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The Vocal Yokel – I am a cider drinker!

For me, the most interesting aspect of our democratic election is how so many awful MPs manage to get re-elected. Even worse how somebody such as Peter Mandelson doesn’t even have to stand for election — he remains unelected, unaccountable, but almost certainly powerful in what is left of the shambolic and incompetent Labour Party.

The London Labour elite all managed to get re-elected, of course: David Miliband, born and brought up in London, representing South Shields; and his wonderful brother, Ed, born and brought up in London, representing Doncaster North. My computer has a sense of humour. Whenever I type in the word “Miliband”, it comes up with the alternative word “moribund” — amazing, an intelligent, perceptive computer. Then, of course, there is Hilary Benn, born and brought up in London, representing Leeds Central. Don’t ask me how or why we call this democracy — “government by the people for the people”. I assume that the Labour Party considers the inhabitants of South Shields, Doncaster and Leeds to be too thick to represent themselves. Can there be any other explanation? And we are so proud of our system that we are busy trying to teach the Iraqis and the Afghans about “democracy”. The alternative word “shamocracy” springs to my mind.

Another to be re-elected was the British politician with the most inappropriate name, Alistair Darling. He is certainly no darling of mine. I wonder if he is related to the Darling in Blackadder? Yes, he is another “socialist” who went to Loretto, which is possibly the second poshest public school in Scotland after Fettes, the school graced by the privileged Tony Blair, another tremendously sincere socialist.

Alistair Darling’s last budget — and I hope it definitely was his last-ever budget — demonstrated just how Gormless Gordon’s Government was anti-rural and disconnected, verging on the bizarre. Nice Mr Darling proposed a 10 per cent duty on cider — yes, cider — at a time when 39 pubs are closing each week because they can’t make ends meet. Cider is a great, traditional British drink, which has risen so much in popularity that it has given hope and additional income to numerous small farmers and apple growers in the West Country. With farming in the doldrums, those ancient orchards have given producers and growers a new financial lifeline, so much so that for the first time for many years new orchards are being planted.

So, just as people were seeing some hope, the lovely Mr Darling wanted to slap a hefty tax on small farmers’ latest little earner — an earner breathing hope into the rural economy of the West Country, and, it must be stressed, giving hope to wildlife as the cider apple and perry pear orchards of Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall create rich wildlife habitat, particularly for birds and insects. Indeed, the Countryside Restoration Trust, of which I am still chairman, has two fantastic orchards in Herefordshire and one of them has breeding lesser-spotted woodpeckers, sadly one of the rarest birds in the country. With the political change it must now be hoped that Mr Darling’s threatened tax will not be implemented.

By coincidence, shortly after Darling’s hateful, disconnected budget, I had to go to the Golden Valley in Herefordshire, where I met one of the most remarkable and colourful cider makers in the area, Denis Gwatkin of Abbey Dore. In appearance, he is a wild and woolly Welshman, but at some time his ancestors crossed the border and brought their strange spelling with them. Denis has no idea how or why the “G” came to be put in front of Watkin.

The family has been on the 400-acre farm for 100 years this year and has cattle and 500 sheep. It is definitely a working farm, and in addition to livestock they grow 20 to 30 acres of barley and have 12 acres of orchards providing cider apples and perry pears. Originally, all the fruit went to Bulmers, apart from a small amount of home brew in the “cider house”, where I spoke to Denis. All the old farms once had a cider house. An old “costerel”, a small wooden barrel, still hangs on the wall. When full, it contains half a gallon of cider, and it was the daily ration enjoyed by each farm worker, in addition to their wages. It was especially useful in dusty work, such as threshing, but even so, much of the day must have been seen through something of an alcoholic haze. At one time, two policemen from adjoining parishes would meet regularly in the cider house for refreshment and the engine driver on the now defunct Golden Valley Railway would also stop for a couple of pints, deserting his train and passengers while he enjoyed the local scrumpy.

Denis started making cider when he was about 18 years old. Beer was too expensive, so he and some friends began making home-made cider. One day a man called in, sampled the cider and entered it for a competition. It won, and there has been no going back: Denis now makes 25,000 gallons a year. It provides three full-time jobs and much part-time work, and both the cider and perry still regularly win prizes. In addition, Denis takes in fruit from several other local farmers and so cider has injected real cash into an area that was in the financial doldrums. Consequently, Denis’s reaction to Mr Darling’s proposed tax increase was simple: “Thank you very much. Just
when cider is doing so well for the local economy, he wants to add duty on it — unbelievable.”

He makes a variety of cider and perry for all palates — sweet, mild and bitter, some effervescent and some still as still; that’s traditional “scrumpy”, the well-tried fuel made famous by the Wurzels, who, incidentally, were also displeased by Mr Darling’s action. Denis agrees with the wise words of one of his uncles: “There’s no such thing as bad cider, boy, some is just better than others.”

He makes the cider in the same way that it has been made for hundreds of years but has had to make changes in the way it is drunk and presented. “When we started off, it was scrumpy and there were animals living in it and all sorts, but when you do shows and sell it to shops and it has to sit on a shop shelf, it has to be safe and the bottles mustn’t explode. So we run it through filters to make it brighter and nicer to the eye. It is still the real thing, but we make it palatable for people today. We do not carbonate — that’s the heavy, fizzy stuff — but we do sell it in bottles, which we pressure-fill. It lifts a little bit of flavour and a lot of people who like traditional cider also like a bit of fizz.” Until Mr Darling’s dark cloud, Denis was pleased with the way cider had caught on over recent years. “It has benefited farmers and everyone. It has brought income while the rest of agriculture was struggling. Farmers invested and orchards were planted on the wave of this, but if a new duty is put on, they will get cold feet. It has been good for other people, too. There is a big company in Hereford making kegs, and people who were once only selling ploughs and balers are now selling equipment for harvesting apples.”

Denis has other interests besides cider. Cricket is one of them, and every year he gets up a team of friends and they play the Welsh Cider Society on one of Denis’s grass fields next to the river Dore. Unfortunately, the Welsh always won quite easily until Denis produced a special brew, a 17 per cent cider (not for sale). In the prematch socialising, Denis’s team knew which potion to avoid. “It was spectacular,” he said, “there were bats flying everywhere. They were falling over their own studs and we had to take a couple off on stretchers. One bloke rang me up the next day and swore blind he’d had a stroke. We beat them that year but they have wised up to it now.”

His other love is shooting, including flintlocks: “I’ve been keen on shooting ever since I was a boy — I loved rabbiting and ferreting. We’ve got a small amateur shoot here, but I have a few friends round and we love it. It’s mainly walked-up — proper roughshooting with dogs. I have a flatcoat retriever named Sam. We need dogs here, so I’ve got a gundog and sheepdogs.”

They put down about 100 duck a year as well as a few pheasants and partridges. The flightpond is interesting — a bit of green engineering. “Because of all the sediment and run-off from the cider, we had to do something. It was going to be either a septic tank or a reedbed. We chose the reedbed because it would have a double use. It would clean up the water and we could do a bit of flighting, too. It works very well.”

Unfortunately for Denis, he is so busy selling cider in the build-up to Christmas that nearly all his shoots take place in January, ending up, of course, in the cider house.

So, Mr Darling, now with more time on your hands, why don’t you take a trip around England, without claiming expenses, and meet Denis Gwatkin, a real person, living in a community and contributing to what ought to be a thriving local economy. Just for once, try to learn something about rural Britain.

Denis’s wonderful Gwatkin cider and perry will be on sale at a number of shows throughout the summer, including The CLA Game Fair.