England's West Country: Still the apple of our eye
Apples ready for pressing at the Burrow Hill Cider Farm in Somerset. (Myles New)
Down in the West Country lies the old county of Somerset, a patchwork of meadows, quiet villages and an orchard around every corner. It is a land of pigs snuffling fallen apples, old farmers telling tales in crumbling pubs, and field after field of wondrous English countryside.
At five o'clock each afternoon, Somerset slips into soft-focus. As the sun readies itself for the day's end, the light turns hazy and golden, coating every scene with the warm graininess of a Super 8 home movie. Stand in an orchard as the glow of late afternoon is filtered through the laden branches, sending a lattice of pale shadow onto the fruit-covered floor, and it is easy to understand why the orchard holds an elevated place in British mythology. From inspiring Newton's theory of gravity to the wassail ceremonies that drive evil spirits from the trees each January, the orchard has long been a place of quiet contemplation and a very British kind of magic.
What it hasn't been is a stomping ground for sex-crazed llamas. But that is what I'm confronted with as I explore the orchards of Burrow Hill Cider Farm, near Stembridge village. Two man-sized llamas - one brown called Louis, one white called Rupert - unnervingly stare me out as I wander past a Gloucester Old Spot pig snuffling among the apples at the base of a tree. Barrelman Stephen Ward is quick to issue a warning: "Watch your back around Rupert," he says, as we walk towards the truck that has pulled into the farmyard, its bed piled high with freshly gathered apples. "He thinks he's human. He has a habit of leaping onto your shoulders if you turn away too fast."
The truck tips the red-and-green Kingston Blacks - just one of 40 varieties used - onto the courtyard. As a stream of water washes the fruit along an apple-clogged trench towards the mill, Stephen tells me how Burrow Hill has rejuvenated cider making in this corner of Somerset. The early 90s were a dire time for cider devotees - the drink was out of fashion, and local farmers were competing to sell off their orchards. Twenty years on, the same farmers are selling Burrow Hill their apple harvest, and seeing it turned into top class cider brandy. The man responsible for this turn of events is Julian Temperley, owner of Burrow Hill.
A cross between Boris Johnson and Wurzel Gummidge, Julian's rumpled exterior belies a sharp business brain and penchant for mischief. "You fall into cider making by mistake, or by default. It's not a logical decision," he says. "Cidermaking is the last bastion of the peasants. We're an anarchic lot." But Julian is in no doubt of the importance of cider to Somerset. "If we lose these orchards, the landscape of this part of the world changes entirely. The cider tradition needs to be protected."
I stroll through the orchard, serenaded by the thwock of apples falling to the floor (cider farmers don't pick apples from the tree; they wait for them to fall). Across the road from the farmhouse is the steep hill that gives the farm its name. The climb is short but sharp and I am struck by the sheer immensity of the Somerset Levels. Standing under the sky here is a full 360° experience - it feels like being in the centre of a child's snow globe. The horizon is a circumference, not a straight line, and the land below unrelentingly flat, divided only by orchards lined up like military regiments. The leaves on the trees have begun to smoulder, not yet set alight with full autumn colour. On the breeze comes the sound of a tractor in an orchard, collecting the windfall for the next batch of cider - the sound of an ancient tradition surviving, adapting and prospering.
The track down to Wilkins Cider Farm is dotted with handwritten signs, the disparate clues of a rosy-cheeked treasure hunt. Every so often there is a break in the hedge and an instant panoramic of the Somerset Levels surges through the gap, but for most, this is a head-down, no-nonsense trip - it is not the views they have come for.