In 1961, Rita Allen wrote that “... Buckinghamshire … thinks highly of its “chuggies”, as the jet-black cherries are called locally, that the first Sunday in August is observed there as ‘Cherry Pie Sunday’”. This area was once famous for its cherry-growing industry, and this is something that Chiltern Open Air Museum is working to preserve.
Cherry orchards in Buckinghamshire have a long history, with cherry liquors and gins having been made since around 1730. Places such as Flackwell Heath, Prestwood and Holmer Green were known as ‘cherry villages’, although today most orchards exist only in small fragments, totalling about 400 acres. However, traces of these prolific fruit trees still exist in the names of streets, farms and even the odd pub.
The main picking season for cherries is late June to late July, and most local people were involved. Men would take a couple of weeks (un)official leave, as during this time they could earn two to three times the wages of a farm labourer or mill worker. Women would also take part, whilst children could earn a few pence as ‘bird starvers’, scaring away blackbirds and starlings with homemade rattles.
During the nineteenth century, parties of pickers would arrive from Reading and London, and into the early twentieth century both the blossoming trees and sight of the pickers at work sparked a kind of ‘cherry tourism’. The arrival of the railways made this easier, and special trains would take the collected cherries back to towns and cities for sale.
Traditional cherry trees grow up to 70ft (21m) tall, so pickers used specially-designed ladders that flared at the base to reach the very tops. This made the ladders much more stable, but workers still needed good balance and a head for heights. Chiltern Open Air Museum has a ladder on display in Hill Farm Barn, and this stretches 60ft (18m) in length. Made in Prestwood by Frank Geary around 1925, it is so long it has to be stored horizontally across the tie beams in the barn’s roof.
In 2010, the Museum began work on a cherry orchard that would become home to rare varieties, supplied by Bernwode Fruit Trees in Aylesbury. The wild cherry (Prunus avium) is native to Chilterns woodland but has been cultivated since the start of the 1700s to produce a range of varieties that are in danger of being lost. Currently, more than 30 sponsored trees have been planted and surrounded by Victorian-style iron tree guards, allowing chickens and rare-breed Oxford Down sheep to graze beneath them as they grow and mature.
Although most of the cherry-growing industry is now based in continental Europe, there are still many fruit farms in the local area where you can pick-your-own. Thankfully, most new trees are of dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties, meaning you won’t have to climb any cherry picking ladders to enjoy a ‘Cherry Pie Sunday’ of your own.