The Storey Garden Scrumpers
You can’t peer over the walls of the Storey’s Secret Garden. They’re too tall. And you’re too small.
Scrumpy Joe peered anyway. He could only see wall. He stood on his tiptoes, but the wall’s tiptoes were much taller. With a low growl, Nelly the Plum shoved the blunt end of a ladder at him. When Nelly growled, the sound began somewhere deep in her belly and vibrated outwards until even the dark purple veins which criss-crossed her face began to rumble. Joe grabbed the ladder and held it steady as she swarmed upwards.
Joe didn’t like scrumpin’ with a ladder. It felt unfair. Not unfair on the owner. As far as Joe was concerned, apples had no owners… except perhaps the trees. But them juicy red apples right up on the spindly branches weren’t meant for people. Scrumpin’ with ladders was unfair on the birds.
With a quiet sigh, he scrambled up the ladder and hauled it after himself. In the dark garden beyond, Nelly the Plum was already striding from tree to tree, mentally weighing up the fruits. Her little purple face screwed up tight as she glared at a gigantic plum hanging from a nearby branch.
You may already know that the orchard in the Storey’s Secret garden contains one of the most remarkable collections of fruit trees in the country. This particular plum tree produces a single fruit each year and by midsummer, it has swollen to the size of a basketball. The chief groundskeeper always plucks it from the tree just before it gets too heavy for the branch and carves it into slices for the other gardeners with his electric hedge-trimmer.
In one corner, there’s a wizened old Granny Smith Apple Tree whose fruits are covered in grey wiry chin hairs. They are known to be deliciously tart and outrageously crunchy but each apple must be carefully shaved before being eaten.
A particular favourite of visitors to the garden is the Cherry Bakewell Tree which produces ready glazed cherries embedded in a layer of sweet white icing and almond sponge upon a perfectly crumbly short-crust pastry. At the Storey’s famous Summer Secret Garden Party, guests delight at the taste of fresh Cherry Bakewells plucked straight from the tree.
The orchard even contains a genuine Crab Apple Tree. Unfortunately, the crab apples always scuttle off towards Morecambe Bay before anyone has a chance pick them.
But Nelly the Plum and Scrumpy Joe weren’t much interested in Cherry Bakewells or Crab Apples. For them, there was only one tree in the whole orchard… The Tree of Golden Apples.
It’s trunk was just as gnarled as the other trees and its metal branches were just as heavy with fruit but it seemed to stand differently- more straight, more proud. It didn’t sway in the gentle night breeze. Instead, it made a sort of soft sad chiming sound.
Nelly was already underneath it, glowering up at the gleaming fruit. Unfortunately, for the apple Scrumpers of Lancaster, The Tree of Golden Apples only occasionally produced fruits of actual gold. More often than not, the apples were merely bronze or tin or lead.
“It’s got one!” she growled into the darkness.
“Nahh,” Scrumpy Joe sucked in a breath of night air, “That there’s a brass apple. Glows different in this moonlight.”
“Look higher ye old fool!” She grabbed a fistful of his hair and directed his gaze at the very spindliest branch at the very top of the tree.
“But them apples at the top…” he muttered uncomfortably, “They ain’t for people.”
“What’s a bird gonna do with a golden apple, ye pulp-brained old fool?” For the second time that night, she swung the blunt end of the ladder at him before swarming up into the murky darkness above.
For a moment, Nelly’s little purple face glowed in the reflected moonlight of a perfectly polished metal sphere. Then the apple was hurtling out of the darkness at Joe’s head followed by a stream of furious swearing. Nelly’s face seemed to glow again. But this time with the reddy, purple rage of a blister about to pop.
Joe carefully picked up the apple and rubbed it on the sleeve of his old jumper. It was copper. He slipped it in a pocket and fished out his old pipe. As Nelly stomped down the ladder, he allowed himself a wheezing chuckle
“If… It… Won’t... Give... Us... No... Gold,” Joe could barely make out Nelly’s words through her grinding teeth, “We’ll scrump the whole tree!”
“Scrump the tree?!” This time he wheezed out a great cloud of black tobacco smoke as he chuckled, “How you gonna scrump a tree, ye rotten old plum?”
“I ain’t gonna scrump it!” She pulled something long and heavy out of her tattered trench coat and swung the blunt end at Joe, “You’re gonna scrump it!”
It was a spade.
“You can’t scrump with a spade,” he spluttered at her, “A ladder’s bad enough but…”
She pulled something else out of the trench coat. “If you don’t start diggin’. I’ll scrump it with this.” The tool’s edge gleamed brighter than the metal apples as it hovered by the tree’s gnarled trunk. Nelly turned the sharp end of the axe back towards Joe… “Or maybe I’ll just scrump you!”
If you’ve ever tried digging up a tree, you’ll know it’s a murder of a job. The roots tunnel deep and wide and wrap themselves round any clump or rock they can find. And for any root you manage to break, there’s another thicker and deeper buried just below. Digging a metal tree is even worse. With every other strike of the spade, its blade would clang against the metal roots, sending sparks flying into the earth and furious vibrations up the handle into Joe’s tired old bones.
“Quiet!” Nelly hissed as she heaved at the trunk, “You’ll set the Night Watchmen on us.”
“Bleedin’ Night Watchmen.” Scrumpy Joe muttered to himself mutinously. “I ain’t even had a pipe break.” He grimly raised the spade again and struck the blade against the thickest root expecting a thunderous clang. Instead, a horrible, creaking, screeching sound of tearing metal squealed out of the soil. Slowly and unstoppably, the huge heavy trunk tipped sideways and levered its own roots from the earth. Joe stared in horror at what he’d done.
With a squeal almost more horrible than the tearing metal, Nelly cackled at the look on Joe’s face. “That’ll wake up the Night Watchman!”
She began hauling at the branches and shoved Joe along to help her. Somehow, they managed to lever the tree over the high walls and drag it across the cobbled streets beyond. Somehow, they’d reached the murky gloom of the river before the plodding Night Watchman caught up. He blew his whistle and waved his heavy nightstick in the air as Joe tipped the shining tree onto an ancient barge barely floating above the waterline.
Nelly shovelled coal into the boat’s furnace as Joe pulled out his pipe and chuckled. Her swearing was only drowned out by the squeal of the Watchman’s whistle and the creak of the barge’s rotten old hull. “Forget your blasted pipe! Help me!” She screamed at him.
Joe wheezed cheerfully as murky brown water sloshed about his feet. With surprising grace, he slipped into the river and swam backstroke towards the far bank with his pipe still puffing between his lips. As he clawed his way up the muddy shore, he turned and saw the great metal tree pull the old barge below the waterline. A minute or two later, a dark purple face burst out of the gloomy deep and bobbed furiously in the middle of the river.
Some say that, on particularly low tides, you can still see the crown of the metal tree shimmering just below the surface of the river. You may even spot a purple faced old crone picking through the rubbish on the muddy bank. But anything remotely shimmering or shiny is always snatched first by a pair of squawking magpies.
There is another rumour, though less well known, about a little backyard behind an old Lancaster terrace. At the end of the garden, behind the rhubarb patch and the tool shed, there’s a stunted little sapling. It’s said that, in the light of a full moon, this little apple tree shimmers and glows as if it were made entirely… of copper.