1. Most apple trees will flower straight away, but try to refrain from picking fruit in the first year or two while the trees establish.

  1. Store your apples in a cool frost-free shed, in single layers between newspaper.

  1. One of my favourites is Chivers Delight. It is such a treat, with a rich complex flavour you won’t get with supermarket apples.

A brief history of apples in East Anglia

The earliest recording of an orchard in Norfolk can be traced back to Norman times, and 1089’s foundation charter of Castle Acre Priory, while the earliest recording of an apple in England was noted in a 13th century document in Broadland. A tenant farmer, based in Runham jotted down that he’d paid his annual rent with “200 pearmains, and 4 hogsheads of wine, made of pearmains”.

Henry VIII’s measures to curb the powers of the church saw the dissolution of monasteries in the region – their orchards lost with them.

But by the late 1600s even small households began to grow again, and into the 19th century orchards were planted once again on the gardens of wealthy landowners and the middle classes. To begin, swathes of fruit from Europe were dug in here. Soon replaced by varieties raised at commercial nurseries, such as Lindley’s of Old Catton and Daniel Bros of Lakenham.

It was very trendy, don’t you know? And as we reached the start of the 20th century, fruit mania was in full swing, with head gardeners across the country breeding new varieties in hope of catching the attention of the RHS or Fruit Selection Committee.

Large scale commercial orchards came with the railways, with much of the fruit grown in the east bound for up north or London. But, as we reached the late 20th century, UK-grown fruit was in rapid decline.

Suffolk Apple Varieties Include

Late Gold – Brockford

Clopton Red – Dating back to Wickhambrook in 1946

Maxton – Discovered in Assington in 1939 and sold in Holland as the Suffolk Superb

Red Miller’s Seedling – A dessert apple from Mr Wheldon’s garden, discovered around 1948

St Edmund’s Russett – Raised by Richard Harvey in Bury St Edmunds circa 1842

Lady Henniker – Dating to Thornham Magna Hall from 1845

Norfolk Apple varieties include

Burgh St Peter – Grown on Mr Banns’ farm pre 1928

Harling Hero – From East Harling, discovered as a seedling in 1914 by game dealer Frank Claxton

Norfolk Royal – Discovered as a seedling at Wright’s Nursery in North Walsham, 1908

Norwich Pippin – Raised by Daniel Bros of Norwich between 1906 and 1915 and rediscovered in the city in 2005

Sandringham – Raised by former head gardener of Sandringham House Mr Penny around 1883