In the late 1940s, at precisely eleven a.m. my elderly father would come downstairs ready for his morning constitutional walk around the four-plus acres that made up the home garden.
The season I am now remembering is autumn to winter. The air would be chilled, and subject as my father was to colds and chest infections, he needed his overcoat. Putting on his overcoat became my job. I was very young but tall and wiry. While my father stood at the bottom of the stairs I would perch three steps up and from there fling the coat and myself forward while he reached his arms back into the arm holes. A hitch with his shoulders, a letting go of my hands and the coat would be secure. He shuffled forward, reaching for his scarf, hat, and cane from the stand while I bounced up and down alongside him. Then we would both pause at the front door, smiling at this simple accomplishment and ready for the days adventure. Someone must have put a coat on me, because one did in those days.
“There. That’s good. Shall we go out now?” And we did. I must have danced about a bit, being of the age and temperament of Pooh’s friend Tigger, but I had also learnt instinctively to walk in tandem beside this huge man with his slow cane-assisted pace. It was a good lesson to learn early in life.
By now, Cowdrey, the head gardener, would have brought the day’s vegetables into the kitchen for luncheon. Cabbages, kales and parsnips were left in the ground to be sharpened in flavor by the winter’s frost. Winter marrows and fruit had been stored in the potting sheds. My mother had already driven to town for the daily shopping and coffee with her friends. This was her moment away from the demanding routine of her old Edwardian household. As autumn turned to winter, the house heating came on. Stoked with coal twice a day from the basement, the central heating pipes gurgled through the house, sputtering their protest when extra effort was required. On particularly cold days my mother would light the wood hearth fires when she returned from the village before lunch.
Wrapped up warmly for our outing, my father and I would walk slowly, past the round rose bed in the center of the circular driveway from which, in the late spring and summer months, he would choose a rose bud for his button hole. Some days we checked the sunken rock gardens and see if the ponds were still frozen, if the fish could breathe or if they had been caught in the ice. We would look to see how many rabbits had been out on the long lawn that led down to the lower woods, then make our way slowly below the acre of potatoes to look at the hazel nut trees, checking if the squirrels had left any nuts for us. We walked back up the narrow trail through the kitchen apple orchard which, in the spring, was covered in blooming daffodils on which the apple blossoms gently fell. These apples only ever made it to the kitchen – they were cookers all – with a predominance of Bramley Seedlings. It was a workman’s orchard, the apples were shared among the staff as well as providing apple sauce, pies and baked apples for us. The coop with a small flock of chickens and ducks was nestled into the corner before the outbuildings at the bottom of the garden.
It was in the more formal one and a half acre vegetable garden that the desert apples grew neatly in rows espaliered together. Here were the still-favored varieties of Russets, Blenheim Orange, Gravensteins, Laxton’s Fortune, Worcester Pearmain and Cox’s Orange Pippins. Across the country these varieties were to give way to more commercially viable crops and are only now being rescued and restored to their place in our culinary world. The desert apples were grown for flavor and beauty. During those cold winter months they would be stored high up on slotted in the potting shed. They were the end destination of our winter morning’s walk.
Though the shed walls had at one time been painted white they were now grey with faded fatigue. Huge shovels and small spades hung neatly alongside forks, hoes and scythes. The windows were covered in well established cobwebs and barely let in the weak winter light. The shed smelt warm, fruity and comforting. Here we would stop as my father looked along the newspaper covered counter at the apples that Cowdrey had selected from the racks above. One by one he would pick them up, testing gently with his thumb, lifting them to his face to sniff the warm scent. Aroma and texture were more important than shape or size. Four to six apples would finally be chosen and carefully placed deep into his overcoat pockets.
Walking slowly along the gravel driveway we returned to the house. We passed the cold frames that held the young cabbages, turning the corner up by the horse chestnut trees spilling yellow leaves and golden-brown conkers, then between the two greenhouses, one growing the prize chrysanthemums and the other attached to the now empty aviary where his african birds had been housed before they all died from the harshness of England’s climate.
My father barely wiped his muddy shoes as he entered the hallway and walked into the dining room. Now the apples would be lifted gently from overcoat pockets and placed in a Crown Derby bowl. These apples never, ever, went to the kitchen. They were destined for a late night supper, a slice of cheese, washed down with a glass of port or whiskey while one more would be chosen for the early morning tea tray prepared by my mother.
The Teasmade was invented and patented in the 1930’s and now, as post-war England changed it came into its own. It was a magnificent machine and proclaimed its glory with the bravado of a steam-driven train preparing to leave the station. At five minutes before the predetermined alarm went off the machine woke up. Electricity coursed through its coils to boil the water and when boiling was achieved, with much sputtering, it would pour its scalding fluid into the waiting teapot, that then screamed as the the lights went on and alarm went off. When I could be trusted to carry things without dropping them, it became my job to serve my parents their early morning cup of tea. First I brought a delicate china cup to my mother in her room. Then I would carry the tray from my father’s study to his bedroom and placing it by his bedside, stand back to wait. Rising, with a growl, to a sitting position, hair spikes and pajamas both wrinkled, he inspected the tray with it’s pot of tea, the milk and sugar, cup and saucer and an apple. Rummaging on the table he found his delicate, bone-handled pen-knife, opened the blade and addressed the apple. He would pretend not to notice that by now I had climbed up onto the end of his bed and sat watching him as he carefully peeled the skin from the flesh of the apple, the circular coil growing longer between his fingers. Sometimes he made it all the way through the apples, sometimes not. But wherever the peel ended he would take it and, with his eyes half closed, half hand, toss it to me. Like a small dog, perched on the bed, I reached up, took it in my fingers and piece by piece, began to eat.