Five flowers

The blossom on the first seedling to produce flowers has opened. Some sixty-ish seedlings are NOT flowering, and vary between Nothing and Lots Of Leaves. But this Gala pippin is giving it a good go. Here’s a photo from a couple of days ago.

Gala pippin’s first blossoms, Tuesday 9th April 2024
The same blossoms, Sunday 14th April 2024
The quince tree is starting to flower (mainly on the west side)
The established apple tree (variety unknown) is also in bloom
Local menace Tinky come to tell us what’s what

Hungry gapples

The apple store is empty! It’s the end of March, just before Easter so we’re in the tail end of Lent (from the Old English ‘lencten’ meaning ‘when the days lengthen’ i.e. spring), and I took the last two apples out of the store in the gatehouse. This is the time of year known as the Hungry Gap (which may explain why Lent is in this season – make a virtue of a necessity), as the stored food runs low and there’s not much in season yet. Well, there are plenty of nettles, and I imagine the early medieval people would have cooked and eaten them along with other spring greens. Protein from eggs? But not so much bulk food, unless you had a good harvest and good fortune storing it.

Quite a lot of the apples weren’t eatable, as the flesh turned brown, or bruises spread across the entire fruit. But the bottom couple of drawers seem to have fared better, with the apple flesh still white and crisp. Maybe it was that bit cooler?

The bulk of last year’s apples were Bramleys, which ripen up into a very pleasant eating apple in defiance of the supermarket practice of only selling them green (and huge!). My Bramleys varied between VAST MONSTERS and cute little things.

This year I hope we’ll get more of the other varieties, just for, well, variety, and also because some of them may be better keepers – and older varieties, closer to what our Anglo-Saxon nuns would have known.

The last two apples: despite appearances, the penultimate apple (left) was good inside. Yes these are Bramleys!
The very last apple! With the medlar and apple mead, which is still blopping away
Inside the last apple

The final apple was a beaut! Very tasty.

The orchard did well; the apples have kept me going at about 1 per day plus crumbles and apple sauce, since 1 August 2023 to 26 March 2024. The trees were affected by a late air frost, or something, and didn’t produce at their maximum, though the Bramley did pretty darn well. Some of my friends reported having no harvest at all last year, so Rumwoldstow was luckier than many.

What we didn’t get was pears; the older two (planted in 2018) flowered and set fruit, but dropped them all. When they were pruned, it transpired that they must have not been planted properly because there was a pot-shaped block of earth with the tree coming out of it, which wobbled alarmingly. Our pruner, Michael, suggested that the trees dropped their fruit because they didn’t feel stable enough to carry them, and also that perhaps because the ground is so wet, they hadn’t felt it necessary to send roots out searching for water. Al and Michael staked them up to be more stable, also the quince was a bit sideways so they staked that too. Fingers crossed this will help them. The two apple trees (Wyken Pippin and Hambledon Deux Ans) look fine; they may have been planted from bare roots? It shows the importance of spreading the roots from a pot-bound tree when planting it out. I’ll have to bear this in mind when the seedlings are being set loose on the world, wherever and whenever that ends up being.

The pear trees are in blossom, as are the plum and damsons. The apples are just starting to bud.

Pear: Louis Bonne of Jersey
Pear: Uvedale St Germain
Pears: Winter Nelis (left), Jargonelle (right)
Floodwaters rising again after torrents of rain yesterday. Medlar (left) and plum (right, Rivers Early Prolific)

So yeah, a very strong sense of ending and renewal.

Buds

Look carefully at the photo…do you see them? Yes, the first ever flower buds from one of my apple tree seedlings! These were grown from apples collected in 2020 and germinated in 2021, so they are now three years old. I need to do an audit and empty out the pots of those that died over the winter but I must still have a good 50 saplings in pots dotted around the patio.

It’s unlikely that these flowers will produce fruit but it’s still very exciting to see one of the little trees take this step forward!

