23rd November 2016

In October the Morus Londinium Project visited one of Britain’s only surviving black mulberry orchards at Wilkin & Sons’ Tiptree farm in Essex.

Mature mulberry orchards in Britain are as rare as hens’ teeth, so we jumped at the opportunity when Chris Newenham, Wilkin & Sons’ Director, invited us for a tour of their famous Tiptree farm last month. Wilkin & Sons is the only UK company to make mulberry preserve, using organically-grown fruit from their own Victorian orchard.

Entrance to Tiptree Farm.

Chris picked us up at Witham station, Essex, a 45-minute journey by train from London’s Liverpool Street station and drove us to the farm. As we drove through the iron gates and stepped out of his Land Rover at the factory (it would be hard to imagine a less factory-like place), the aroma of marmalade hung heavily in the air. Tiptree are famous for their orange marmalade and their strawberry jam, but make a range of other fruit jams and preserves, too … including mulberry.

Chris Newenham standing by a state-of-the art polytunnel and the Tiptree mulberry preserve.

A few minutes later we set off again, passing along country lanes lined with centuries-old coppiced trees, to visit part of the 850-acre farm, which, today, is a mix of traditional orchards, fields and state-of-the-art poly-tunnels with computerised drip irrigation systems. We then headed back to the factory and, at last, the mulberry orchard, which is barely a minute’s walk behind the company buildings

Arthur Charles Wilkin, founder of the Britannia Fruit Preserving Company, which later became Wilkin & Sons.

The mulberry orchard was apparently planted before jam-making began at Tiptree, which puts a likely date on its creation as about 1860, or even before. Alfred James Wilkin founded the Britannia Fruit Preserving Company at the farm in 1885, as a way to make a commercial success of fruit farming. Before that, fresh fruit had been taken by horse-drawn cart to nearby Kelvedon train station to be transported to London for sale on the markets. By 1906, the Company already owned 800 acres of land, providing about 300 tons of fruit each season. But black mulberries couldn’t have been included in the market sales, as they’re so fragile they turn to a juicy mush very quickly and would never have made it to London. 

This makes the reasoning behind the original planting rather puzzling – if it did, indeed, precede the jam-making era at the farm. There is a rumour among some of the staff that the trees were originally planted for their leaves – to feed silkworms in a silk-making project, but there seems to be no record of this. And white mulberries would have been a better choice for such a venture. If that was the original project for the orchard, though, it’s lucky for us (and Wilkin & Sons today) that black mulberries were chosen. White mulberry fruit wouldn’t make good preserves or jams, as it is neither juicy nor tasty.

The mulberry orchard today

Today the orchard has about 14 mature mulberry trees, all producing fruit every year, despite their various states of collapse. Black mulberries have a habit of sending out long, heavy branches that eventually need propping up, or end up on the ground.  Here they can send up vertical side branches that eventually become like new stems. In some cases, the original trunk can rot away, leaving what looks like a grove of separate trees, but which is in fact a single tree. This is what the orchard looks like today, where old trees stand (and lie) side by side in the crocus-dotted grass. Even if they were all planted around the same time as similar saplings – albeit with a couple of recent additions – each tree has developed its own personality. This one has collapsed, covered in ivy and brambles, with an acacia rooting in between its fallen branches. Its neighbour leans at a 45-degree angle, spreading branches in a handsome crown. Another has the typical ‘Y’ divided trunk, its red-brown bark fissured and covered in knobbly burrs.

Every August, explains Chris Newenham, fruit pickers come from far and wide to help with the harvest. Often, generations of the same family will come over the years, from all walks of life. In the old days, he explains, the younger ones would scramble along the branches to pick the less accessible fruit. But now, health and safety obliging, they use hydraulic cherry-pickers, with the workers clad in ‘space suit’ protective clothing.

Once picked, the fruit makes the short journey to the factory, where every individual mulberry is de-stalked and inspected by hand, before ending up in pans very much like those used 100 years ago.

Left: Generations of fruit-pickers come from far and wide every season to pick the mulberry fruit. Right: The fruit is cooked in pans very much like the ones used 100 years ago.

For more information, see Wilkin & Sons Tiptree website here.

Thanks to Chris Newenham and Sally

Article by Peter Coles. Pictures by Peter Coles and Tiptree

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