North of the Berkshire Downs and almost midway between Oxford and Newbury, on a strip of greensand, lies Harwell village. Here for over two hundred and fifty years cherries have been grown. In those early days, Black and White Hearts and Long Tails were the main crops, but over a period of time many other varieties have been added, with interesting names such as Early River, Governor Wood, Amber, Napoleon, Waterloo, Ohio Beauty, Noble Black, Emperor Francis and Merton Glory. Although the care of cherry trees goes on throughout the year with pruning and spraying, the fruiting season lasts only six to eight weeks, starting during late June and finishing during the last week of July or early August.
Until 1962 cherry sales were an annual event in the village. The orchards were auctioned, if the owner so wished, when the fruit was nearly ready for picking. The highest bidder was then responsible for picking and disposing of the fruit as he wished. More recently, growers have preferred to pick, sort and sell their own fruit, either to wholesalers or shops or from roadside stalls. Cherry picking in a sunny orchard may appeal to many as a pleasant job, but it is hard work. The pickers during the mornings and afternoons are mainly housewives; they are split into “gangs” with a man in charge for moving ladders. The women bring their young children with them, and picnic meals are eaten in the orchards. The children seem to have an insatiable appetite for cherries, and enjoy the freedom of the orchards, provided the weather is fine; showery days are not such fun, and on really wet days picking is impossible. Laughter, shouting, singing and talking can be heard coming from the trees, and although tired and grubby by teatime, all agree it is a pleasant change from routine housework, which unfortunately has to be “fitted in” during the evenings. The main pickers in the evenings are men, who stay until about 9 p.m.
Like many soft fruits, the cherry is at the mercy of the weather, and what promised to be a good crop can be spoilt overnight by a frost during the setting period, or later on by heavy rain, especially if followed by sunshine, which causes the fruit to be split. During the fruiting period, starlings and blackbirds are another pest, blackbirds to a lesser degree. Much time and energy are spent trying to keep the birds out of the fruit; bird-scaring starts soon after 5 a.m., when the birds move in from their roosting grounds, and ends when the birds go home at night. Like other years, 1965 produced a crop of mixed quality, the quantity of each strain varied from grower to grower, depending on whose trees caught the frost at the setting time, or were attacked by caterpillar or other pests.
It is autumn now, and the last few golden leaves are falling fast. In seven months it will be blossom time – to some the most beautiful time of the cherry trees’ cycle; six weeks later the familiar question will be asked around the village: “Started cherry picking yet?”