Modern cider is a fascinating, wonderful and tremendously exciting place. Conversations are being had; genius is being bottled. There’s a tangible energy to the aspirational category, one that seems to cling to anyone lucky enough to encounter it.
But cider’s history – indeed cider’s history as something aspirational, highly-valued and chattered over by bug-bitten hobbyists and eccentric intellectuals – stretches back far longer than the last five years. It comes to us rather piecemeal, a car-boot sale of newspaper clippings and attic-unearthed bibelots and the odd ancient, leather-bound tome.
Responsibility for knitting the odds and sods of cider’s history into a coherent narrative has lain, for the last few decades, with The Museum of Cider in Hereford, situated in the old Bulmer’s offices on the fringes of the city, just across from a Sainsbury’s. I first visited a few years ago now, and was blown away by the cabinets of ancient crystalware, the cavernous cellars of old champagne-method cider beneath the building, the former apple-brandy still and the centuries-old Pomonas full of antique apple wonkishness. In happier pre-covid times, ninety per cent of my trips to Herefordshire would feature another wander around its nooks and crannies and a rummage in its enviably well-appointed shop.
Struck by the echoes of seventeenth century pomologists in the modern cider conversation I thought it would be pertinent to conclude my series of January interviews by reaching out to the Museum’s Director, Elizabeth Pimblett. We’ve met Elizabeth previously, since one of the many other hats she wears is that of co-chair of the Cider Women committee, but I’m delighted that she agreed to talk to Malt again, and our conversation is transcribed below.
Malt: So first of all, if you could introduce yourself, tell us how you came to cider and what you do in it?
Elizabeth: I’m Elizabeth Pimblett, I’m a native of Herefordshire, but like most natives of Herefordshire that doesn’t mean a terrible amount, because people come to Herefordshire and then never seem to move on and that’s what happened to my parents. My father was a doctor, he came to Herefordshire and we stayed. And so I was just trying to think of when I probably first encountered cider and I really can’t recall! My American cousin reminded me recently on facebook that her first experience of cider was aged 14 – my father had given her some. He used to have patients who gave him some, because obviously, when I was a child, Bulmer’s was still a family firm and a major employer in the county. So it was just always there. And I have been reminded recently as well that for my 18th birthday it was in a pub drinking cider, which I can’t remember!
But how I came to the museum was because the job came up, it was in my home town, and I was running a museum in Worcester. And it was just the right job at the right time. I was interested in food history – I have been known to do Tudor food demonstrations dressed in costume! So it wasn’t too much of a leap from that to go into alcohol history, and actually I don’t really know why it didn’t occur to me before. So it’s happenstance – good breaks at the right time I suppose. Because once I came to the museum and once I got involved with craft cidermakers, that’s when it all started to make sense. And it went from something that I was just interested in to something that I feel quite passionate about.
Malt: You make a little bit of cider yourself, I saw. Tell me about that?
Elizabeth: Yeah, well I grew up around people making fruit wines as well as drinking professionally made drinks. So it wasn’t something I really thought about, it was just something that happened once. We made some apple juice and we left it and it naturally fermented, and so that was the first time I think I can claim to have made it, and that was by accident!
The second time I was doing a demonstration for the museum in the centre of Hereford, and I had all this lovely juice from apples that I’d been given – completely random collection of cider apples and cookers and dessert apples. So I bunged that into a couple of demijohns back at the museum, because I thought it’d be interesting for visitors to see the fermentation process. And then I had the luck that Tom Oliver very kindly came to train the staff about cider tasting so we could speak from more authority when we spoke to visitors. So I thought “ok, he’s going to talk about faults, so I’ll give him this demijohn of cider and he can taste it and we can use this to point out all the faults.” And he actually said “well actually that’s not too bad.” So that was just purely accidental cider that was left fermenting away, not racked off, nothing done to it. I just love it – he said “It’s not bad but I wouldn’t put my name to it!”
And yeah, since then I’ve had the luck to have advice from cidermakers and good friends – Little Pomona and Bartestree Cider – last year I think my best one was an Ellis Bitter and Browns blend, which I am quite proud of. It’s great – it’s just like alchemy. You get all these different apples and you try and work out what really works and what really doesn’t as well.
Malt: Going on to the museum, tell us about that – who founded it and what’s in it and what it does.
