Bewdley Cherry Fayre historical notes

Historical notes courtesy of Bewdley Civic Society

Our familiar tree fruits of temperate climate (Family Roseaceae), evolved in the forests on the mountain slopes of the Tien Shan and westward to the foothills of the Caucasus. Trade along the Silk Road brought fruits to Mesopotamia and the Middle East, where grafting and orchard cultivation developed about 4000 years ago. Subsequent invasions and migrations brought fruits to Europe.

The Romans realised the value of Kent for growing fruit; also fruit came from Germany, (German, Apfel and English, apple), and later with the Normans and Crusades. These ancient stocks were not supplemented until 1533, when Henry VIII sent his Fruiterer, Richard Harris, to France and the Low Countries to collect new varieties and set up an orchard in East Kent near Teynham. Interest in fruit continued with Elizabeth I, in attempts to render England less dependent upon imports.

Cultivation progressed during the Seventeenth century, especially after the Civil War, largely in the gardens of country estates with professional gardeners, and encouraged by important books on horticulture, not least that of John Rea (1605-1677), of Norton’s End, Kinlet, near Bewdley. This famous nurseryman, in his book, Flora, Ceres and Pomona, (1665), recommends 16 varieties of cherry. He first introduced the term ‘Dukes’ for hybrids between acid and sweet cherries. One which he named, ‘Carnation’, still exists in the National Collection. His huge collection of fruit and flowers which he recommended for use in walled gardens included; 20 apple varieties, 21 pears, 45 plums, 5 nuts, 35 peaches, 11 nectarines, as well as the largest stock of tulips in the Country.

Local interest continued with the researches of the pioneer of scientific horticulture, Thomas Andrew Knight, (1759-1836). Son of the rector of Bewdley, of the famous family of Ironmasters, first President of the (later Royal) Horticultural Society, FRS, he lived and worked at Elton Hall and Downton Castle on the River Teme near Ludlow, experimenting and propagating new varieties of fruit and vegetables around 1800. Several varieties of cherry, which he raised, are still growing in local orchards. There is evidence that his study of garden peas was the inspiration for the work of Gregor Mendel, (1822-1884), the father of genetics, eighty years later.

Saint Anne’s Day, 26th July has been a fair day in Bewdley since a Charter was granted in 1472, by King Edward IV. There is documentary evidence that cherries have been sold by Bewdley Church since at least 1817. Photographs show stalls by Bewdley Church before the War Memorial was built.

Bewdley, the area around Wyre Forest and the Teme Valley has long been famous for cherries. Most farms and smallholdings had orchards in the 18th and 19th centuries for cider and perry. Later, cherries were introduced, and tourists came to see the blossom in spring.

From 1861, the Severn Valley Railway enabled perishable cherries to be carried quickly, in good condition, to the cities north, south and east. The trade flourished. The crops were often auctioned in local pubs. Some Bewdley families specialised in picking cherries which required special tapering ladders of Norway spruce, with as many as 40 oak rungs, to reach fruit from the huge trees.

In 1886, 110 tons of cherries passed through Bewdley market. In 1907, 200 carts came in to Bewdley, their owners buying and selling cherries. Court proceedings for obstruction were dismissed as there was “right of Custom some 80 or 90 years at least”.

In 1957, the Government Fruit Tree Census showed that North Worcestershire had 1350 acres of cherry orchards with 59,000 trees, yielding 8% of the National crop, but the trade died in the 1960s.