The tree that bore the first ever Bramley apple is alive and well and still bearing fruit in the garden of my home here in Southwell. It was grown from a seed set
by a girl called Mary Ann Brailsford 200 years ago, some time between 1809 and 1815, first bearing fruit in 1837. By this time, Mary Ann had moved away and a Mr Bramley owned the tree.
Some years later a gardener named Mr Musson gathered some of the apples and by chance gave one to Henry Merryweather, the son of a local nurseryman. Henry recognised it as a very good apple and approached Mr Bramley, taking cuttings on the proviso that if the tree was ever commercialised it should bear the name of Bramley. Of course, it should really have been called Brailsford.
The Bramley apple went on to be a huge success but little care was taken of the original tree. At the turn of the century it even toppled over but didn’t die. Instead, it produced new roots and now has a very extensive root system at both ends of the old trunk.
I was born in the house next door and always loved that tree, although I didn’t know how important it was. What I did know was that the pip Mary had set apparently came from a tree at the bottom of my garden. I used to sit and look at it through a gap in the privet hedge. We were never allowed into next door’s, which made it all the more fascinating. The gentleman who owned the tree was a horrible old man. He was quite wealthy – a rent collector – and always had a reputation that if someone couldn’t pay, he’d take money in kind.
Then, 35 years ago, I had the chance to buy the house next door for £500. I combined the two gardens into one, shared by both houses. The tree was now in a very bad state. Fortunately an enthusiastic fruit grower from Wisbech, Claude Coates, became interested in it and he nursed it back to heath. He cared for it for 20 years until he died. When my sister passed away, we split the garden in two once again but I had it done in such a way that the tree remained in my garden. The tree hasn’t moved but the gardens have moved around it.
The only financial assistance I’ve ever received for the tree was when we needed to build a very expensive wall between here and next door. By that point the house was let to a lady who lived in Malta. Her garden was completely neglected and riddled with honey fungus. I had a great panic for the tree and so a £2,000 wall was built, and the council gave me £750 to help. The tree is more protected than it ever was, although we cannot get any official protection as it’s on private property. If it was a 200-year-old building it would be protected, but as it’s a tree there’s no national scheme.
Nobody has ever asked me if they can buy my apples. They’re 90p a pound in the co-op, but everyone asks me if they can help themselves. That’s fair enough, I don’t want to be commercial, and while Bramleys are wonderful apples, I do get sick of them every now and then. It’s a relief sometimes when people walk off with a bag full.
I don’t worry about the future of the tree. My family know how important it is to me and I think it is important to them too. Saying that, one of them caught me struggling to pick up leaves the other day and said: “You’ll kill yourself for that tree.” They sent off for this leaf vacuum. When it arrived it was the size of the dining room table. I couldn’t even move it so I soon sent that back.
(Photos: Robert Whitrow)