“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics … we need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not” John F. Kennedy.
The Hardwicke Brook’s phosphate levels are too high, and the potatoes have blight this year. The cauliflowers are in revolt for some reason and there’s a press that needs rebuilding. But it’s ok. Tom and Lydia are on it.
We’re in Marches country. As far west as Herefordshire goes. The land has long since flung itself upwards from the softer, tilled east into rugged, steep and rough-hewn hills. Wales is just across the Wye, not much more than a longbow-shot away, which I dare say was a pretty pertinent measurement a few centuries ago. Evidence of national and family oscillation is sprinkled across surnames and villages, through Cwms and Prossers and liberal double L’s. The air has the quiet, gentle tension of Britain’s isolated places and the landscape for miles is a scruff of brooding pine patched with more brilliant green of pasture. Five minutes to the south is the tight and tangled book town of Hay on Wye, but you can’t hear it from Bryntirion, England’s last homely house, and the home of Artistraw Cidery.
Despite the nestled remoteness of the place, Tom Tibbits thinks that humans have clustered here for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. There’s a huge oak in the trough of the valley and, looked at from above, the signs of stumps around it. A grove. “And groves of oaks often meant Druids. I’m really interested in that sort of thing.”
I’m here to visit with James Finch, sometime collaborator and occasional contributor to this site. We’re in separate cars, this being 2020, and he’s gone the wrong way and run into a toll bridge, so I arrive a few minutes beforehand to an open garage packed with press parts, bottles, hoses and sundry organised chaos. Tom meets me at the gate, sporting a ponytail and a red hat which twitter suggests may be a trademark, and we trundle round the side of the bungalow to chat through the outside door to the kitchen to his wife, Lydia, who is on lunch duty today.
The kitchen itself offers something of an insight into Artistraw life. Bowls of produce (all freshly hauled from the garden as I later learn) are dotted around clay tile and ceramic; as classic a rural smallholding kitchen as you can imagine. Flyers for what I assume are local businesses, festivals and worthy causes jostle and tesselate across two enormous pinboards. The thick egg-timer X of Extinction Rebellion stands out on one of them.
Coffeed, watered, and joined by the recovered Mr Finch we sit around an outside table under pulsing, incongruous Marches sunshine. Artistraw’s fledgling orchard climbs up a slope behind us. It is as perfect a piece of fruit-growing land as you could ever hope to see. South-East facing, well-drained, steep but not excessively so and with a windbreak of ash, oak and hedge at the top. If it were in France or Italy or Spain every inch would be pegged with vines, a possibility that Tom’s musing on himself. For the time being perhaps a tenth of it is pegged out with forty or so apple trees. Another seventeen are due to be planted next year.
Tom’s made cider since 2003. He was a student at the time – he has a PhD in Physics – and cidermaking seemed a good way of self-supplying some reasonably priced booze with more soul than a do-it-yourself homebrew kit. A barrel’s worth of apples were summarily pressed and fermented and, despite tasting awful, polished off in short order. Sufficiently bitten by the bug he continued the experiment the year after and, in a few vintages time, placed third in a London competition for amateur cidermakers. The first two places went to the same person, who later gave Tom a business card. “It cast a little doubt on how much of an ‘amateur’ he was”, chuckles Tom, though he remains tight-lipped as to the victor’s identity.
Artistraw itself didn’t come until much later. In 2017, keen to escape from the grind and exhaust fumes, Lydia and Tom fell in love with this little patch in west Herefordshire. The bungalow was incidental – “it’s a bit of a bungashed really” says Lydia. It was the land they were after – the sloping paddock, then home to a donkey and a couple of sheep – and the view across the Black Mountains, from Lord Hereford’s Knob and beyond to Pen y Fan. It is a spectacle that thumps you in the eyes when you climb to the top of their orchard; a showstopper and a garden you would unquestionably buy the house for. It took a worrying ten months for the purchase to go through – from January to October, which caused another head-wrangle when they had to move in mid-harvest – but the result seems to have been worth the trouble.
At the bottom of the slope is Lydia’s kitchen garden, also the creche for apple tree saplings before they are planted in the orchard. If you can think of it, Lydia’s growing it. String beans to Cavolo Nero. The courgettes, I am told, are being frustrating this year (“normally we’re sick of eating them by now”), the cauliflower is a source of great confusion and the potatoes are showing a little blight. Fortunately that doesn’t seem to account for a twentieth of what’s growing. All planted from scratch – there was nothing here three years ago. An enormous, indulgently fluffed cat stalks the trellises; “when we were in London she had a ridiculous Diamante collar, but she clawed it off in two weeks after we got here. She’s totally re-wilded.”