Elizabeth: The museum was definitely the brainchild of Bertram Bulmer. He had semi-retired from Bulmer’s at that point but he still had an awful lot of influence. And he and Norman Weston of Weston’s cider and Professor Hudson who was the director of Long Ashton¹ were the first trustees. It started in 1970 just collecting information because they were very aware that things were about to be lost really, and a whole generation of people were just passing on. So the museum started as a collection without a building, they’ve got wonderful oral histories that they took, they did a survey of Herefordshire to find where all the millstones were in the farmhouses. Somebody went painstakingly through all the 18th and 19th and early 20th century newspapers to find anything to do with cider. They photocopied it so we’ve got all these archived references.
And they just kept going. The Bulmer family were always very interested in history; it all started with the Reverend Charles Bulmer writing for the Woolhope Club and inspiring his son. So they had an awful lot of knowledge as well. And so we’ve got material from Long Ashton, we’ve got business archives, early equipment, art, we’ve got all sorts of things. But they were still looking for a museum to put it in. They started with a pop-up shop in the centre of Hereford, which I think was in 1978, perhaps a little bit earlier, and that generated a lot of interest. So they kept looking for a building, and then Bulmer’s had got so large that they had moved into a big, purpose-built building across the road and they no longer needed the old factory and the offices there. The museum trustees were offered it, and they didn’t actually want it because it is out of the centre of Hereford and they thought it would suffer from lack of footfall – which is, actually, a problem. You’ve got to know where it is to want to go there; you’ve got to make a special pilgrimage. But the advantage is, as you know, we’ve got those wonderful champagne cider cellars. Where else has got cellars where champagne cider was originally created, and all the machinery still there? So it’s got definite pros and cons, being there. One con is that people sometimes think, if they don’t know very much about cider that it’s a Bulmer Museum, and it’s definitely not. They collected from all over the place – we’ve got stuff from Spain, stuff from America. They tried to be comprehensive when they collected. But the bulk of it is West Country and particularly Herefordshire.
Malt: You changed the name of the museum recently. What was the thinking behind that?
Elizabeth: It was an attempt to get people to realise that it’s not a small, parochial museum. It’s not “The Hereford Cider Museum”, it is a museum that’s got a much wider remit. When I started (and I’ve been there for over four years now, which seems incredible, really) what I wanted to do was try to get all cidermakers to feel that this was their repository, that this was going to reflect their history. I wanted to get a real sense of ownership. And so we just felt also that it lacked punch and it lacked a bit of gravitas. And the original museum name was “The Museum of Cider”. So it just seemed simple to go back to that really: that was the original intention, let’s go back to it. It’s run by the Hereford Cider Museum Trust, which is the name of the charity, but that’s not what we need on the front of the building – we need “The Museum of Cider”.
Malt: You’ve mentioned the archives already, but can you tell me more about what’s in them and how they continue to be built?
Elizabeth: I’m still discovering what’s in it really! It’s a job that Sally, our archivist, has to sort through all the stuff that’s been collected and it’s just a continual surprise, actually. There are some things that I wish we had more of – we’re trying to identify collecting areas that need bulking up. But it ranges from 17th century books on cider to 1970s advertising and all sorts of ephemera. It’s got quite a big remit really, because it’s called the Archive of Cider Pomology, so anything really can come out of that, so we’ve got science and we’ve got history and we’ve got ephemera, so it’s a bit difficult to encapsulate!
Malt: In non-pandemic circumstances are people allowed access to them? Is there any plan to make them available at all?
Elizabeth: We are slightly limited by the fact that the archivist is part-time, and you do need somebody there. Not least for supervision, because it would be awful if something did go missing. But really you can get an awful lot more out of it when the archivist’s there, and she can make connections and say “well if you’re interested in that would you like to see this?” We’d love to be able to open it up a bit more. We’re not really in a position to yet – we have meeting rooms upstairs so if the meeting room’s occupied then you can’t get into the archive, so we need to resolve that issue. Most of our research requests come from people writing about the history of cider, or they’ve got farms and they want to find out what the original planting records were because we have got a couple of decades of planting records from Bulmer’s for their nurseries. But we don’t charge, yet, and I think if we did have a lot of requests that might be something we’d have to do. Reluctantly, but realistically.
Malt: You’ve mentioned wanting the museum not to be parochial and to be for cidermakers everywhere. What roles does the museum play – and has the museum played – in the wider cider community?