Seedling with first flower buds
The leftmost tree is the one with the buds – the one in a terracotta pot. Grown from a seed from a Gala apple
Seedlings by the pump
Seedlings at the back of the patio
Seedlings at the side of the patio
Seedlings in Froghaven
Seedlings by the path

A new Hnef

No, I didn’t sneeze…my main Christmas present this year was a set of BEAUTIFUL handmade glass gaming pieces from Tillerman Beads. These are based on finds from grave 750 at the Viking-age town of Birka in Sweden and are about the fanciest gaming set you can have unless you’re going for carved ivory or gold (as in some sagas). I’ve long had a glass Hnef (the name given in Icelandic sagas to the centre piece) but it is machine-made and very regular. The pieces that accompany it are simple glass “pebbles” sold as pot toppers, which closely resemble some Roman pieces. This set is a much better match for the original finds.

Replica glass gaming pieces

The grave at Birka contained 8 dark pieces, 17 light ones. Al gave me 9 dark pieces and 17 light ones, which provides a spare of each colour if you are playing tablut, and also allows you to play merels or nine men’s morris. Tablut is the version of the game that Carl Linneus recorded and is played on a 9×9 board with 8 defenders, 16 attackers.

Ready for a game of “tablut”
Ready for a game of merels

If you’d like to know more about the game of “hnefatafl” (it has several names and variants) you can read my article about the possible origin of the name “Hnefatafl” and see the other replica glass “Hnef” on my website. And of course there are lots of web pages out there with information about the game

Wintery bits and bobs

Here are a few photos from the last month of things in and around Rumwoldstow. It’s the off season but it’s still always interesting to take a wander down and see what’s occurring!

A pony in the neighbours’ meadow, which is called Barton
(the meadow, not the pony)
Bird’s nest, recovered from the top of the pivot stone in the gatehouse
Pivot stone in the gatehouse!
Frost and flood in late November
Wild geese on the meadow to the north
Rainbow moon
It rained last night…the River Cherwell is about as high as I’ve seen it…all the lower part of the orchard is flooded and it’s raining again now!

Medlar jelly

Despite the general distractions of life, I managed to gather a fair proportion of the medlars, which by November were falling from the tree. The medlar is the only new tree so far to give a good crop of fruit. Most of the fruit trees were planted in 2018, so they’re five years old, and generally look healthy, and flower well, but are giving between “some” and “no” fruit (YES “Fairleigh” damson tree I AM looking at you).

I put the medlars in the utility room and within a couple of weeks they had “bletted” and were ready to eat / use. Raw medlars are good with cheese, but I don’t regularly eat a cheese course after dinner, so wanted to find some other way to use them.

The medlars are strangely attractive to ladybirds
The freshly gathered fruit – still firm and green in the middle, no good to eat yet

Medlars are tasty, but even once you’ve bletted them, they are not easy to eat; the pulp inside the “hip” is good, but there are plenty of seeds and fibrous bits. So this year, I tried boiling them medlars for syrup.

The medlars rise to the top as they cook, and can be squished with a spoon
Post squishing, the fruit sink down again…

I strained the juice overnight through muslin. It’s a shame to waste so much of the fruit pulp, but I just did not have the time or energy to separate pulp from skin, seeds and fibre this year. The juice didn’t look particularly promising, but I froze a box of it to use later for a flavoured mead, and made the rest into jelly.

8 lbs medlars and 11 pints water yielded about 6 pints of juice.

Medlar Jelly
  • 3 pints strained medlar juice
  • 3 lbs granulated sugar
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 bottle (125 ml) “Certo” apple pectin.

I boiled the jelly for a good hour and a half before it finally reached a setting point. This was much longer than I expected, as the Certo is meant to reduce cooking time and improve set. On initial tasting, I thought there was too much lemon juice, but actually it’s fine. The jelly gradually turned a very pleasing clear orangy colour, and has a delicate flavour. It’s a bit stickier than would be ideal because of the long boiling – it’s on the verge of turning into caramel – another time, maybe more Certo? For traditional jellies like blackberry, I use unripe apples in August / September, which are chock full of pectin. As the medlars aren’t ready to use until December, the apples are far too ripe to provide pectin.