Just listening to the list of Lydia and Tom’s interests, activities and hobbies is exhausting. Amidst the cidermaking and the tending of orchard and kitchen garden Lydia makes masks, accessories, compostable sponges and other fabricables: “we’re going to call it Raw Artist”, Tom is rebuilding a huge old Victorian cider press and Lydia has taught herself how to scythe. Their radiating enthusiasm, their unabashed and openly admitted eccentricity is instantly compelling and irresistibly winning. I mention that the geophysicist recently tamed our garden with a sickle and make a mental note to introduce her to Tom and Lydia soon. There’s even a whimsy and nod to cultural tradition in the name. Artistraw derives from an old local word for shrew, a creature in great abundance at Bryntirion. Their cidery’s working title had been Tibbits & Crimp, but it sounded like a Dickensian solicitor’s, and the pair weren’t sold. “Artistraw” came to Tom in a Damascene moment on the M4 and stuck. The names and labels – all Lydia’s creations – are related puns: Catch Twenty-Shrew. She Loves Shrew Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. Master of the Shrewniverse. Somehow I’d expect nothing less.
Unsurprisingly they have gone out of their way to tree their orchard with an embarrassment of ancient and rare varieties. Mainly cider apples with a handful of several-centuries-old multi-purpose cookers and eaters thrown in. Tom mentions Cat’s Head and Red Crab. Lydia wants to put plaques by the trees with descriptions of variety and heritage. There’s a rambler’s path through the orchard and they’re marking out space to build a yurt in the corner. Artistraw is plainly a project, and one that Tom and Lydia are palpably excited to share.
For the time being they’re not harvesting their own apples. The trees are too young. Instead they source their fruit from a number of local orchards. They’ve even started to have a go at perry. Everything’s blended, and all the blending is done before fermentation. Mainly bittersweets, but with zing and lift from a handful of sharps. The inspiration is Normandy – Tom talks fondly about sailing there across the channel, and about summer holidays with long draughts of keeved cider, so that’s the style Artistraw make. Mostly medium to medium-sweet and all unoaked. For the time being they’re fermenting in plastic, but the long-term aim is to invest in stainless steel for better control of oxygen and temperature. Aware of the growing call for it among enthusiasts, Tom’s also started tinkering with some dry. Watch this space.
After showing us the press, the stacked maturing bottles and the packed room of blue barrels and IBCs, it’s lunch, and a feast. Almost everything has come out of the ground behind us, from the mixed bean salad to the tomatoes and cucumbers and dressed beetroot with pumpkin seeds. There’s fresh-baked brown sourdough, warm potatoes in basil and oil and a beetroot hummus so vivid you could see it if the sun turned off. And of course there are half-bottles of Artistraw cider and perry, and a jug Tom’s filled from the mysterious “keg number 6.” It’s only a few slices of charcuterie whose genesis wasn’t Bryntirion. I can’t think that I’ve ever eaten better at a cidery – and I’ve had the sausage rolls from Ross on Wye.
Tom and Lydia are keen to talk sustainability as we eat. Tom’s been investigating the brook that runs past the smallholding. Its phosphate levels are rocketing – well beyond what ought to be the legal limits. The brook feeds the Wye and the salmon and cygnets are taking a hammering. Progress is hobbled by the conflicted interests of a jumble of quangos and councils and farmers and concerned citizens. Zoom meetings are apparently painful and ponderous. Meanwhile the car’s been retired from all but occasional long trips and a new electric bike has been pressed into service since January. “That hill was too much with two full panniers before”. And then, of course, there’s the orchard itself. In the fullness of time they’ll plant out the whole slope – perhaps with a row or two of vines on the side. It’s the orcharding that captivates Lydia most, though the cider is a much-welcomed incidental. The move from London couldn’t seem more appropriate; it’s difficult to think of two people better suited to the currents and vibrato of rural life. “We’re poorer than we were,” says Lydia, “but we’re richer in so many other ways.” From so many mouths that would sound a trite and gloopy platitude, but here, and from these fascinating people, it hums with sincerity and weight. And the place itself, you sense, is the richer for their habitation.