Elizabeth: The most important thing is the International Cider and Perry Competition. That, I think, gives us a purchase in the world of cider really, because you have to keep up to date, you have to know who’s out there, what to expect and how things are changing. So we look at the categories to decide whether we need to add any more in, whether we need to tweak, revamp. And Gabe Cook’s been very helpful on that one. And I think that gives us a bit more of a profile that we probably would have otherwise as a museum. So it means that we are part of the cider world, really. And also the shop – that is an absolute joy to run, if I’m honest, and I think that there’s so much more that we could do with that. And I look forward to, post-pandemic, trying to increase our appeal with that one.
Malt: I wanted to ask about the exhibition you did on the role of women in cider in 2019. How did that come about and what was in it?
Elizabeth: It started because I was looking at a costrel. I was trying to write a label for the barrel that they took out at harvest time to give workers their wages. And I wanted an illustration to go with it, because I’m really interested in “who were the drinkers of cider?” That just fascinates me. So I always love to have a picture of the person to really sell it to the average person who may not be into cider otherwise. And I just couldn’t find one of a woman drinking cider in the field. And I knew that that wasn’t representative and that there had to be images, because I knew that there were women because there’s plenty of documentary evidence for it.
So that made me start looking around and looking at the museum and thinking “well yeah, where are the images of the women?” And I thought “well I’ll approach other museums and I’ll go through our collections and archives and I’ll draw out images that illustrate the making and drinking of cider, and women’s involvement.” And then I realised that it wasn’t quite that easy, and it became quite a detective story – a bit of a hunt trying to find these images. And we did! We did find these images, and that was quite a joy. And it turned out that most of the images were actually in our archives and that there aren’t an awful lot of fine art pictures of people picking and pressing cider.
When International Women’s Day came up I put something on twitter about “I’ve been thinking of doing this exhibition about women”. And so many people said “yes, yes, do it!” that I thought “crikey, well I’ve got to do this now”. And so I chose to do it just at the same time as we were doing Ciderlands. I was part of a group that brought the international cider tourism conference to Herefordshire, so I was planning a big event for the museum for that, and we were doing all sorts of other things at the same time, and I decided to add creating an exhibition into the mix. So it was quite nuts really! But at a private viewing of the exhibition we launched Cider Women. So it all came together, all happening in October 2019. And it’s just been brilliant really the amount of interest it’s generated. It was only intended to be a relatively small exhibition for a finite time, but it just seems to have really filled an empty gap in so many ways, and so many people are interested in it. And it really has helped – I use it a lot when talking to other women about cidermaking. it has been inspiring – it’s been great, actually.
Malt: Do you have ideas for other exhibitions when safety and the pandemic allow?
Elizabeth: Yes. I have a list of things I’ve written down! There are so many different things we could do. As a museum curator though you find out that it’s one thing to have an idea about what you want and it’s another thing to have the items to actually back it up and to make the exhibition work. So whatever I do it’s got to be tempered with caution – “this is what I want to do, have we got the objects that will tell the story?” I was lucky with the Women and the Art of Cider exhibition that we’d had the gift of Jean Nowell’s² scratter – a 19th century scratter that had belonged to Jean Nowell – so that was something big and chunky in the middle that I could really just hang everything else around.
Malt: Let’s move on to cider history more generally. You’ve got a wonderful collection of 17th century glassware – what do you see as the importance of that? What does it teach and how did the museum come to have it?
Elizabeth: It’s 18th century. I wish we had 17th century! There is a 17th century glass in the Museum of London which was Lord Scudamore’s³ glass, so that would be absolutely fabulous if we had that with the strong Herefordshire connections there. As it is we’ve got a replica. So what we’ve got are these beautiful 18th century glasses that is the best collection of cider glasses, as far as we know, in Britain. And it was put together, again, by Bulmer’s. It was something they started in the ‘60s; they asked auctioneers and specialist dealers to keep an eye out for them. it’s been built up over decades. And when Scottish and Newcastle took over Bulmer’s, Esmond Bulmer ensured that the collection came to the museum. So it’s safe and on display.
