The tale of the Bramley apple

Bramley Apples, cooking apples, Southwell, NottsHere’s a story with a healthy bite.  There are thousands of varieties of apple, but just one that is generally considered to be the cook’s favourite in the UK – the Bramley.  Bramley apples are large and green, with a sharp taste that makes them unappetising to eat raw, but flavoursome when cooked, with the added advantage of a firm texture.  But how the Bramley got here was a complete accident.

Our tale of the Bramley apple begins about 200 years ago with Mary Ann Brailsford.  Young Mary Ann lived with her mother, father and little sister in a cottage in Easthorpe, a tiny village on the edge of Southwell, in Nottinghamshire.  One day, sometime around the year 1809, Mary Ann took some pips from an apple her mother was baking in a pie and planted them in a pot. It’s the sort of thing children do, isn’t it?  One of the pips grew into a healthy seedling that, eventually, had to be transplanted into the cottage garden.  Time passed: Mary Ann’s tree grew; she married in about 1813 and moved out of the family home; her father, Charles, died and her mother, Elizabeth, stayed in the cottage until her death in 1837. Mary Ann appears to have inherited the property, which was bought by a butcher, Matthew Bramley, in 1846. By this time, Mary Ann’s tree was mature and producing fruit.

Giant wicker Bramley, garden of the Bishops' Palace,, SouthwellEnter Henry Merryweather, son of a Southwell nursery owner. He knew his stuff, did our Henry.  In 1856, aged just 17, he came across a friend carrying some attractive, large, green apples and, clearly sensing a new branch for the family business, asked where they had come from.  So he went to see Mr Bramley and asked if he could take some cuttings from the tree to grow in his father’s nursery.  He could have received a tart response, but Mr Bramley agreed – provided the plants were called Bramley’s Seedlings.

The dates and details in the above account vary, depending on your apple sauce.

Moving quickly on, H Merryweather & Son Nursery went on to develop the Bramley, presumably based on good core principles, their first recorded sale being on 31 October 1862, when they sold three apples for two shillings (10p). The Bramley apple is now grown at hundreds of sites in the UK, producing thousands of tonnes of fruit every year. There’s a particular variety that’s been developed in Northern Ireland, the Armagh Bramley, which has protected status and a six-page HM Government product specification, including the following characteristics:

– Large in size (60-120mm diameter);
– Flat sided, ribbed apex, large eye which is part opened;
– Solid green colour with reddish blush;
– Sepals are brown and downy;
– Stalk is short and thick;
– The flesh is white with a tinge of green and is firm and moist;
– Tangy flavour;
– Maintains texture and taste when cooked;
– Robust allowing for longer storability.

Bramley apple, plaque, 75 Church Street, SouthwellWho would have thought that the mother of all Bramleys was grown from an apple pip of unknown variety planted by a little girl more than two centuries ago, pollinated by the right kind of bees, who had visited the right kind of apple blossom along the way, and nurtured in the good soil and temperate climate of the English Midlands.  Sadly, Mary Ann died in 1852, ignorant of her contribution to British cooking, fruit growing and bureaucracy. Or perhaps the real heroine was her mother, Elizabeth, who presumably nurtured the tree through adolescence into adulthood. Certainly, Matthew Bramley seems to have had precious little to do with a fruit that should probably have been called the Brailsford.

First Bramley seedling, Church Street, SouthwellOf course, you’re itching to know what happened to the original tree.  Well, it survived being struck by lightening in the 1900s and was lovingly cared for by a Miss Nancy Harrison until her death, aged 94, in 2014. Nancy lived her whole life in or next door to the Brailsford cottage, making sure the original Bramley apple tree was in her garden, and proudly showing it off to visitors from all over the world.  However, the aging fruit tree got into a bit of a stew by developing honey fungus in its later years and will probably be shortly joining the great crumble in the sky, if it hasn’t already succumbed.  Scientists from the University of Nottingham used tissue cultures to micro-propagate the tree and create clones of the original Bramley, and these are now growing on the University Campus as well as being sold commercially. There was also a report that Nottingham Trent University hoped to rescue the tree, by buying the cottage and the garden for postgraduate student accommodation. Perhaps it is hoped the students will be motivated to preserve the tree with the prospect of making cheap cider.

The Bramley Apple Pub, SouthwellSouthwell certainly tries to make the most out of its famous fruit – and why not?  There are references to Bramley apples all over the place (not least a fabulous window in the Minster) and heritage trails taking in pertinent, as well as possibly less pertinent, spots.  There is a Bramley Apple Festival every year, in October.  73 Church Street, where the tree was planted, is about a 10-minute walk from the Minster – the tree is now in the garden of No 75. It’s a private property, there’s nothing to see except a plaque on the wall and the place looked decidedly sad and run-down when we visited. What a pity a local group hasn’t stepped in to restore it to apple-pie order and preserve their heritage.