The finished jelly, with two medlars that I left uncooked for their story value (and indeed gave to a friend a few weeks later)

The rest of the juice is in the freezer and I plan to try making a mead with honey, medlar juice and apples. This will be a longer term project!

Booth me up, baby

A monastery can never have too many outbuildings. Obviously! Al’s latest construction is something that was originally conceived as a log store with a working area in the middle, but it’s coming out as more of a generally useful covered space with good light.

Great use of an old pergola for the main frame
Pallet wood cladding
Al at work on the roof battens
Well placed to catch the afternoon sun
Too good for a wood store!

The Great Booth is not quite finished – Al is still collecting the last few extra-long pallets to break down for roof timbers – but doesn’t it look great?

Protecting the harvest

The heritage apple trees are still not producing much fruit and I’ve scoffed what there was. But the old Bramley in our garden has given us many fine apples. Last year, we stored a good number but the rats, not surprisingly, made a bee-line for them (surely you can’t have too many animals in a metaphor) and deprived us of several trays of good apples.

Al, being the hero that he is, has reinforced the apple store, which lives in one of the guard-rooms in the gatehouse, with wire mesh. This is of course not historically authentic! Vermin-proof food storage will have been a perennial problem, with grain stores raised on ‘mushrooms’, sealed pits and other strategies used with presumably varying degrees of success.

I almost filled the store with the best apples, as they should keep for longest. We still have a good number in the kitchen that need to be used up asap. Stewed apple for breakfast, crumble for supper…it’s a rough life.

Clearing up windfalls

Some of the Bramley apple harvest
Apples going in to store
Let’s hope the rats can’t open a bolt…

The lone Hambledon

The orchard continues to be a mystery to me…the apple and pear trees planted in 2018 are still not producing significant fruit. This year the pears flowered profusely, there were no late frosts, but nevertheless, the fruit that set all fell and we have no pears. The Wyken Pippin has a few apples, and the Hambledon Deux Ans produced one solitary apple – but it was large, much larger than its few fruit last year.

Reluctant to pick it before it ripened, I left it on the tree; the Hambledon is supposed to be a great keeper. But the other day, it had vanished off the bough, and I found it on the ground – fortunately intact. I therefore cut it up and ate it. Some of the flesh was already discolouring, so it clearly wasn’t a great apple and wouldn’t have kept any longer. But the flesh that was ok tasted nice; it’s been described as a cooking apple, and I found it a bit sweeter than a Bramley but quite tart.

What’s up with the trees? I don’t know. The mature eating apple tree in the orchard (variety unknown) has some excellent fruit but many small and malformed fruit. Is this a disease? Is it too warm in the winter? It’s not been a drought year, nor has it flooded, so it’s a mystery to me. I keep hoping that *next* year, the new pears and apples will start to produce.

In the meantime, there are many medlars!

At Oxford Castle

Just around the corner from St Frideswide’s monastery in Oxford, a small group of dedicated nuns met in September of 923 to wonder at illuminated manuscripts and marvel at Rumwoldstow’s most precious holy relic, the skull of the infant saint’s own faithful duck companion, Ducky.

Well actually we were part of a display at Oxford Castle, run by the Ulfhrafnar group in the Vikings society.

The nuns of Rumwoldstow marvelled at the manuscript work of the nun in black (she’s from a different monastery)
Abbess Cyneswithe opens the box containing Ducky’s actual skull
Sister Æscwynn, our magistra, accompanied by Sister Ælfrun working hard at her spinning
Dramatic shot of a horn-blowing youth

I actually spent most of the two-day display blathering on about board games, but it was fun to pose for a few choice scenes!