Merlins Apples – The story of Bardsey Island and the Mother Tree

The Bardsey Apple

We took a drive one day in the direction of the setting sun, along Llyn Peninsula we meandered until we ran out of land.  From the tip of the peninsula, way past whistling sands, we saw cardigan bay and the silver sea, its shimmering platinum surface pierced only by one blade like crag.

This was the wild and sunny Bardsey Island (Yyns Enlli) the ‘island of the 20,000 saints’ who, according to legend, lie buried below its fertile soil.  The ‘island of bards’ named after the Viking cheiftan ‘Barda’ whos tiny population served a king named Love Prichard (see next post for more).  I was inspired and needed to know more, so into my life unravelled the wonderful story of the rarest tree in the world, merlins apples, sea squirts and a heroic orchard dweller named Ian Sturrock.

The narrow, bramble clad, country lanes that we rolled along were the same used by ancient pilgrims and pagan wanderers.  They were following the setting sun west and regularly made the treacherous two-mile leap over to Bardsey Island, with faith in wee rowing boats.   Here they found a chapel built by Saint Cadfan in 516AD and a wonderful orchard planted by hardy monks, although the island has been inhabited since neolithic times, the hut outlines still visible today.

Pre Roman Celts used this island to pray and die on, its most remote Westerly location deemed sacred and safe from persecution.  Bardsey is a Holy Island, similar to the islands of Lindisfarne and Iona.  Spiritual practice could be carried out in isolation, away from the barbaric nature of the main island.  It was known to the Bards of the time as “the land of indulgences, absolution and pardon, the road to Heaven, and the gate to Paradise”.

There were many early Christian pilgrimage routes that ended here, dotted along the Welsh coast, where little settlements and churches peep out from wind-swept valleys and isolated coves.  Three trips to Bardsey was considered equal to a trip to Rome.  If you are buried on Bardsey, you will attain eternal salvation.

The religious history of Bardsley is a good example of the nationwide struggle between the earlier Celtic church and the newer Roman system.  The canons of St Augustine eventually bringing the Roman Church to the island and in the 13th Century extended the abbey of St Mary.  However the Celtic Church lasted well into the 12th century in Wales and there are still examples of the Celtic cross standing on the island.

A group outside the Abbey on Bardsey Island, c.1881

A group outside the Abbey on Bardsey Island, c.1881

Until recently, Wales was a very pious area, in 1870 the locals spent precious funds on a re-building the original chapel on Bardsley, which had been destroyed by Henry VIII in 1537, rather than a much-needed harbour.

On the island now is the remnants of St Marys abbey, an old houses, a curious square lighthouse, the Bardsey apple tree and a large graveyard.  The island is also home to Britain’s first bird observatory, built in 1953.  It hosts many winged migrators who use the island as a stopover, with some choosing to nest.  The manx shearwater and the rare chough can be found here in abundance.  Other brilliantly named visitors include the willow warbler, guillemot, razorbill, chiffchaff, sedge warbler and the spotted flycatcher.  You’ll find leaf cutter bees cutting neat holes in the many rare plants; rock sea lavender, small adders tongue, purple loosestrife and the golden haired lichen.  Riso Dolpins and Grey Seals, mainly eating lobsters, make a regular appearance between the icey waves, strap seaweed and sea squirts of the rough sea surround.

In 1998 a chap named Andy Clarke was catching said birds in order to tag them.  He picked windfall apples from below a gnarled tree beside Plas Bach (one of the islands houses) to use as bait in his nets.  He is a keen organic gardener and noticed that the tree and apples were completely free from disease.  He collected some and sent them to local orchard expert Ian Sturrock, who was unable to identify them, sending them to Dr Joan Morgan, the leading fruit historian in the UK.  It was declared that the fruit and its tree were unique, ‘the rarest tree in the world’.  Afal Ynys Enlli, the bardsey apple tree.  Joan claimed the fruit to be ‘boldly stripped in pink over cream, ribbed and crowned’.

The mother tree

Since then Ian has championed the cause of the Bardsey apple.  The mother tree grows in a slight recess of a house, pruned by the salty gales.  The trees age is unknown, but Ernest (71) the last person to be born on Bardsey, says it has ‘always been there’.  Which may be true, some believe that Bardsey was the apple variety Adam offered to Eve.

We have no idea of the trees origin or history, but locally it is called ‘Merlins Apple’ as in the cave on the island, high up on the hill, Merlin is said to be buried in a glass coffin.  One medieval legend places Avalon on Bardsey, the place King Arthur was taken when injured in his final battle.

The trees disease resistance may be due to the skill of the monks of the early middle ages, for hundreds of years they used their blessed horticultural talents to select only the disease resistant trees.  Ian has used the technique of grafting and with great care, nurtured thousands of new trees which have been sold all over the world, mainly in the U.S.  He believes that the bodies of the many saints (20,000!) buried on the island has filled the soil with nutritious ‘bonemeal’.  For over a thousand years this has given life to the soil and its fruit.

Apparently the apple cooks to a delicate light golden fluff and needs no sugar.  I have not had the pleasure of crunching into one yet, but have had a sniff.  They smell intensely apple blossom with a big kick of pungent lemon glory.   The juice is a light pink and has been made into cider, with potent results.

Of course, you can buy one online-  There is also much info about Ian and his family of orchard experts.  He has been responsible for a resurgence in interest and growth of many rare Welsh varieties of fruit like the Angelsey Pig Snouted cooking apple or the Snowdon Queen pear.  We had the pleasure of visiting a local Apple festival, Ian was there (he was the festival!), surrounded by admirers of his saplings.  He was beaming from ear to ear behind a table of apple specimens and a giant cheese sandwich. For 30 pounds you can pick up a cutting and grow your own magic apples.

The re-birth of the Bardsey Apple is underway and seems to be prospering far from the walls of Plas Bach.  Ian reminds me that we can do anything with our energies, if we are focused and passionate.  In these ‘Tesco’ times we need these examples of individuality, fruit and veg heroes, who are fighting the good fight in orchards and veg patches all over this fair isle.  Praise for them should be sung loud from every megamall roof.

Something is happening in the countryside, it always has been and it gives me a great pleasure to be out here witnessing it.  People are living connected with nature, not apart, and are preserving its wonderful diversity.  I am imbued with a great sense of hope for our apples, pears and prosperity.  Other great news, real beer (brownish nectar, our local tipple is named Purple Mouse) is now selling more than fizzy lager ‘pop’ (liquid sock fermented and injected with burps by robots).  The tide is shifting.

Thanks Ian for dedicating yourself to something that is truly important.  Magic Apples.

Buy a tree, grow an apple!

Old postcard of Bardsey Island

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