Isle of Wight Apple People and Places
Saint Cecilia’s Abbey is the home of a community of nuns who live a traditional monastic life of prayer, work and study in accordance with the ancient rule of Saint Benedict. It is an enclosed order and it is not open to the public but the fruit produced in the orchard is available in several farm shops and local businesses. Apples from Saint Cecilia’s may be bought from the Farm Shop in Bembridge, Robertsons Greengrocers in Ryde, Made in the Isle of Wight at Pondwell, and Briddlesford Farm Shop and Café. Sister Anselma has two new customers this year. The apples are picked and sold at their best, in season, starting with early apples such as Discovery and following round to late keeping apples from store such as Reinette du Canada. These apples are surplus to the needs of the community. The orchard is principally maintained to provide the community of c. 35 with year round fruit.
The original community occupying the land and possibly planting the first fruit trees were nuns of St Cecile of Solesmes, France who, like the monks of Quarr, were exiled as a result of anti religious laws at the beginning of the last century. The nuns from Solesmes came in 1901 and left in 1922, returning to France, when the legislation once again permitted the open practice of the religious life. It was then that the Community of Pax Cordis Jesu came to St Cecilia’s Abbey from Ventnor, where they had taken up residence in 1882. It is not certain when the first orchards were planted but it seems unlikely that the nuns of Solesmes would have been here for 21 years without planting fruit trees to provide fruit for the community. (St Benedict stipulates in his rule that all necessary ‘amenities’ for the monastic life e.g. mill, garden, bake house etc. must be within the enclosure of the monastery’ for it is by no means expedient for the monks to venture outside the precincts of the monastery’). If it was not the nuns of Solesmes who planted the first fruit trees there are records of the nuns of Ventnor having done so in the late 1920s ; e.g. Purple Pershore plums, Duchesse d’Alencon pears, Ellison’s Orange apples etc. A good number of these trees still exist but are not harvested, due to their distance from the house and their sheer size c. 40’ and the inaccessibility of their fruit. Some more recent trees have been renovated however.
The newer orchard nearer the house was planted from 1982. There are newer trees behind the house and a further orchard on the other side of the house near the Apple store. This orchard is called Subiaco. Orchards in religious houses are often called after saints or places associated with saints. St Benedict was born in Nursia, a small town near Spoleto in Italy, as a young man he decided to renounce the world and left to join a religious community and then on to more remote Subiaco. For three years he lived there in a cave and many people came to Subiaco for religious guidance and to witness his miracles.
When I visited in the autumn the trees had a heavy crop of good quality apples. This year (2011) a tree of Discovery had a crop of 656lbs, this tree is twenty eight years old. We looked at some other trees in this orchard, including Kidd’s Orange Red, Howgate Wonder and Spartan with an amazing crop.
The newer trees include Herefordshire Russet, a new disease resistant variety which crops regularly. Meridian, Golden Noble, Topaz, a new Czech variety which promises well, Winston and Adam’s Pearmain among others, also a Ballerina tree, Bolero. Last year (2010) five new varieties were added and this year two more. Sister Anselma has had problems with Bitter Pit in this orchard and is now dressing heavily with calcified seaweed to supply the calcium needed.
In Subiaco among other apples there are Arthur Turner, Ashmead’s Kernel, Tydeman’s late Orange, Charles Ross, Jupiter and Spartan. Altogether there are approximately fifty different varieties of apple grown at Saint Cecilias. Other tree fruit grown here includes walnuts, quinces, figs, damsons, plums, greengages, hazelnuts, cobnuts and pears.
When Sister Anselma first took over the orchard she had time for grafting and to grow on newly grafted trees, now she no longer has time to do this but still does all the pruning herself. She does not ‘nurse invalids’, poor performers go or are heavily pruned to rejuvenate them. There are still some trees in existence which were grafted by Sister Anselma c. 28 years ago e.g. a Laxton’s Superb stepover but the expansion of the orchard and consequent work load no longer affords the time for grafting.
The large apple store is on the north side of the house. Air circulation is provided by a screen door and perforated zinc sheets in some of the windows. In the winter insulation is given by bubble wrap on the windows, a wooden door replacing a screen door and a very small 2KW heater. When frost threatens the small heater is used. The apples are picked when ready and put on slatted shelves. The lath shelving was renovated c. 20 years ago, Before that the lath shelving was taken from old walls in the monastery and tied by hemp string into 6’ stands carrying as much as 100lbs of fruit at any given time. Money was scarce and nothing was thrown away. Recycling is an ancient monastic practice.
For more information see www.stceciliasabbey.org.uk