Isle of Wight Apple People and Places
The Apple Orchard at Afton Park was started as a commercial orchard by Mr Les Smith and his wife Ann in 1976 at the end of the long hot summer. It was something that he had wanted to do for many years and for the first few years they lived in a caravan on the site while building their bungalow. The land was bought in three pieces, at first four and a half acres and finally totalling 7.89 acres, at first there were 850 trees and later 1,450 in total. After research into what would sell and help and advice from ADAS a mixture of Bramleys, Coxes, Spartan and Discovery were planted.
Cox’s Orange Pippin is the apple everyone has heard of and the apple everyone will buy (and the apple everyone tries to grow in spite of poor disease resistance etc.
Two rows of Cox’s were planted to one row of Bramley’s Seedling with Spartan and Discovery both for use and pollination (Bramley’s Seedling is a triploid and needs two pollinators). Later a few James Grieve and four Blenheim Orange trees were added.
The Early days - the apples are Spartan
Apples were sold fresh, one box at a time, while other apples were kept in the cold store; an experience of freshness and taste that could not be matched by supermarket apples. Local people would come and buy directly from the grower and several local shops took a regular supply, notably Ralph’s Health Foods in Newport and a shop in East Cowes. However other markets were needed as the yield increased. Southampton Market was not a total success as prices were good for the first few days but then as the large producers from Kent arrived the price dropped until it was not covering the price of packaging and transport. Afton was not big enough to compete.
Some years a large part of the crop was unsaleable, all the small apples and all the marked apples would be wasted, sometimes up to one third of the crop, even after giving them away to old people’s homes, pig farmers etc. This was the start of the very successful juice business . The first apple press was a one and a half ton lorry jack and extremely hard work. Ann and Les remember long twelve hour days producing up to 500 bottles from ten pressings in a day.
The Apple Press
Ann had to take her holidays from her other job to coincide with the apple picking season but they both enjoyed the 13 years they ran the orchard, 13 years of ‘hard work and not going away on holiday’. It was very hard work but very enjoyable and a delight to live and work in the orchard.
The mush from the pressing was spread under the trees and attracted Red Admiral butterflies which became drunk with the juice and would sit on anyone passing by. In the winter the apples attracted Fieldfares and Redwings from as far away as the north of Norway. Local RSPB members would ring and record the birds and Ann remembers seeing a pile of apples covered with snow and so covered with birds you could hardly see the snow.
Les also made a small amount of cider, just for family and local friends, using a light champagne yeast, which was very successful.
The very first Apple Day was suggested by and held at the Riverside Centre in Newport. Les took some apples to display and sell, Godshill Cider were there and a few other Island food producers. Radio Solent were there, shivering at the start of a very cold and windy day. It was decided that the next Apple Day would be held at Afton Park in the Orchard with some support from the Isle of Wight Council and ADAS.
Apple picking in the early days - Les Smith is second from the left
Martin Scadgell then ran the orchard from 1991 for a few years but decided that he did not want to continue in spite of developing and building up the already successful juice business. Martin left in 1994, Les then decided that he could not run the orchard by himself and in 1995 reduced the number of trees, down to 150. This was a very sad and puzzling sight to those of us driving past who could not imagine what was happening.