Apparently, the Bramley apple is not well known outside the UK, though it is available, if you look hard, in North America and Australia.  However, the BBC reported the now defunct Bramley Apple Information Service (you couldn’t make it up, could you?) saying that the fruit is ‘revered’ in Japan and that one Japanese apple farmer said he “nearly cried” when he visited Southwell.

Someone needs to write the movie script for this, before anyone else does.

40 thoughts on “The tale of the Bramley apple

  1. milliethom

    I rarely make apple pies with any other apple. We have a Bramley apple tree in our garden – as do several other people in our village. It is not a ‘Bramley Seedling’, which, as the name suggests, is a tree grown form the seed of the Bramley. Our tree is grown from a cutting from the original Bramley tree. (I’m not the gardener here. I’m just spouting what my husband has told me. I’m just chief cook and bottle washer!)
    I hadn’t known the details of the story of this apple’s origins, and found it so interesting! I’ll think about it next weekend when I make yet another apple pie for my grandson.

  2. Ellen

    This was fun to read especially since I just finished pruning my apple tree. Maybe it will be famous one day. 🙂

  3. Jean | DelightfulRepast.com

    Mike, being a food person, I was drawn to this post. I don’t often see Bramleys (I’m in the US), but when I do I buy them up. Another English apple I love is the Cox’s Orange Pippin. Now you have me craving a Bramley apple pie. PS Loved your apple puns.

  4. Cynthia

    Now pretty much all new fruit varieties are the result of University laboratory very scientific cultivation. This reminds me of the American Johnny Appleseed story with the added appeal of a little girl to boot.

    1. cat9984

      I live in Michigan and Johnny Appleseed was the first thing I thought of. I don’t think we kept good records of the types of seeds. Certainly not this good.

  5. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – wonderful post … the Bramley is a special apple that’s for sure … we must have had a tree down in Surrey when we were growing up – we often had baked Bramley apples – so good! Interesting account – loved finding out more.

    I really should check up Honey Fungus … it is a non-desirable and kills so many trees … but for now I’ll get on – cheers Hilary

    1. Susan

      Darlene, my name is Susan Allen and I have published a children’s book on the origins of the Bramley. My book is called Mary Ann and the Apple Tree. I read my book at the Bramley Festival in Southwell this past October, and in December I shared it with students from various schools in Southwell, at the Minster, and in Newark. I you would like a copy, they are available at the Cathedral Gift Shop at Southwell Minster, at the Nottingham Visitor Information Center and on Amazon.co.uk. I hope you will check it out and pass the word. I will be appearing at the Gate To Southwell Folk Festival in June. If you have the chance, stop by the storytelling tent and say hello!

  6. furrygnome

    You’re right, it’s not well known (or widely grown?) outside Britain. We live in one of Canada’s biggest apple growing ares, and I’ve never seen them for sale.

  7. Helen Devries

    Lovely apple! We planted one in two of our gardens when in France, but I can’t remember what we planted with it to pollinate it…I think it needed two different varieties.
    I was hoping for something about the Bramley after that lovely window which featured in your post on Southwell Cathedral…and you gave it in sopades! Lovely post.

  8. wherefivevalleysmeet

    Strangley I wrote the Bramley Apple story on my blog after staying at the University of Nottingham’s Hotel called The Orchard last April. The restaurant was called Bramleys Brasserie, and all of this provoked my interest particularly. I discovered a small Bramley orchard planted behind the hotel in their millenium garden with plants cloned from the original tree in Southwell by the university.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Yes, I remembered your article. The University of Nottingham has changed a lot – I studied there and there wasn’t a hotel in my day! But they’ve been carrying out botanical research there for years.

  9. Judy@CranberryMorning

    Oh it would definitely be a box office hit in America! (But one would have to add a ton of violence) Maybe Gwynneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple could star in it somewhere? I learned, besides the fact that you’re able to come up with a bushel of puns, that Mr. Bramley was one smart cookie and Mr. Merryweather was a commendably honest man. Now I’ll have to be on the lookout for the Bramley apple. And evidently like most kids, Mary Ann cared most about the planting of the seeds than she did about the resulting tree, or she would have dug it up and moved it with her – or at least have taken a cutting like the enterprising Merryweather did. What a fun post!

  10. pollymacleod

    Such a lovely interesting story Mike. Over the years I must have made hundreds of pies using Bramleys and never given a thought to the origin of them. I used to plant all sorts of things when I was just but a slip of a girl. Bramley rolls off the tongue, Brailsford just doesn’t sound right though does it? I hope the tree survives, I’m sure the students will take great care of it if there’s cider to be had 🙂

  11. Jenny Woolf

    It is a great apple, the best cooker there is. But what a pathetic lack of enterprise from this town, its one claim to fame is allowed to decay. They must be a very sad lot in Southwell!

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