Apple picking in Suffolk

Apple picking in Suffolk

It’s the people mostly (or maybe the lack of them) that I like best I suppose; but more about that later. First, the picking. 

This is hard though strangely relaxing work. Apple trees these days are bred to grow no taller than 7ft or so. The older orchards are all being grubbed out and replaced with modern varieties of eaters planted in single rows, unlike the older ones. Some areas of the established orchard are made up of closely planted double rows with a third one running down the middle. Picture the pattern made by five dots on a dice; this gives the basic formation of the trees from a picker’s point of view. It’s quite a challenge to push, reverse, twist and scrape your way into the dense foliage that knots itself together in the heart of ‘the fives’, as they are called. Many modern apple trees – Cox’s, for instance, or Melrose - look like little more than sticks with side shoots; but these spindly branches can carry fat clutches of fruit like grapes on the vine. So getting to the apples is more to do with reaching in, stretching up and bending down, sometimes kneeling on the ground to get at the lowest hanging fruit (which in modern metaphor is supposed to be the easiest to reach – it isn’t). Doing the actual picking, detaching the fruit from the branch without damaging or dropping it, is a technique that has be learned (quite quickly). It doesn’t come naturally at first. Rule number one - absolutely no pulling or twisting! ‘Cup and roll’ is the best way of putting it; cupping the apple in the palm of your hand or outstretched fingers and then rolling it up and over so that it snaps off, leaving the stalk intact if you can. After a bit of practice, most apples can take a fan of fingers extended from the palm to coax them off. Two hands can be used to grasp up to four medium lovelies in one go, which is definitely level 2 picking. Level 3 (too complicated to explain, but impressively productive) depends entirely on how big your hands are. Mine are unusually small for a man (as is the man on the other end of them, as it goes). These are Class 1 fruit, which means nothing will be kept that is rotten, unripe, pitted, pecked or pockmarked; in any way less than perfect, including the colour. In the case of Cox’s, you’re looking for a rosy red blush on at least one cheek of the fruit; colour that will fill the circle you can make with thumb and forefinger (Russets and Bramleys obviously don’t obey this rule). Size matters as well. Again, after a bit of practice with a plastic gauge, basically a hole in a sort of paddle that’s either 60 or 65cm round (the hole, that is), you begin to get your eye in. Too small, anything that drops through that day’s designated hole size, is rejected. That said, you’re allowed a bit of ‘rattle room’; an apple that might just pop through the hole with a millimetre or two’s leeway can be accepted as a ‘rattler’. And anything that drops to the ground by accident has to be left there because of the risk of contamination by whatever might be left lurking in the shadowy undergrowth beneath the trees – rats’ wee, maybe, or rabbit droppings, that sort of thing.

The picked fruit must be placed (not dropped!) into an aluminium hod (they used to be made of wood). The hod is a semi-circular bin, about the size of a small barrel that’s been cut in half crosswise, about 10 inches deep and 15 inches across, lined with a thick, loose fitting plastic sheet which is secured around the rim at the top. The sheet forms a long straight skirt or chute when it’s fully open, hanging out the bottom of the hod by a couple of feet. When picking, the bottom two thirds of the skirt is folded back on itself and secured to the main body of the hod by a length of tough bungee rope stretched tight across the curved front edge. Once full (and weighing anything up to 15kg), the contents are released by loosening the upturned end of the chute from its elastic fastener and directing the flow of fruit into a large rectangular bin that can take about a tonne of apples. To empty the hod properly, you lean over the edge of the bin, getting as close to the bottom as you can, then release the end of the plastic skirt, taking care not to let any fruit drop in freefall for any distance; just let it roll gently away. Ideally, you carry the hod thing on your upper tummy (any lower will cause back problems), attached by straps that criss-cross your back and loop over your shoulders.

I said it’s strangely relaxing. That’s because there’s a sort of rhythm to it once you get started, especially if the trees in that row are more or less equally laden, and you can slip into an absent-minded revery. It all depends on how awkward the pick is, how uneven, and how much your fellow pickers want to talk. We’re mostly assigned to picking in pairs, ‘bum to bum’, with each picker doing the inside edge of one row back-to-back with a partner doing the same on their side in the adjacent row. Conversations inevitably rise and fall; there’s talk of this and that, joking and joshing, banter and all the general bollocks you’ll find in any workplace. Chatter between partners seeps through the foliage to the pickers opposite whom you might not be able to see. People picking in their own bum-to-bum pairs in the rows either side will join in. But the quiet times, when the words between us taper off, make the space for a kind of empty-headed, wordless reflection, or what might now I suppose be called mindfulness (or ‘lessness?). If someone ever asked me what I’d actually been thinking about during these longer pauses, I’d have a job to tell them; I wouldn’t be able to recall any particular train of thought, no significant insights, discoveries or world-shattering conclusions about the human condition. I might just have been pondering what’s for tea tonight, or re-running images of the morning’s jog in my head, or trying forlornly to work out where the fuck we are on Brexit (a forbidden topic for me in the orchard, along with immigration and Boris Johnson; I really don’t want to fall out with people).

