Poet’s Corner

28 June 2019

Malcolm Guite bring tales from Girton’s orchard

ONE of the best features of our 150th anniversary year at Girton has been a series of tree-planting ceremonies. We have made five new honorary Fellows, all distinguished alumnae, and each of them, from a Japanese princess to a brilliant comedian, has come to our old orchard and planted a new tree.

The ceremonies themselves are entertaining, and sometimes revealed hidden talents in our new Fellows. Sandi Toksvig, for example, handled a spade with great gusto, and took to filling in and watering with as much zeal for the orchard as for the ceremony. But the great thing, from my perspective, was the talk about the orchard itself, given by Dr Roland Randall, a geography Fellow and farmer, who has a special care for our orchard and its history. We have rare old trees with wonderful names such as “Norfolk Beefing”, but a favourite of mine is a Victorian variety, “Gascoyne’s Scarlet”, and it was from Dr Randall that I learned its history. It was, he said:

 

A high-quality dessert apple, often said to be a gentlemen’s after-dinner dessert apple, which has been grafted high on to one of our old Bramley Seedling trees. It is named after its developer, Mr Gascoyne of Bapchild, near Sittingbourne, who bred it before 1871. . . The apple is large, and harvested in October, just in time for use in the Michaelmas term. One wonders who might have carried out the graft, and who the gentlemen were, to be entertained. . .

 

I wondered whether Mr Gascoyne ever knew that his “gentlemen’s apple” was being enjoyed by the young ladies at the newly founded college, referred to by its opponents in his day as “that infidel place”, and I enjoyed the speculation about who might have been invited to enjoy it with them.

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But there was more to the story than that. Our tree had flourished so well because it had been grafted high on to a Bramley, already deeply rooted and flourishing, and that Bramley seedling itself had a history, which, appropriately for Girton, began with a woman:

 

The first known tree was grown by Miss Mary Anne Brailsford and planted in Garden Street, Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in the first decade of the 19th century, where the tree later belonged to Mr Bramley, the local butcher. The original Bramley tree blew down in a storm in early 1900s, but a branch grew up from the old trunk and still survives and fruits.

 

I loved the thought that our gentleman’s after-dinner apple was grafted on to a tree which itself had sprung from a branch that survived a storm as the 20th century began.

When Girton came to Cambridge, they must have felt like a lost branch being restored, grafted on to the stock of an ancient seat of learning, sustained by it and yet bringing it new fruit and flavor. And I thought, too, as I heard this tale, of that other grafting of which St Paul speaks, of how the flourishing of Christianity depended on the sheer grace of its being grafted on to the deep-rooted stock of Israel’s ancient faith.

Learning a little more about our orchard also summoned lines from my own poem “O Radix” with a new vigour:

 

Now we have need of You, forgotten Root

The stock and stem of every living thing

Whom once we worshipped in the sacred grove,

For now is winter, now is withering

Unless we let you root us deep within,

Under the ground of being, graft us in.

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