Why it’s so important? I think, and I do wonder whether we’re going to have this again, with Brexit and the problems with trade that that’s going to cause, whenever there’s been friction with Europe, wars with Europe, trade problems with Europe, cider seems to have flourished. So people who can’t get their wine turn to cider. And a lot of that is reflected in these glasses – that it was building on the fruits, literally, of the 17th century, or the work that was done then. And so now you’ve got cider seen as a refined drink, as something that not just men but women would be drinking as well. And still there is, at the same time, the ordinary cider that’s going out and given to the farm labourers and that people might be making and drinking themselves. So it’s quite nice to display those glasses alongside, as we do, the horn cups, the ceramic two-handled cups that you might find on the farm. Because cider is always, as we know, a story of two halves; it’s always been the very fine quality stuff that was taken off and sent to London or was drunk by the gentry on their estate, and the lesser quality but more thirst-quenching, less alcoholic versions that would be made available.
I think that the problem is that most people, still, as we know, see that type of cider as being typical cider. And when they come into the museum and see how small the glasses are, how expensive the glasses are, it helps to get across that all the way through its history really, cider has been prized. Except perhaps in the 19th century when it starts to drop away. So it helps people to put a value on it; it helps people to realise how important it was to British history. And a bit like the history of women, how it has been eclipsed in some ways and forgotten about really. Even books on alcohol history – I picked up one the other day which is really comprehensive, but nothing about cider. Because it was not a niche product but it has become perceived to be so.
Malt: Talking of 17th and 18th century history, you’ve also got that wonderful collection of Pomonas on the archives – could you explain what Pomonas are, how they came about, who wrote them and the importance of those as well?
Elizabeth: Yes, I think this is what makes the museum a little bit special – the collection of the glasses and the fact that we have got the original watercolours for the Woolhope Club’s Pomonas. How do you encapsulate what a Pomona was? It is essentially a collection of writings and illustrations about the apple, which had been done throughout history, but more tangentially really. It’s when we get to the 18th century and we get to Thomas Andrew Knight who lived at Downton Castle in Herefordshire and who was a great experimenter and horticulturalist – bit of a renaissance man generally,. And he created this Pomona with illustrations done by his daughter, Frances Stackhouse Acton, and a lady called Eliza Matthews. And without that I think there’s still so much we wouldn’t know about cider varieties today.
And then that work was built on with the Woolhope Club in Herefordshire again – and it does sound very Hereford-centric, but nothing really equivalent was happening in other counties so I think it’s fair to say that Herefordshire has that claim to fame. the Woolhope Club were a naturalist club, so they mostly went out doing geology and mushroom hunting. They were very interested in natural science and that spilled over into history and it became a really good archaeological society as well. And the Reverend Charles Bulmer was part of that, and they realised that the old traditional apple varieties were just dying away, because at that point the orchards were becoming much more neglected. The one period when cider wasn’t really in its ascendency. So they started doing annual exhibitions of fruit, and they put adverts out in the local newspapers and got people to bring in all the apples and pearsfrom their orchards. So they got different fruits each year, obviously, and then as word spread they got more and more in. And then they had ladies to illustrate these fruit – the ladies weren’t allowed to be part of the club, because it was a male-only club – but they were allowed to do the illustrations. And they got a wonderful, respected horticulturalist, Robert Hogg, to help write it.
So it was a really important snapshot of what was there, but also by doing this they inspired people to take an interest and to start to preserve these varieties. So essentially they are a treasure house of information. We have lost a lot of those varieties, it’s fair to say, but even now those books are still used. We had a conference at the museum about fruit ID, and they were still using Knight’s Pomona to work out which of the two apples in front of them actually was the Hagloe Crab, and they had to go back to Knight’s Pomona to work it out. Which is great.
Malt: The Pomonas are very focussed on the characteristics of the fruit itself. I was wondering whether there were equivalent books about the application of the apples from a maker’s or drinker’s perspective?
Elizabeth: That is a very good question. A lot of the prefaces in the Woolhope Club Transactions cover a huge amount of that subject matter. Taking it that step further; actual scientific-type manuals? I suppose that was actually when the work of the Long Ashton Research Station really started to take off, about 1903, so it’s following swiftly on from those. But there’s nothing that leaps out as being a famous work like the Pomonas.
Malt: We’ve already touched on this, but between the glasses and the Pomonas it really strikes me that at that time there was this tremendous energy and fascination around not just cider, but cider as a credible high-end alternative to wine. And then that totally falls away. Why did that happen?