The only other noises that might distract you would be the tractor coming and going, someone calling for a bin to be collected or moved, or the conversational shouting that the Romanian pickers seem always to engage in when they’re working together. This can be very loud indeed. Something that sounds a bit fierce, threatening to build up to a bit of spat a few rows away, invariably turns out to be little more than a conversation about nothing much in particular - in fact, it’s the same joking and joshing, banter and bollocks that us proper English speakers get into, only in a mysterious foreign tongue (and at an ear-aching level of amplification). So the volume can be very intrusive, prompting less than patient appeals from some of the British pickers to “stop all that yakety yak!”. The Romanians are day workers, travelling in from Ipswich each morning. There’s usually a dozen or so men and women, some of whom have been coming for a few years. But you’ll also see new faces as well; some will only show up once or twice and decide it’s not for them for one reason or another. And that’s not likely to be because the work is too hard for them. In fact they say it’s very easy, I imagine because they’re used to much longer hours in other casual jobs. At first, they tend to work too quickly, compromising the quality of the pick. They have to be told to slow down and take more care. As we’re all paid by the hour - no one’s on piecework - there’s no need to pile the apples up quickly to earn a day’s pay. 

Our motorhome is sitting in glorious isolation in the corner of a small commercial site adjacent to the main pickers’ encampment. This is by special request. We don’t do social. We’ve never been into club rally type gatherings, unlike the other resident pickers. They clearly enjoy the close company of other caravanners, whereas I think we’re a bit shy and need to keep a polite distance from whatever the collective noun is for groups of ‘fit elderly’ (that’s us, by the way) who turn up each autumn to do the seasonal apple pick. The company of other campers (what noun best fits the collective here? A ‘steady’, a ‘pick’, a ‘pack’, a ‘banter’? Yes, that’s it, a banter of vanners) appears to be at least half the point of doing it at all. In our first year, we both felt a bit less than fully competent banterees. I just can’t do the quick quip reposts to the mild mickey-takes that get frisbeed across the pickers’ field after work. The amount of ribbing you get is a mark of your standing in the group. The degree to which your response is acknowledged as worthy of a full-throated laugh, a chuckle or nothing at all (assuming you can muster a response in the first place) is a measure of your acceptance. There is clearly a bantering hierarchy at work here; your place within it has to be earned. My mumbled, stumbling attempts at quick fire back-chat are truly pathetic, so I was grateful to have my plea for separate but equal treatment in a neighbouring, mostly empty, campsite accepted by the boss, without question. 

The day’s work ends at 3.00pm; so it’s no more than six hours long, including two breaks. There’s time then to do odds and ends of house-keeping in the van, maybe a bike ride into town for some shopping, back to the orchard for a sit and a dozy unthink. The mid-September sun is still strong in late afternoon; perfect for sitting out. There are lots of brambles in the hedges bordering the farm, just begging to be harvested, heaving with rich dark bobbles of blackberries. I’ve been stewing these up with a few windfall apples and a bit of sugar after work. They go really well with the breakfast mush I mix into a sort of fruity muesli. If it’s not raining, some mornings, quite early, I’ll have two cups of coffee and then go for a run round the lanes and footpaths for maybe 20 or 30 minutes. No one else is up and about except the occasional local heading off to work. I get back and sit on the van step facing the warming early sunshine, wearing almost nothing (no one can see me here, which is the point), eating breakfast and feeling completely at one - with everything.

The running thing has become pretty important to me this last year, more or less since Christmas. I managed to keep it up during our long summer holiday trip to Denmark and again here, apple picking in Suffolk. There’s a thread of something really comforting that weaves through the running routine. It’s a bit like being in the van; you’re at home wherever you are. Running in new places makes me feel ever-so slightly adventurous, but it’s still me, my legs and feet, wearing my usual running gear (it has to be usual, nothing improvised). It’s novel and very familiar all at once. And for someone who, as a boy, as a teenager, as an adult and, later, on the cusp of old age, could not conceive of himself as a runner, all this is a huge, I mean really huge, discovery. At secondary school I would hide away behind the first hedge I could find to avoid the full cruel terror of the annual cross-country run, in which all the boys were forced to take part. I’ve been haunted by the red-faced chubby child who other kids used to call ‘Football Field’ at junior school. And although I slimmed down as I grew up, the panting cherubic boy in too-tight short trousers remained (remains?) firmly lodged in the old psyche. So for the vast majority of my life to date, into my early 70s, I have abhorred, sneered at and been utterly dismissive of the very idea of running for the simple pleasure of it. Until now.

