2nd November 2021
The first tell-tale signs of autumn make themselves apparent as I drive along the single track roads that wind themselves through the heart of the Chase. Bright hips and haws hang in the hedges, and starlings are starting to speckle the stubble fields. I wind the window down to feel the freshness of the breeze – it’s not fully cold yet and the bright sunshine of the morning brings warmth, but underneath its heat is a whisper of what’s to come. And the stirrings of that certain scent which belongs solely to the season.
I’m following the signs for ‘Cider’, and my indicators make that satisfying click as I turn off to the farm up ahead. Farmer, Simon Meaden, greets us in the farmyard with a collie dog circling nearby. He has invited me and Poppy Roou, the Digital Communications and Engagement Officer the Chase & Chalke Landscape Partnership, to visit the farm and explain a little bit more about what goes on this time of year.
Myncen Farm in Minchington, just off the Blandford Road, has been run by the Meaden family for 100 years. It is full of that country charm we all crave. There’s a beautiful farmhouse and sprawling arable fields that stretch out under vast Chase skies, all lined with impressive hedgerows and field margins – havens for wild animals and wildflowers alike. A collection of lovingly restored shepherd’s huts huddles together as chickens scrape and peck through the surrounding field. Boxes of brightly coloured squashes sit stacked in wooden crates, lending themselves perfectly to the early autumn atmosphere. And hidden below the soil are secrets of Cranborne Chase’s past, unearthed by various archaeologists, including Time Team, they show a long-running connection to the land. Simon proudly shows off a collection of ancient artefacts preserved now in glass cabinets instead of soil.
‘It reminds you that you’re a very small part of a very big thing,’ he says. I agree. It’s true and there are few places I feel that more than here on the Chase. The big excavations are buried back under the earth, ‘it’s the best preservation method’ Simon explains. It gives the farm a whole other layer of beauty; a reminder that there is much more to this area than what can be seen on the surface.
But alongside the picturesque appearance and historical ties it is very much a working farm, and one that has experienced first hand how diversification has become an essential, and almost unavoidable, part of the farming process. Here at Myncen there are plenty of projects running alongside one another. Simon is currently waiting to greet a grain lorry, and the shepherd’s huts that greet you from the drive aren’t just collector’s items, they are in fact an Air B&B offering rustic retreats. And, of course, there is the cider.
Cranborne Chase Cider was started 10 years ago by Bill Meaden, Simon’s son. What started as a passion project has grown and developed over the years, and the Cider Shack that is perched in front of the farmhouse bares tribute to its success. It is crammed full of apple juice, chutneys, chunky handled tankards, boxes of still cider, and glass bottles filled with lightly sparkling amber liquid stamped with labels that nod to the Chase’s rich history. Characters such as General Pitt-Rivers, Whitewigs and Shepherdess are matched to different blends. If it wasn’t before midday, it would be very tempting to prop myself up against the squash crates and enjoy the seasonal sunshine sipping a pint of fizzy apples (my tipple of choice, in case you’re wondering, would be the medium-sweet Shepherdess).
There’s something suitably autumnal about apples. It could be the sight of the rows of rosy-red orbs hanging ripe to pick in orchards, the lingering scent of sweetness, or the thought of the first blackberry and apple crumble of the year marking the beginning of comfort food season.
For me, they mark that transition between the seasons, a sign of change but also acting as a reminder of the summer sun held within their skins. Plenty of rural communities celebrate the apple at this time of year with fairs or open days, apple picking, pressing displays, cider tasting, cake making; if it’s apple themed then it’s on the agenda.
Myncen harvest their apples from an orchard just up the winding narrow lane, but they also use varieties from other Dorset orchards. It’s these mixes that add to the flavour, but also the chalk soils that the apple trees dig their roots into; another Cranborne Chase specialty and another reminder that there is much more to the AONB than first appears.
As if on cue the family’s border collie dashes over and drops what I think is a ball at our feet. It is not a ball. Of course, it is an apple. A big, plump one, with juice frothing from the puncture marks left by the dog’s teeth.
The day of our visit is a little too early for the fruit harvest, but in the coming weeks the farm will be busy processing piles of picked apples, pressing them, filling the air with that sweet yet sharp apple tang.
On the Cranborne Chase Cider’s Facebook page is a beautifully shot video of the process, which curiously satisfying to watch.
Framed in the Cider Shacks doorway I ask Simon how long it takes for a batch of cider to be ready; he tells me that traditionally, cider is drunk when the first cuckoo calls. Which, as we slip now into autumn, seems a long way off. Luckily, there’s plenty bottled and ready now, should you wish to see the season in with a pint of their finest.
Although Myncen Farm is not open to the public, the Cider Shack is open seven days a week, from 9am until 7pm and is well worth a visit. You can find out more on their Facebook and Instagram pages.
This piece was kindly contributed by writer Jeni Bell.
Read more of Jeni’s writing at www.seekingwildsights.co.uk.