In the last in our series, a cider farmer who has never left Britain tells Charles Nevin that if you give up, you've had it ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012
In sharp contrast to the Queen, with her 300 trips overseas, Frank Naish has never left the country. In the past 60 years, Frank has not spent a night out of Somerset. Ask if he has ever been on holiday, and Frank, standing in his farmyard, below the home cider orchard, with Glastonbury Tor in finest moody mode to the west, considers for a moment before replying, “Yes, when I was in the army.” That was 1943.
Frank is 87 now. Mementoes of his working life are spread about the farm, including a gallery of tractors: Frank’s father got their first one, a Fordson Standard, in 1945. Before that it was horses, but you will get no sentiment about them from Frank: “tractors don’t get tired, do ’em?”
On one side of the farmyard is the store where the apple juice lies fermenting: Frank goes right up to the limit of 7,000 litres of cider a year that small makers are allowed free of duty. Next door is the 19th-century ratchet double-screw press which he finally gave up using three years ago.
It was a year before that that Frank stopped hand-picking apples from the ground and switched to a machine. Back-breaking work, half a tonne of apples in a day, no gloves—“gloves is no good for picking!”—often on icy November days as well as russet-hued autumn ones. Frank used to get up at 4am every day to hand-milk the farm’s dairy herd: “The milk lorry used to come at eight, but if we weren’t quite ready I’d go up the side to have half a glass of cider.” Frank gets up at six now, and likes a glass with his supper. But he can remember when everybody drank a lot more, like the day he and his brother, Harold, and a friend were haymaking, and got through five gallons.
That was a day; and there was the shove-halfpenny at the Tor Fair, and the time the German bomber came down the road from Glastonbury, firing, and he and Harold had to dive behind the apple trees, and the bomb bound for Bristol docks that dropped nearby and blew the lock off the door that’s only just been fixed. The army—“that were a soft job!”—even if he almost got blown up in Colchester, too. But it only lasted a few months before he got sent back to work the farm.
There was a girl, but Frank never married; nor did his brother. They worked together until Harold’s death five years ago: there is an unshakable sense of the old country ways, that Frank’s life could not have been any other. Now he has a younger partner, Paul Chant, also devoted to those ways. But not stuck in them: they have just introduced a new production line, involving an American press, an apple conveyor belt and a bath, to stop Frank bending too much.
At the last Bath & West country show, Frank was given a lifetime award for services to the cider industry, but he’s not stopping, because “if you give up, you’ve had it”. And there will have to be cider on the other side, because “twon’t be no good going otherwise”. He was presented with his award by Michael Eavis, his neighbour, of Worthy Farm and the Glastonbury Festival, who uses some of Frank’s land for grazing. Frank is treated as a VIP at the festival, enjoys the atmosphere if not the music, and last year met, among others, Maxi Jazz, the rapper, who was impressed.
Frank remembers the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at the Bath & West many years ago. Frank is an old Labour man, but he thinks the Queen is “a damn good queen…we’ve got to have a queen or king, otherwise we’ll have a dictator, won’t we?” But he’s not so sure of any comparison between his and his monarch’s working practices: “I wouldn’t know about that…I expect she’s got servants, hasn’t she?”
Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street. He is the author of "The Book of Jacks"
Photograph by Nick Ballon