Elizabeth: Well a treaty was signed with Portugal which meant that suddenly they had access to all these tremendous wines and Port. I think it’s mostly down to trade, really. These things became accessible and then there was that social cache of getting your wines from abroad. I think it was as simple as that. I think those of us who fall in love with fine cider find it quite difficult to fall out of love with it again, so it seems almost incomprehensible that people would. But yeah, I think it’s very sad, but obviously wines were preferable. Also I think there was a lot of competition for cheaper cider with gin and beer. But it never really lost its hold in the West Country, did it?
Malt: Linked to that, do you think this historical precedent is something that the current resurgent aspirational cider movement could or should make more of? Are there historic lessons there to be learned?
Elizabeth: I think so. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? I think it reinforces that what people are doing now isn’t some sort of elitist, snobbish, wacky way of trying to develop cider. When you go back to Worlidge^ writing in the late 17th century and he’s saying “add mulberries to cider”, I think it justifies a little bit of experimentation. And the realisation that it doesn’t have to be a static thing. I’m not a great fruit cider person myself, but I think we can be a bit too purist about it now.
And it is interesting when people look back and see. I mean I wouldn’t advocate doing some of the things they advocated – in 18th century recipe books, “how to improve cider: add mustard”, and all sorts of very strange things. It’s great, they also have recipes for how to make fine wines by basically taking cider and adulterating it with various things, so yeah I wouldn’t go that far! But it’s just interesting to see how people used it. And actually the punches that people made – I think it’s actually quite a rich resource to mine; I’d love it if people actually did try to recreate some of the early recipes. But yeah, importantly, I think if we can just harness the sort of energy that they had in the 17th century when they’re talking in the Royal Society about the excitement of cider, I think that would be brilliant. And I think actually people are. You see some of the energy that goes into something like Manchester Cider Club and what people are doing there, it’s great. So I think we’ve got a lot more in common with that period now than we ever have done.
Malt: That’s brilliant, that’s really exciting to think. One thing I wanted to ask – a little while back now Malus^^ published an incredibly powerful article by Olivia Maki that was partially about the huge and unmentioned role that slavery played in the establishment of an American cider scene. And obviously Bristol was central to the slave trade and is situated right in the centre of the West Country. And I wondered whether slavery played a role in British cider, and if so, what was that?
Elizabeth: It’s something I’ve thought about as well. Because when all of the reflective aspect of museum theory – when people have been looking at their collections and re-evaluating them in light of what we now acknowledge about slavery I thought “well, how will that possibly affect us because we are a rural industry – very rooted mostly in the West Country” – I couldn’t really see a link. And then somebody published a list of all the estates in Herefordshire whose landowners actually derived profits from slavery, and that might be through having shares in sugar plantations or whatever they had. And then you think “actually you do need to think a little more creatively about this, because there may well be links”. There aren’t obvious links because we’ve got labour provided in Britain, we’ve got apples provided in Britain and what else do you need? But that’s just the obvious thing. I don’t know of anything that leaps to mind, but I haven’t spent time studying it yet. I think there are other lesser stories of injustice that probably come with cidermaking, but I’m not sure I can think of a slavery link at the moment apart from the fact that some of the estate owners may have made profits from slavery.
[Addendum. Since the completion of the interview, Elizabeth sent the following: “Just looking through port records, in 1790 a ship goes from Bristol to Ireland carrying 20 casks cyder and 20 hogsheads of muscavado sugar for one merchant. So he’s making money from cider and from slave-produced sugar.
An example of a Bristol merchant with links to slavery trading in cider, and who probably saw both people and product as commodities: in November 1790 the ship ‘Simon Taylor’ set out for Jamaica. Amongst her goods was stock belonging to Messrs Elton and Bush, which included such hardware as cask nails, wrought iron axle trees, glue, bellows, mop handles, and the only foodstuffs were beer and ‘bottled cyder.’
Mr Bush (1729-1803) was born in Ledbury, Herefordshire, and was apprenticed in Bristol. After returning from Jamaica he set up as a sugar refiner and became sheriff and then mayor of Bristol in 1780. He fought to keep the slave trade and became president of the Bristol West India Club in 1782. Source: The Trade of Bristol in the 18th century. Bristol Record Society, 1957.]
Malt: Could you give an example of one of those stories of injustice?
Elizabeth: I would just think really of the people who are being partly paid in cider. Which may or may not have been welcomed by them. The best cider was kept back for the farmer’s household or sent to London for sale, and they got palmed off with ropey stuff. If you were a labourer technically you could vote with your feet and next labour day – next May Day – try and find another place, but I think in a way it’s just part and parcel of the fairly grim conditions, at times, that those labourers experienced. Very hand-to-mouth. I think probably it may have been, in theory, nicer to have been poor in the country than poor in the city, but actually when it comes down to it I don’t think that there would have been an awful lot to choose between them.
