Gerald Fayers and Roger Deakin's apple 'tree' on Aldeburgh beach
Look at the Suffolk Biological Records Centre’s map of the orchards once present in the county and you might think that the sandy Suffolk coast was a desert, but in fact very close to the sea are a number of almost certainly self-sown fruit trees – if we can call them trees.
On the top of the cliff at Dunwich, just a 100 metres from the edge, on heathland, is an old apple tree, just a couple of metres high with a heavy ancient trunk, whose highest branches are annually pruned by winter gales and sea spray as soon as they grow above the brambles and gorse. It does not fit any obvious cultivar, but it is quite well known; regular dog walkers pick the large elongate pearmain-shaped apples and eat them in autumn, so you have to be quick to get one. So well known is it that I have just discovered that someone has been taking graft wood for propagation – well, that makes two of us!
The Dunwich Pearmain is not the only apple. All round Walberswick and Southwold are many hedge apples close to the sea; one totters on the cliff edge near Cove Hythe, to be consumed by the sea any day now. Of course many of these are small green, yellow or red ‘wild’ apples, descendants of two millennia of ploughman’s lunches. Others are recent, bought and planted as Malus sylvestris, our native crab, as part of a new hedge; actually the result of a sharp British nurseryman importing hedging from a Dutch grower who grew seeds which are a by-product of the Hungarian apple juice industry – and who labelled them ‘crab apple’.
In this respect the Suffolk sandlings are no different from other areas of the county. I live in High Suffolk, and on thirty acres of our land, in 5 km of old hedges round tiny fields, we have 18 large wild apples (and two Dutchman’s crab apples), and not a single true Malus sylvestris, one of our rarer trees.
But stranger seaside ‘trees’, if we can call them that, are at Aldeburgh. There is at least one apple, and a pear, and maybe others. These ‘trees’ are certainly tough, resistant to salt spray, and probably to the occasional watering with salt water. They grow in the lea of the shingle bank near the bed of a now dry mere a few yards from the sea, north of the town at Thorpeness. The oldest, and most well known, an apple, has been scrumped for many years by locals, and made both famous and literary by inclusion in Roger Deakin’s last book Wildwood, where his evocative writing describes this ten metre across, half metre high tangle of sticks half buried by the shingle. It seems that apart from growing quite nice August apples (if prone to bitter pit but nice enough for me to propagate – so now it needs a name!) its origin has been the source of speculation for many years, perhaps from its extent, even centuries.
Aldeburgh beach apple
Recently Gerald Fayers, an apple enthusiast, and specialist apple identifier from Gorleston, galvanized by Roger’s book, has taken up the challenge to find out why it is there. It would be nice to say that it is the last remaining apple tree from an orchard now drowned by sea gravel, just the top of the last tree remaining, prevented from growing above the lea of the shingle by the sweeping winds off the sea ……. but despite the research, Gerald’s old maps seem to suggest that this time the ploughman may have been a fisherman, and his lunch that day was not just fish.
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