Obituary | The comfort of apples

Eric Freeman hoped to save the Gloucestershire of old

The champion of wassailing and saviour of rare breeds died on October 29th, aged 91

Farmer Eric Freeman
image: Rob Scott
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If you have ever longed to make your own cider, Eric Freeman would soon show you how. First, find the right apples: not from the supermarket, but Taynton Codlins or Pedington Brandys or Foxwhelps from stooped and lichened trees in half-forgotten orchards in Gloucestershire. Some of those are best eaten straight from the tree; others are keepers; but the rest, the windfalls, just let pile up in the grass. No matter if mice get at them, or the flesh goes brown. The cider will ferment better for this bit of neglect.

Shovel them up at last, wash them, and take them to the press. Or, better than that, let the press come to you, as it used to, on a horse-drawn cart. Feed the apples into the hopper, down to the scratter, which will smash them up. Put up the mulch in cloths made the old way, of horsehair, stack the cloths into a nice square “cheese”, apply the press, and catch the juice in a bucket. Store it up in barrels, and in a twelvemonth it will be ready.

In Mr Freeman’s orchard near Newent stood one particular tree, a wise old Leathercoat Russet. This was his Wassail tree—wassail from Waes Hael!, an Anglo-Saxon wish for good health. At the start of each year he would invite his neighbours and friends to salute it and wish it a good autumn crop. This was a great excuse for a night party, with everyone carrying flaming torches round the orchard, dousing the roots with cider, sticking burnt toast in the branches and firing off a shotgun to drive away bad spirits, all the time exhorting the trees to produce “hatsfull, capsfull, bushel bushel bagsfull!” And getting really drunk afterwards.

Wassailing, in country or town, had not been done in Gloucestershire for some time. Nor had cider-making, for that matter, with most orchards grubbed out. He thought it needed reviving. What was missing in the countryside were merry occasions to bring people together. “Harvest home” was another tradition he brought back, in his own big barn with a roaring fire going, a whole long table of apple “puddens”, a couple of hymns and a blessing of loaves. Almost every event brought with it a flurry and jingle of Morris men (another passion of his), an accordion player and a fiddler or two, notably at dawn on May Day, when he dressed his hat in withy branches to be Jack-in-the-Green, just when green was springing through the woods.

He had a great liking for antique garb, and looked fine in it. His favourite outfit was a thick linen smock, leather leggings, a red neckerchief and a top hat. These nicely complemented his knocked-sideways nose and his beautifully trimmed beard. He was a third-generation farmer, and Gloucestershire was in his blood. Like the local Longdon pear, which hadn’t prospered when they tried to grow it in next-door Somerset, he could never have been transplanted anywhere else. He was “a legend in these parts”, as a fond documentary said, a fixture for years on BBC Radio Gloucester but also a regular on national farming programmes, where his warm burr soothed people in cities many miles away.

He didn’t always mean to be comfortable, though. He wanted to save his patch of countryside, especially the local breeds of cattle, sheep and pigs—for Gloucestershire was lucky, and rare, to have its own local versions of all three. In 1972, at an auction in Arlingham, he and some friends clubbed together to buy the last pure-bred herd of Gloucester cattle, and he co-founded the Gloucester Cattle Society to allow him to register them for formal breeding. They were gorgeous animals with black-mahogany coats, a white stripe along their backs, white tails and undersides and a peaceful nature. Just to stand among them out in the field, scratching their heads, did his heart good. He was a slowish sort, like them. The breed dated back to the 13th century, and their milk was the basis of Single and Double Gloucester cheese; their meat, too, was good. But they were too general-purpose for modern butchers. His steady building of the herd, and his promotion of the breed (among the butchers of Newent as well as through the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which again he co-founded) gradually proved that they were both beautiful and useful.

His eye rested lovingly too on Gloucester Old Spot pigs, which he first bought in 1973: impossible creatures to drive on a road, stubborn, hard of hearing and short-sighted, and long out of favour because their flesh ran to fat. That was fine if you were a cottage-dweller hacking a slice from the flitch that hung on the wall, but not to the modern taste. He fed his small herd treats, and sloshed their bristly coats with buckets of water. Also enjoying life near the farmhouse were his favourite Ryeland sheep, Gloucestershire homebodies with fleeces so thick that by shearing time they had wool right down to their toes and over their eyes.

He was impressed with how his animals liked company. He relished it himself, and much missed labouring with others at farm work, once tractors had come in. His first job on his father’s farm—having left school knowing much less about the three Rs than about clubbing rats and rabbits in the harvest stubble—was hoeing crops, and he learned how by working between Cecil, who hoed as if it was nothing, and Joe, who pushed after, just as an untrained colt would learn to work between two experienced horses. Teams of men ploughed, harvested, threshed, drove carts, with their families lending a hand. But modern fields were empty. He noticed the same vacancy in the streets of Newent, where children once played and the elderly, when the weather was good enough, set their chairs outside their open doors and chatted with passers-by. There was plenty good about the 21st century, especially the media coverage he got for his cause; he was no hermit. But he missed that habit of country people gathering together, so he set about reviving it all around him.

After a good twelvemonth of waiting, it would be time to share that cider with his friends. It poured out amber and aromatic, with no fizz in it, and dangerously quenching of a thirst. Under the Wassail tree, early in January, it went round in a special wooden cup of impressive size. But any time of year was a good one to sit around, tell the old tales, and raise a glass. Waes hael , every one!

This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline "The comfort of apples"

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