Amongst the other pickers – in the thick of the collective now known as a banter of vanners – there are, of course, distinct personalities. Some bossy and assertive, others quiet and thoughtful. But one characteristic seems to stand out; it’s the tendency for a number of them, mostly (though certainly not exclusively) men, to set themselves up as being in charge of knowing stuff. The ‘stuff’ I have in mind is often pretty mundane or obvious, or maybe a little more specialised, such as a simple trick or shortcut to make a practical task a little easier. But some people have a knack of routinely trumping whatever someone else (usually me) might say about something or other, thereby proving their claim on being in charge of knowing better. An example springs to mind; a very experienced local picker, 30 years working in apple orchards, showed me one day how to judge the minimum acceptable size of an eating apple (at either 60 or 65mm) without faffing about with the plastic sizer. She picked an apple which looked borderline – not obviously too small, just maybe. She curled the thumb and forefinger of her left hand round the waist of the fruit, which left a gap between the fingertips. Then she inserted two or three of the middle fingers from her right hand flat together into the gap. Two fingers fitting snugly would be a 60, she said, whereas three fingers were a 65; simple as that, a true rule of thumb. Now, one day I tried to show one of the other pickers this same shortcut but was abruptly cut short; ‘Oh I can’t be bothered with that, you just have to get your eye in’. She’d been picking for maybe one or two seasons longer than me, but could not allow junior pickers to know better than her. This was said without malice, but with a solid assertion of superior knowledge. This, too, reflected the unspoken rule of seniority in the group, with spurs having to be won according to a set of arcane signs and signals. I suppose most workplaces operate in much the same way.

The farmer and his wife (well, not actually his wife) run the 28 acre orchard together, although the man who owns it all does take the lead. Their partnership seems very strong, especially in the peculiar way that opposites sometimes attract. He is fairly quiet, hard-working, gets his hands properly dirty on the farm, and is very posh (so posh he doesn’t know it, which also means he has absolutely no ‘side’ to him, not a trace of snobbery, so he treats everyone with the same well-spoken manners). She is outgoing and outspoken, often to a point of indiscretion. There’s sometimes a little too much information leaked – or, more accurately, cheerfully announced - about life with her man. He’s a county Tory, I suspect, but she’s a self-declared socialist (a rare breed in this part of Suffolk that should be protected). She has to work now, full time, in an office to help make ends meet; there’s just not enough money in apples to keep them and their separate families (from previous relationships) going. Her two weeks’ unpaid leave from work every September are occupied organising, overseeing and chivvying the picking out in the field. Her tractor and HR skills, it must be said, are second to none – forthright, cheery and loud enough even for the Romanians to get the message. He is a little bit shy, I suspect, but buoyed hugely by his partner’s relentless optimism, which is dished out generously and in equal measure to the apple harvest as it is to the human condition in general.

When I tell people I’ve been apple picking, their faces often light up with what I assume is a fond picture in their heads, a memory, of something most of them have probably never done. Many of us sort of think we must have done this elemental thing - bringing the harvest home - once upon a time, when we were all much closer to the land. It’s a kind of collective false memory. That said, lots of us can look back to childhood autumns roaming country lanes (or neighbours’ gardens over the fence) to go scrumping. And a few others will recall spending the last precious days of their summer school holidays helping out in local orchards. So in one sense it is true - we were all apple pickers once. The other reaction I get is the cider myth. Although we’ve been picking in an orchard very close to a global brand cider producer, none of the fruit we pick in this Suffolk orchard now goes in to making the stuff. Yet almost everyone at some point when I tell them what I’ve been doing asks how much I’ve been drinking. On a few occasions in the past, the local cider maker has indeed come along to scrape up windfalls to make vinegar (including all the crap on the ground, I kid you not) and haul away any rejected fruit for the cider press. This year I discovered what everyone else round there has doubtless known for years – that the big name producer nearby uses almost no locally grown apples in its cider-making, grows next to nothing on its increasingly neglected 60 acre orchard, and imports many thousands of litres of concentrate from France in vast tankers that regularly clog up the high street in town en route to the farm factory.

So much for apples picked in Suffolk, eh?

Paul Field
October 2019