Malt: Moving back to Cider Women now, obviously there’s been a change with Isy [Ed: Isy Shultz, half of Barley Wood Orchards] now being a co-chair. Has that brought about any new plans for 2021, and can you share anything that you have coming up?
Elizabeth: Well Isy was on the committee anyway, so we already had the benefit of her good ideas, and she’s somebody with a lot of energy; a lot of creativity, so it’s great to have her as a co-chair. But of course Susanna [Ed: Susanna Forbes, half of Little Pomona, also writer of The Cider Insider] was and is inspirational and had lots of ideas and creativity herself. So from that point of view it’s a good handover. We are actually going to have our planning meeting on Thursday and then we’ll have a public meeting thereafter. Last year we were setting up and getting it going, this year we’re looking at making it a bit more formalised, looking at a constitution, looking at how we elect committee members, so that it’s fair and representational. And then we shall be looking at our events; what we can do digitally, what we can do, hopefully, at the end of the year, in person if we’re lucky enough to be able to do so after the vaccine hopefully has some effect. We’re very interested in helping educate, helping support and celebrate, so events will be around that. Also our cider socials have been good fun. It’s interesting; we got involved in the #noappleogies anti-sexism project, I’m hoping that there won’t be the need for something like that again, but you can never say never, can you? So we will be reactive and we’ll be proactive.
Malt: That was my next question actually, because the #noappleogies campaign and the incident that triggered it happened after Helen’s conversation with the Cider Women committee here. Cider women was really noticeably prominent in backing that movement; can you tell us a little bit about what Cider Women did, and has this prominent instance of sexism in the cider community inspired or brought forward any plans for similar activism of Cider Women’s own?
Elizabeth: When we saw what had happened we knew that we had to give Tas [Ed: Tas Fraser, the initiator and director of the #noappleogies movement] our full support. It was one of those things – we saw her reaction, but we didn’t quite know what had prompted it. And then when we saw the original post and realised that photographs had been deliberately selected and taken out of context to minimise and trivialise her and her fellow cider reviewers’ achievements we realised what a smack in the face that was. Funnily enough I said at one of our meetings “why don’t we circulate photographs of women being proper cidermakers, cider drinkers, being proud and putting out loads of positivity?” Because what I don’t want us to get known for is to be the people who really are picking up on everything and being negative. We want to appear to show the positive side of proper gender equality. And then Tas came out with that superb, well-planned, well-programmed series of events herself. So we then adopted her hashtag, #noappleogies, which is absolutely brilliant and I can never spell!
So it’s something that we’d been thinking actually because we’d seen some examples in the previous year of quite sexist marketing, and it’s quite funny how we’re all intelligent, competent women, but it hurts when you see that sort of thing. You think you are being respected and then suddenly you see something like that and you think “oh, is that how they see women?” But I want to also put it in context because that is not typical of the cider world I would say. I think we’ve had great support from friends and colleagues who are not of the female gender. I was just thinking today how I can walk into a cider event and never feel really uncomfortable; it’s actually a very nice community. So when adverse things like that that Tas experienced come to the fore, we need to tackle it, we need to stop it before it goes any further. And yeah, it was a bit of a shock. So we’d been thinking even before that happened about what our responses should be and just drafting a series of questions and answers really about sexism, how to tackle it, what we view, and we will be making that available. But we don’t want to just be known for that, we want to be known for promoting, educating, supporting and creating opportunities. So it’s part of the project, but it’s not the only thing about it.
Malt: Going back to the museum again, obviously I’m sure much will depend on covid, but what are the short and long-term plans both for the museum and for yourself in your role as director?
Elizabeth: We had just started, before covid hit, to do an audience evaluation, because the museum hasn’t really changed a great deal since it was set up. And there are good reasons for that, and once there, people do enjoy it. But it’s a little bit faded in areas and there are things that we can do to it and themes that haven’t been explored before. And one of the things I thought a couple of years ago was “wouldn’t it be nice to have a panel for each cider county?” Summing up their traditions, their key cider history, their key firms, that sort of thing. I was watching an online wassail that Sam Nightingale [Ed: of Nightingale Cider] and the Duck Pond Sailors were doing the other evening, and they were coming at it very much from a Kent tradition, and that was really interesting – I was learning things about Kent and Sussex cidermaking that I didn’t know.