Expanding the work beyond their own front door, Lydia is an active member of Cider Women alongside such figures as Little Pomona’s Susanna, Barley Wood Orchard’s Izy and the Cider Museum’s Elizabeth. Tom was to have been programme chair for the 2020 edition of Craftcon, with sustainability its key theme. He’s hoping that the material already gathered and the work already done can be recycled at the 2021 convention.
I should mention the drinks themselves, which are very good indeed. We try Pygmy Perry first, a 2018. It is a blend of Blakeney Red and Barnet, immediate and appealing in its fruitiness, with a trill of acidity that chimes through the sweetness bringing clarity, balance and poise. The ciders certainly nod across the channel, though again the fruit is bright and clear; there’s no sulphurous fug amidst their depths of perfume. I ask if they have problems with H2S given their predilection for keeving and cold racking. Yes, sometimes, is the answer, but time, Tom believes, is a great healer. We are tasting 2018s and all are ripe, clean and broad in their charms. Perhaps a little further down the sweetness spectrum than I tend to do most of my own drinking at, but nonetheless delicious, and catnip, I suspect, to my friends. Crowd-pleasers without a shadow of a doubt, though balanced with a well-judged grip of tannin and nip of clean sharpness. They are drinks you can mull over or gulp devil-may-care with good food in good company. You could make your way through a lot of them, especially sat on a sun-kissed slope in the summer Marches.
Artistraw is another of those frustrating, small, if-you-know-you-know brands like Cwm Maddoc and Bartestree that Herefordshire keeps almost entirely in-house, and which are near impossible to find online. Most of their sales, in normal years, come through food festivals. The only bottles I’ve previously bought have been from the museum. Tom and Lydia only make 2000 litres per year or so at present – not a lot to go round. But a new website is under construction and licenses have been obtained. The Shrews will soon be less elusive; when they are, my recommendation is that fans of such makers as Bartestree, Pilton, Gregg’s Pit and Barley Wood stock up.
There’s so much work still to be done. Orchards and production to expand, presses to restore, HGV containers to be removed and replaced by new buildings, yurts to construct. But they have a lot of time at Artistraw. They’re relishing the process; they’re not in a hurry.
Visiting people like Tom and Lydia comes with the uplifting, depressing simultaneous double punch that this is, unquestionably, incontestably, how we are all supposed to live and that the rest of us are doing it all wrong; fumbling about, fretting and faffing with nonsense and grot. We’re not supposed to be drinking convoluted coffees in hideous chains, we’re not supposed to do al-desko lunches of bland soup and supermarket sushi with faces glued to monitors and hands full of RSI. We’re not supposed to watch the sixth season of anodyne Netflix piffle, we’re not supposed to drive ten minutes to work or sit dead-eyed on smoke-choked tubes and we’re not supposed to buy plastic bags of feeble herbs that always go off tomorrow. Fast food is obscene, the gym membership is narcissistic absurdity and every link we’ve ever clicked on facebook has been bollocks. Deep in the cankered ventricles of our hearts we know this, and we know that we should be sacking off the office and the coffee run and the cheap t-shirts and the 4G and the gibberish on twitter and finding a little spot of land where we can grow brussels sprouts and plant trees and clean the rivers and eat fruit that tastes of something and beat exhausts into ploughshares and ride electric bikes and drink cider made from apples instead of chemical biliousness and be richer in things that matter and breathe in and breathe out and make a little bit of the planet a little bit better than it was before.
And when we’re there, in amongst those places, the scales fall from our eyes and – yes – that’s the new plan, that’s what we obviously will do; it’s so clear now; to do otherwise would be baffling insanity. Until we stop off at the services on the M4 back, buy an “it’ll do” coffee, send a vacuous tweet and think, with a dull, inward groan, about all that laundry that’s to do when you’re home again and how you just want to sit on a sofa. Not everyone can dredge up the bravery and interest and optimism and inventiveness and cleverness and care to try and save a patch of the world. But every so often we need to put down the smartphone and visit the people who can; to see the little Edens they are chiselling out and rinse our grubby, anxious souls in the clean, clean brilliance of it all. That’s what you’ll find – with good cider and perry to boot – if you go to Artistraw. And I dare say Tom and Lydia will be only too happy to see you.
Huge thanks to Lydia and Tom for taking the time to show us around and for feeding us so ridiculously well.