Special apple events get to the core of the issue

Chris BishopWhen your dad is restoring one of the biggest orchards in the Fens, you are spoilt for choice if you like eating fruit.Little Charlotte Wheatley knows exactly where to look for the biggest, juiciest apples of them all.Chris Bishop

When your dad is restoring one of the biggest orchards in the Fens, you are spoilt for choice if you like eating fruit.

Little Charlotte Wheatley knows exactly where to look for the biggest, juiciest apples of them all.

'Come with me, I know where the big red ones are,' she says, leading us through the trees to a branch ablaze with scarlet Lady Sudeleys.

Four years before Charlotte was born, in 2000, her father David took on the sprawling orchards at Willock Farm, near Wisbech St Mary.

Amid the farm's 22 acres of trees lie apples red and green, large and small, from household names to long-forgotten varieties which fell from favour long before the shelf-life, processed profit margin era.

Claret-coloured pearmains and great green Bramley's weigh down the trees. Sheep graze between them to keep the grass and thistles down.

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'We have 2700 trees last time we counted,' said Mr Wheatley. 'We've planted a few more since then, but we've lost a few to last winter's gales as well.

'It's been quite a long-winded process. I took this on not knowing much about it and I can't believe how much energy and enthusiasm there is for keeping this orchard alive. We keep finding a couple of varieties a year we didn't know we had.'

Mr Wheatley's orchards now host the East of England Regional Collection - examples of the 250 varieties of apples, pears, plums and cherries native to the six counties of East Anglia.

'We're hoping there's going to be some fruit next year,' he said. 'One of the main reasons for doing it is to have a genetic resource of bud wood, to grow seedlings on.

'It will be good to see what some of the varieties do, we have some really rare ones of which there are only two or three trees in the whole country, there are quite a lot of lost varieties.'

Part of the East of England Apples and Orchards Project, Willock Farm is opening up its orchards tomorrow , as one of a series of apple days being held across the region.

There will be advice on hand on how to grow and look after your own fruit trees. Experts will also be on hand to identify apples, if you bring along a sample of fruit.

Home-made cakes washed down with Stamford Apple Juice - made with fruit from the farm - will also be on offer, while the regional collection of rare trees will be open to the public.

'What we're trying to do is get people to know there are different varieties and get people to come along and try something a bit different to normal,' said Mr Wheatley.

Norfolk's rare varieties include Jordan's Weeping - a medium-sized, yellow apple found growing around Horning, in the Broads; and Caroline, a green apple grown at Blickling Hall, in the 19th Century.

Horsford Prolific, another yellow-skinned sweet eater, was grown commercially after being discovered on a vicar's garden in 1900. Sandringham, raised by the Mr Penny, head gardener at the Royal Estate in the 1880s, was once prized for its keeping qualities.

Norfolk Beefing, a tough-skinned apple which may have originated in Holland, dates back to the 1600s and was used to make biffin cakes - a popular desert in Victorian times.

Saving a threatened fruit tree is slightly more complex than simply saving seeds to sow. Ninety per cent of apple seed will produce just a crab apple tree, rather than the variety of tree the original fruit came from.

Generations ago, nurserymen planted thousands in the hope of getting a tree or two which would produce a better grade of fruit. Branches from that tree would then be grafted onto root stock, to create a fruiting tree.

Willock Farm is hosting an apple day from 10am - 4pm tomorrow (Saturday). The orchards are off Rummers Lane, which is opposite the Bridge Inn, on the B1441 through Wisbech St Mary.

There will also be apple days at Stow Bardolph Hall, near Downham Market, on Sunday, October 4 (11am - 5pm); The Banham Barrel pub, near Attleborough, on Sunday, October 11 (10.30am - 4.30pm); and North Creake Abbey on Saturday, October 17 (10am - 4pm).

Admission to Willock Farm, Stow Bardolph Hall and the Banham Barrel events is free. Admission at North Creake Abbey will be �2 adult, children free.