So I’d like to do that, and I’d like to just get the museum to be more representative and keep collecting in some areas that we don’t collect in. Now is the opportunity to think about how we interpret cider, what the stories people will be interested in are – and you have to remember that not everyone who comes there is an expert in cider or even interested in cider; we get people being dragged there by spouses and they say well “they’re interested in cider, but I’m just here”. And you get some people who don’t come at all because they just think “cider. There’s a museum about cider. I’m not interested in cider, why should I come?” So we’ve got to try, somehow, to broaden our appeal, to draw in people. Once we’ve got people in then I think they get hooked. So now is an interesting time – it has, of course, all been put on hold and we’ve taken a massive financial hit from all our income streams which have pretty well been taken away by the pandemic. So in a way it’s given us more time for reflection and less time to actually put things in motion.
We’ve also been lucky enough to work with the Pippin Trust; we now have access to an orchard of heritage trees which Gillian Bulmer created. These are trees which initially were researched by the Bulmers and they were planted in a small orchard close to the museum to work out which had the best properties for consistent, good-quality cidermaking. And then apparently that was meant to be grubbed up during the war, but because of, presumably, lack of manpower, that was never grubbed up. And Gillian has had all of those trees grafted and put into this new orchard. So we’ve now got access to an orchard of relatively young trees but important historic varieties. So it would be lovely if we could do something at the museum that involved orchards more. That’s the one thing we don’t have at the museum – we can’t do a great wassail for instance, because we don’t have any trees. I would absolutely love to get volunteers involved working there, maintaining the orchard, using the apples when hopefully we get more of them.
I think our main problem and our main challenge is getting beyond our current audience. Which doesn’t include the locals – it’s quite typical that locals don’t tend to visit their own museums. We just want to broadcast the fact that we’re there and find out what they would like to see as well. Cidermakers who’ve got an interest or drinkers who’ve got an interest, it would be lovely to get some constructive criticism. In terms of events we had to put Ciderlands on hold, but we would love to be able to do another event like that with the music and the marquee and the cider bar and the heritage groups. That would be brilliant. At the moment, off my own bat, I’m trying to work on creating an apple-related mummer’s play for May Day in the city of Hereford. Which could be quite good fun if it comes off! Hereford is now going through quite a challenging period. It’s looking a little bit sad, as a lot of these places are, all shut up, and the mayor who’s going to be appointed this year is very interested in promoting the city as an apple city. So there are lots of things that we can tie into there, and finally Visit Herefordshire are going to keep promoting the county as the apple county really. So probably it’s going to be a good time 2021 – definitely 2022 – for Herefordshire. And the museum is part of that.
Malt: That’s great to hear. And I suppose, last question, linked to that: at the moment, whilst we’re all in lockdown, how can people support and follow the museum?
Elizabeth: I should keep the website more up to date than I’m actually able to do! But if you follow us on social media [Ed: on Facebook and on Twitter] and just keep track of what we’re doing, and if you find something that you think might be of interest, share it on our pages, bring it to our attention. And just don’t forget that we’re there really. That’s what really worries me – in March we’ll have been shut for a year, and that is a long time, and unless we can do it this year we’ll have missed two of our International Cider and Perry Competitions. So when we are open and when we are doing events again, please come along and support us.
Huge thanks to Elizabeth for taking the time to unpack the history of cider with me in so much depth.
¹Long Ashton Research Station, the famous cider and pomological research station, closed in the 1980s.
²A hugely influential – arguably the influential – figure in the reanimation of craft cidermaking around the 1980s and thereafter. Mentor to cidermakers including Gregg’s Pit’s James Marsden, Ross on Wye’s Mike Johnson, Oliver’s Tom Oliver and many more. Her son, Max, is one half of Steilhead Cider in Ayrshire.
³Viscount Scudamore was responsible for a huge growth in Herefordshire cider in the 17th century, planting extensive orchards, propagating the Redstreak Variety and working with others on pioneering in-bottle fermentations that later became known as “the traditional (champagne) method”.
^John Worlidge, author of Vinetum Britannicum.
^^Prominent American quarterly cider magazine.
^^^One half of the cidermaking team at Barley Wood Orchards.