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.
Inside the breezeblock ciderhouse, the air is cool and damp. The atmosphere is anything but. Six ruddy-nosed Scotsmen, down for the week, merrily poke fun at each other around a Formica table, a tankard in each hand and a few crumbs of cheese in front. Next to them, four large barrels of cider - two sweet, two dry - sit in a row, hissing out the day's cider to any pilgrim who turns up with an empty glass. The wall opposite is covered with photographs and cuttings, including an interview with the late Clash singer Joe Strummer. Encircled is his description of happiness: "chilling in Somerset with a flagon of Wilkins' Farmhouse Cider". No-one here today would disagree.
At the centre of it all is Roger Wilkins, a burly, gregarious, faded Teddy Boy in overalls and wellies. He purposefully strides around his farmhouse, making sure that every visitor is welcomed and quenched. He has been making cider here for some 50 years, after learning the trade from his grandfather. "I was weaned on this stuff," he says, raising his ever-present tankard of green-yellow cider to his lips. "I've been drinking it since I was five years old. And I've never had a bad head."
The reason why Roger does not know the meaning of the word hangover is the same reason why his cider is so revered, why people will travel 400 miles to sit in his draughty farmhouse. It is just apples. He adds nothing bar a teaspoon of saccharine in the sweet barrels. "I test everything by taste," he says. "I know exactly what it should taste like at every stage." Wilkins Cider is how cider used to be before the big brands cleaned it up - rough and ready, with the occasional piece of floating pulp and a sharp tang. The head might be fine, but after a couple of pints, the unsuspecting punter won't be able to work their legs.
Three times a day, the hubbub in the farmhouse falls silent as Roger begins a pressing. Bags of apples are poured into the mill and ground into a pomace. Roger spreads it over a lissom, a wooden board covered in a rough, porous cloth, and repeats the process until he has made up a "cheese", eleven lissoms in total, which is wheeled on rails to the press.
The large vice squeezes down upon the cheese, and the apple juice drips to the trough below. Roger scoops up a palmful, slurps it down and nods, satisfied. There is a murmur of approval from the congregation as he begins to build the next cheese. "I've been coming here every day for 40 years," whispers the man next to me. "I never get tired of watching this."
The sign on the wall of the Tuckers Grave Inn leaves visitors in no doubt as to the primary purpose of this tumbledown country tavern: "Drink hard cider as much as yer please. Loose yer teeth an bow yer knees. Sours yer gut an makes yer wheeze."
Perhaps not the most inviting prospect for recent converts, but for the hardy souls crammed into this front room-disguised-as- a-pub there is nothing better than a tankard of gut-souring cider, and nowhere better to drink it than Tuckers Grave Inn.
A ring of seats is arranged around a flickering fireplace, the air filled with the chat of the regulars - Roger "Cravat" Bonsall, resplendent in synonymous neckpiece; Graham Clylee, proud veteran of "every cider pub in Britain and Brittany"; Stuart Delbono, young farm hand. Each holds a tankard of the near-fluorescent orange Thatchers cider that landlady Glenda Swift pours from the barrels piled up under a window. There is no bar here; that would signal a divide between punters and owners. Rumour has it this room was once the lounge of Glenda's house, adjacent to the bar, but she would get so many people popping in for a drink and a chat that she turned it into the main room of the pub.
"Doesn't matter who you are or where you come from," says Graham, roasting a handful of chestnuts on the crackling fire. "People will always talk to you in here." Glenda nods her approval. "No subjects are barred in this room," she says, looking around at her customers with a tenderness that belies someone whose job it is to get them royally drunk. "We know everything in here - where the skeletons are hidden, where the babies are conceived."
For all the reverence and ritual that surrounds the making of cider, it is this, the final stage in the apple's journey from the orchard to the glass, that is the reason why Roger Wilkins and Julian Temperley have dedicated their lives to what is, in effect, squeezing fruit juice. The next day, it is clear that cider's value to Somerset is appreciated far beyond the pubs and pressing plants. Barrington Court, a grand National Trust property, is hosting its Apple Day celebration. A crowd of Somersetians has descended upon the sprawling, orchard-laden grounds, joining in with the apple pressing, picking up the windfall, paying tribute to the humble fruit that defines their homeland. In the central building, there's a display of the varieties grown here; the names sound more like dashing World War II pilots than fruit - Broxwood Foxwhelp, Ribston Pippin, Harry Masters, Tom Putt.
It may not quite be the Battle of Britain, but in a strange way the resurgence of cider, and Somerset, owes a similar weight of gratitude to the persistence of these wholesome balls of juicy goodness - forever the heroes of the West Country.
Trains to Yeovil Junction run direct from London Waterloo, Exeter and Salisbury (from £14.10 return).
Buses do not cover the whole of Somerset. Hire a car from Vincents Daily Rental in Yeovil (from £29 a day).
The article 'England's West Country: Still the apple of our eye' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.