‘Near the Minster in Southwell, how it happened’s a puzzle,
Little Mary Ann created a new variety.
In the shade of her garden after frost made it harden,
She planted a pip from a friend’s apple tree.
Oh, sing of the Apple, oh sing of the Apple, what sort are you going to be?
Oh, sing of the Apple, oh sing of the Apple, what is to become of thee?
Two hundred years later, no fame could be greater
Than the flavour of those apples from Mary Ann’s tree,
In pies they’re eponymous, in kitchens synonymous
With the culinary heights of our great history
So sing of the Bramley, oh sing of the Bramley, as loud as loud can be,
Oh sing of the Bramley, oh sing of the Bramley, we are proud to honour thee!’
Words: John Starkey
Music: Simon Freeman
These are the first and last of the four verses of the ‘Bi-Centenary Song of the Bramley Apple’, written by Sir John Starkey as part of this year’s celebrations marking the 200th birthday of our best loved ‘cooker’.
Bramley’s remarkable history began in around 1809, when Mary Anne Brailsford planted a few apple pips in a pot. One of these grew into a vigorous sapling which was planted in the family garden in Church Street, in the market town of Southwell, near Nottingham. The tree had been cropping for some years when in around 1857 it caught the eye of Henry Merryweather, who recognised a potential winner for his fledgling nursery business. By this time the cottage and the tree were owned by Matthew Bramley, a butcher in the town. He gave graftwood to Merryweather and his name to the new apple; Merryweather began selling grafted trees in 1862. By the turn of the century Bramley trees were widely planted in commercial orchards, helping to establish the modern British fruit industry and Bramley continues to play an important role in today’s markets. That Bramley’s Seedling is for sale on our supermarket shelves is in many ways more remarkable than the longevity of the mother tree, which continues to grow and crop in the Southwell garden. Bramley is a Victorian culinary apple and thus much too sharp to eat fresh with pleasure. Yet, despite our rumoured disinclination to cook, Bramley finds a market all year round. Bramley has the highest level of acidity of any of the hundreds of culinary apples that were once grown all over the country, and this is its great virtue. Not only did it pass the Victorian tests for a good ‘cooker’ with honours – making excellent apple sauce, baked apples and pies and never needing the help of extra lemon juice to compensate for fading acidity – but its brisk, intensely fruity taste comes zinging through regardless of how much sugar and spices a recipe calls for, or what mass production abuses it may suffer. Being a late keeper it has suited modern storage and marketing requirements, which can now deliver Bramleys every month of the year as sharp as when first picked.
The Bramley Ode received its first public performance last week when Sir John and Roger Merryweather, great grandson of Henry, and High Sheriff of Nottingham, sang it under the branches of the original Bramley tree; Sir John is a nearby fruit farmer who specialises in producing Bramleys. Their audience was a group of some 35 fruit amateur fruit growers from Belgium, together with half dozen English enthusiasts, who in the morning had visited the gardens of Adrian Baggaley to see how he produces so many prize winning exhibits; most recently scooping eight firsts at the RHS Tatton Park Show. In the afternoon we had come across to see the famous tree in the company of Roger Merryweather as our guide. The concert under the Bramley was a complete surprise and filmed for BBC2 ‘Working Lunch’ programme! Interviews with Sir John and Roger had been scheduled for the programme, but the presence of the ‘Belgian chorus’ was entirely fortuitous. Sir John led a spirited, indeed heroic, performance in the rain. It will be broadcast this Friday – 4 September on BBC 2 ‘Working Lunch’ at 12.30 pm and you can watch for a further week on the iplayer at bbc.co.uk/iplayer . The ‘Bi-Centenary Song of the Bramley Apple’ has been recorded, sung by Southwell Minster Lay Clerk tenor accompanied by the choristers and discs will be available shortly – purchase details to follow.
In Southwell, a carved wooden Bramley apple and a blue plaque mark the home of the tree and close by there is a Bramley pub. Further tributes to honour Southwells’ renowned offspring came this March, when ‘The Bramley Window’, a new stained-glass window, was installed in the Minster. Its design – green Bramley apples set in a framework of scrolls – form three central features in a large window in the north west transept. This was Roger Merryweather’s munificent gift to the Minster in honour of his family’s long involvement with the Bramley apple and fitting made in his year of office as High Sheriff. To see the window click here ; photographs are available in the Minster Shop. The Bramley tree itself is in reasonably good health and although appearing as an upright branched tree is actually ‘L’ shaped. The tree was blown down in the early 1900s, but propped up by its branches continued to live. Two of these branches grew upwards to form the vertical tree that you now see. These are still growing from the horizontal main trunk, protected by some weather proofing, that lies along the ground and has its roots a couple of feet away. Long may it thrive!