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Book Cover

Liz Copas with Nick Poole

The Lost Orchards

A century ago, cider was an essential ingredient of life in rural Dorset when most farms had an orchard and made their own. Carried into the fields in stoneware jars it slaked haymakers’ thirst as they toiled in the sun. It frequently formed part of a farm-worker’s wages. Old-fashioned, agricultural cider, what Nick Poole calls ‘proper cider’, was a very different drink from the bland, fizzy commercialised concoc-tions all too often sold nowadays. It was, he says, ‘hard, flat, slightly fruity and with a hint of razor blade at the back of the throat.’ But now the orchards from which the cider was produced have all but disappeared.

Since 1960, about two-thirds of Britain’s orchards have been lost. Dorset once boasted more than ten thousand acres of orchards, the vast majority of which have now been grubbed up to make way for cereal crops or buildings. In the process, hundreds of varieties of dessert, cooking, and cider apples have been lost. This book tells the story of the efforts of two people, Liz Copas and Nick Poole, to save many of these ancient, lost varieties in order to revitalise more traditional blends of cider.

In fact, The Lost Orchards is several books wrapped into one. It’s partly a detective story, following Co-pas and Poole as they criss-cross Dorset in search of forgotten varieties of apple, pursuing a lead to an abandoned orchard here or an overgrown garden there. It’s partly a scientific treatise discussing the DNA of apples and their differing levels of tannin and acidity, vital determinants of how a cider will taste. Copas, a pomologist - an apple scientist - to the core, worked for many years at the Long Ashton Research Station near Bristol so is an expert in her field. It’s partly a Pomona, a descriptive listing of many varieties of apples, a modern version of the leather-bound volumes with their minutely ob-served, beautifully engraved illustrations which could be found in the library of any self-respecting Victorian country gentleman. It’s also a history of the apple and of cider-making, both in Dorset and more widely. As such it offers a tantalising glimpse into a rural way of life which has now virtually dis-appeared.

One of the book’s great joys is its illustrations. Inevitably, there are many photographs of apples and apple trees but there are also sepia-tinted pictures of smock-clad haymakers, historical cider-related ephemera, bottle labels, advertising posters, and so on, as well as pictures of old cider sheds and presses. The main glory, however, is James Ravilious’s photographs taken in the late 1980s – a time-less record of Dorset’s orchards and their ancient trees made more nostalgic by the soft, slightly faded colours of the images.

In all, The Lost Orchards is a fascinating book – a must for anyone interested in the history of rural Dorset and cider-making. I have only one, minor gripe: reading about cider made me very thirsty. I would have appreciated a listing of local, artisan cider producers whose products I could buy to slake my thirst, like the haymakers of old.

Richard Hopton

Little Toller Books

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