Photographs: Charles Francis
October 2014: The lichen-covered trees in the old orchards around Coombe Creek are laden with dark, damson-like fruit. Nick Coley gives one of the trees a good shake. You can’t hurry a Kea plum – but on this sunny August afternoon, the fruit is fully ripe, and ready to tumble down onto the sheet Nick has spread on the grass. It usually takes three shakes to get a good crop from each tree.
Nick, who has a special interest in orchards and their history, has been looking after 25 acres of plum and apple trees in and around Coombe for seven years. There is a long history of apple-growing at this tidal creek off the Fal Estuary — but it is the Kea plum which makes it a horticultural hotspot: the orchards here are the only place on the planet where the fruit can be found.
The village, in the parish of Kea, is part of the Tregothnan estate, and consists of about 20 cottages dotted among the orchards. For generations, residents have sold plums from their garden gates — but not many years ago, this tradition was in danger, as Jonathon Jones, managing director of Tregothnan’s trading department, explains. “Many tenants were elderly, and the orchards were at risk of dying out, because they were so difficult to maintain. When Nick came to Tregothnan, we couldn’t believe our luck.”
Nick, previously a commercial fruit grower in the Midlands, admits he had never heard of Kea plums until he came to Cornwall. “Some of the orchards were still being looked after, but most were in a poor condition: some hadn’t been touched for 20 years,” he says. “The first one I cleared had ten to 12 feet of bramble.”
There are three kinds of Kea plum: most are black, but red fruit can be found on the trees overhanging the creek, and there is also a tiny yellow variety.
The crop varies from year to year, and Nick describes 2014 as “a reasonable year”. “The first year I was here there was a bumper crop, but we have also had some very thin years — like last year. If the weather isn’t right during the flowering season, the trees don’t get pollinated.” Tregothnan is now investing heavily in bees. “It’s amazing what a difference it’s made to the crop,” says Jonathon. “Next year we’re going to bring lots of hives down to the orchards. Probably a lot of the cottages here would once have had their own beehives.”
It is likely that plums were first brought to Coombe by Portuguese traders three centuries ago; they carried a supply of the vitamin C-rich fruit on their boats to help combat scurvy. “We think they were hybridised by the Boscawen family — who have lived at Tregothnan for 700 years — and the result was what we now know as Kea plums,” Jonathon says. “I’m pretty confident that they were bred for this microclimate: this is a deep sea creek which benefits from mild maritime air, but without strong sea breezes.”
When the first cottages were built on the shores of the creek, residents incorporated trees from the orchards into their gardens. Present-day villager Nigel Baker’s forebears were among them: they were living in the parish in the 16th century. He still lives in the cottage which was the family home from about 1770.
In this small community, the orchards were a vital part of the economy — but it was apples rather than plums which were the focus of activity. “There was no return from Kea plums,” says Nigel. “They would have been taken up to Falmouth and Truro by boat, and the market must have been pretty limited.”
Coombe is just three miles south of Truro, but Nigel points out that until the road into the village was built in 1924, boats offered the only access. “Tripper boats started coming in in the 19th century: they disembarked their passengers into dinghies when the tide was high. People came to see the blossom in the spring, and to buy the plums in the summer — and have a cream tea. My mother is 95, and she can remember the plums being sold in handfuls of five instead of being weighed. A canning shed was built in 1931 after the huge glut of plums in 1929, and the growing was done as a co-operative until after the war — the chaps did the shaking and the women the canning.”
The ripe plums can be eaten directly after they have been shaken from the tree, but their traditional use has been in jam making. Kea plum jam is available from the Tregothnan estate, and a limited edition liqueur is being trialled — it goes wonderfully well with Champagne. Visitors staying in Coombe on Tregothnan Wild Escapes holidays were among the first to try it.
A short stay by a picturesque, peaceful creek which has changed little for centuries certainly offers stressed city-dwellers a chance to recharge fading batteries. But Jonathon emphasises that the estate is also encouraging people to become permanent residents of the village. “We have attracted a couple of younger families, and more people live here now than 20 years ago,” he says. “The estate is conscious of its responsibility to maintain the community: it fits in with our responsibility to maintain the Kea plum. If you make the orchards commercially viable, they should never become extinct.”
Their fame has now spread beyond Britain: a large proportion of this year’s crop is being exported to Germany: top chef Sarah Wiener was fascinated by the Kea plum story when she came to Tregothnan as part of a culinary tour of Cornwall. “Through the internet, we can reach people who are interested in niche products like Kea plums,” says Jonathon. ”I feel more confident now about the future of the orchards than I ever have. We’re concentrating now on building up the stock.”
This is where expert orchard restorer Nick comes in. “The trees are mostly 40 to 50 years old, and you tend to lose some every year,” he says. “We’ve had to dig out replacement stock from the hedgerows: we propagate them from suckers.” After seven years, he is beginning to see what he can justifiably describe as the fruits of his labours. “Some of the trees I put in in my first year here are just beginning to crop,” he says with satisfaction.