How apple collections in York are helping local food banks - and providing a unique insight into city’s history

Volunteers in York who collect tonnes of unwanted apples from trees to cut waste and feed the needy say fruit picking also offers a unique insight into the city’s past. Chris Burn reports.

Louise Cantlay (left) and Ruth Jennaway collecting apples on the site of the old Clifton Hospital in York. Picture: Gary Longbottom
Louise Cantlay (left) and Ruth Jennaway collecting apples on the site of the old Clifton Hospital in York. Picture: Gary Longbottom

The Dormouse pub and restaurant in York may provide a relaxing atmosphere for its guests these days, but roll back the clock to Victorian times and the ground it stands upon was used for a much more serious purpose.

The pub was built on the site of the old Clifton Hospital, originally known as the North and East Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1847. Its politically-incorrect (to modern ears at least) name changed to North Riding Mental Hospital in 1920, having been known as North Riding Lunatic Asylum from 1865 onwards. It became Clifton Hospital after joining the NHS in 1948 but was eventually closed down in 1994.

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While the site’s purpose has changed to look after visitors and locals rather than patients these days, one reminder of its former use are the set of apple trees that stand in the pub grounds.

The project collects tonnes of apples every year. Picture: Gary Longbottom

Discovering more about elements of local history like that is one of the enjoyable offshoots of the Abundance York project, which has been collecting unwanted fruit from trees around the city since 2013.

Ruth Jennaway, chair of Edible York, the charity behind the scheme, says the fruit picking offers a unique insight into the city.

“The old Clifton Hospital site has got 20-odd fruit trees in front of it. In the Victorian times, the asylums and sanatoriums were very keen to help people get back to work and would support people to do that by having market gardens.”

The Dormouse is very far from the only location visited by the Abundance York volunteers, who travel to a mixture of private homes and the grounds of businesses and public organisations to collect fruit that would otherwise be left to rot.

Ruth Jennaway and Louise Cantlay using pickers to get to apples for collection. Picture: Gary Longbottom

“There are quite a lot of private gardens around York where the houses were built on an old orchard and the fruit trees have been left in the garden,” Jennaway explains. “Some are in private gardens, some are in the back of a care home.”

The idea came about after those involved with Edible York heard about the success of similar projects in Sheffield and Todmorden.

Jennaway explains: “It started off small – just picking a few trees that people knew of in various gardens around York.”

But from small shoots, word-of-mouth has meant the scheme has now become a major annual undertaking – collecting anything between one-and-a-half and three tonnes of apples each year in addition to other fruit like pears and plums. There are about 1,000 followers of the initiative’s Facebook page, with around 40 regular volunteer pickers and the scheme now employing a part-time coordinator, Louise Cantlay, during picking season.

One of the big challenges in the early years of the programme was storage, with the use of home garages and allotment sheds providing difficult for space and logistical reasons – such as mice and squirrels getting to the food. A key turning point came in 2016 when fundraising brought in enough cash to pay for a giant storage container.

Jennaway says: “Four years ago we did a big crowdfunding thing and we managed to get a shipping container to fill with crates of apples.

“It gives us a bit more leeway for getting them in storage, making sure they are ripe and getting them back out to people. At one point we had 75 crates of apples in there.”

The aim of the scheme is to distribute the apples to those who need them – something that can be a challenge at times.

“What we generally do is encourage volunteers to take a big carrier bag away with them anyway; people often take them and give them to their neighbours,” Jennaway says. “We are getting York people to eat York apples.”

In addition to supplying local food banks, apples also go to community groups, cafes and to supply local events. As a result of the pandemic, apples have also been delivered to vulnerable people who have been shielding or self-isolating.

Apples are the stock pick for the project as other fruits can prove more challenging for storage. “We did a few pears last year but they don’t keep as easily – you really need refrigerators to keep pears.”

But the Abundance volunteers do still pick them in small numbers, along with plums, quince and a lesser-known fruit called a medlar whose introduction in this country dates back to Roman times. Jennaway explains: “It is unusual because you can keep it over the winter. They are very sweet, almost like a date.”

She says that increasing awareness of environmental issues and sustainability is in part behind the growing success of the scheme.

“People think it is absolutely criminal local fruit is going to waste and that people might have an apple tree in the garden but be going to buy a batch of Braeburns from New Zealand from the supermarket.

“We are probably only covering about 15 to 20 per cent of the excess apples in York at the moment. We could go further if we managed to get in touch with even more people.

“There are some people who are very aware of the issues and other people who will still do a big supermarket shop once a week. The vast majority of people still aren’t really of what is in season when. Because supermarkets aren’t full of English apples it is just easier for them to buy whatever is put on display from wherever it has come from.”

Jennaway says being part of the picking team tends to be both enjoyable and educational.

“If we are doing a smaller property, you can turn up with a trailer. It is not that strenuous, you are just reaching up into the tree and picking them and putting them in a box. It can be good exercise but we also have bags you can have over your shoulder so you are not reaching up and down all the time.

“Before I really started getting into this, I wasn’t quite aware how there are very early apples and very late apples. Mid-August is the earliest apple – the Discovery apple. But it is between September and October that it is the main time and then it tails off. But then we have got a lot still to deliver. Our last deliveries can be in January or February time. Particularly Bramley apples – if you get them a bit unripe, they will keep until March or April if you have a cool place to keep them and as long as it doesn’t get to -10C over winter.”

She says one of the great privileges of being involved is seeing the trees.

“They are amazing, productive things that are part of so many people’s gardens and it is amazing how much fruit you can get off one tree, how many people you can feed and how many puddings you can make.

“Some of the trees were planted when the Victorians were building the hospitals over 100 years ago and they are still producing apples to this day. They are a little eco-system in themselves with the fruits and moss and insects. An old orchard is an amazing place.”

Project seeks more supporters

Abundance York is looking for more people to get involved with the three connected strands of the project – providing access to the fruit trees, volunteering to pick them and distributing them to people who can make use of them.

Ruth Jennaway says donations to help with the costs of the scheme would also be welcomed.

“It is pretty much volunteer run as we are a charity. But it costs us to pay the coordinator because it is a huge administration exercise,” she explains. “It is a challenge each year to make sure we have enough money,

To find out more about the different ways of getting involved with the initiative, find Abundance York on Facebook or Twitter, visit edibleyork.org.uk or email [email protected]

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