Damson Delights

As a tourist guide in the north of England, I’m often asked, “When’s the best time to visit Cumbria and the Lake District?” The answer just has to be spring; not only are we treated to magnificent displays of daffodils and magnolias, but there’s blossom absolutely everywhere.

Cherry and plum blossom are renowned for their beauty, peach blossom is said to bring longevity and ward off evil, and damson is associated with determination and perseverance.

The Westmorland Damson needs to be particularly tenacious to survive on the southern fringes of Cumbria in the Lyth and Winster Valleys, where the wild and windy weather sweeps north from across Morecambe Bay. In fact, they don’t just survive; they positively thrive here!

Damson trees looking as old as the hills. Copyright Westmorland Damson Association

They love the damp climate of the western side of the country, aren’t fussy about poor soil (though they don’t like pure peat or heavy clay), hate being in the shade, and aren’t particularly susceptible to rot or infection. When you come across them as trees or woven into hedgerows, some look as old as the hills, all gnarled and twisted, bent double by the weight of snow and ripped apart by gales, so you may be surprised to see a vigorous new shoot sprouting up from the old, weathered root. The productive life of a tree is about 50 years, and they’re best propagated from shoots like these, which normally start to bear fruit when they’re about eight years old.

An orchard of damson trees by a white-washed farmhouse enclosed by a stone wall. Copyright Westmorland Damson Association

So apart from thriving as a result of the unique growing conditions here, what’s so special about the Westmorland Damson, thought to be a type of ‘Shropshire prune’ that is pollinated by the native wild bullace and sloe? It’s the fruit – they’re a dark blue-black colour with a powdery bloom and distinctive nutty flavour. They’re smaller than other varieties of damson, aren’t as bitter, and can be used to make delicious wine, jam, jelly, chutney, gin and beer. The jam started being produced commercially in the 1840s after sugar duty was reduced, and once it was removed entirely in 1870, it provided a cheap sandwich spread for the workers in the mill towns of northern England. Its popularity hit another peak during World War I as an important food for the troops, and by the mid-20th century, demand was so high that 70 tons could be sold in a single day. However, the subsequent increase in fruit from abroad led to a decline in the trade in the local Westmorland damsons, an industry that had provided steady employment for more than 125 years, particularly at fruit- picking time in September.

Damson picking in the Lyth Valley in the 1940s. Joseph Hardman, copyright Westmorland Damson Association

During World War II the trees were so laden that Italians and Germans from the nearby Prisoner of War camp in Grizedale were brought in to help, as were land girls from a local camp, many of whom subsequently married farmer’s sons from the local area. You can see the tools of their trade in Joseph Hardman’s evocative photo from the 1940s: metal buckets and a “plauming stee” (Westmorland dialect for a fruit ladder) that might be as much as 30 feet long!

Unspoilt pastoral scene in the Lyth Valley. Copyright Westmorland Damson Association

And why am I writing this blog now? It’s mid-April, the hedgerows and historic orchards are snow-white with blossom, and this Saturday (13th April) is Damson Day – the successor to Damson Sunday. If I had been a tourist guide at the height of the damson-growing period in the late 19th/early 20th century, I would, on Damson Sunday, have been escorting horse-drawn charabancs from all over Lancashire to drive through the Lyth Valley and celebrate this regional speciality.

Wakefield Rhubarb, Whitstable Oysters, Westmorland Damsons: the cream of the crop!

 

To find out more about Westmorland Damsons and Damson Day, please visit The Westmorland Damson Association website 

 

About the Author

Tess Pike is an English and German speaking Blue Badge Tourist Guide in Cumbria, Yorkshire, Liverpool City Region/Merseyside and the North East of England. Since she qualified, over 2o years ago, she has guided Swiss farmers around the Yorkshire Dales, Scandinavian roofers through the Lake District, 9-year old school children around her local town, film crews around Liverpool, families arriving in the Lake District by private plane, train and superyacht, and many other visitors on sightseeing tours. You can book a magical guided tour with Tess here