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Monday, 19 September 2016

20 years of the Westmorland Damson Association

Until the formation of the Westmorland Damson Association in 1996 brought renewed interest in this little fruit, there was general agreement that the damson’s purple patch in Cumbria was in the first half of the 20th century. Originating in an area around Damascus in present day Syria, this member of the plum family most likely found its way into England through the Romans. Damson stones have been found in archaeological digs at their ancient camps and settlements across the country.

By the middle of the 17th century damson trees were certainly in evidence in Westmorland where they thrived on the well-drained, shallow, limestone soils in an area to the south west of Kendal: the Lyth and Winster valleys. 60 or 70 years ago the blossom on the estimated 30-40,000 damson trees attracted huge numbers of people, many making the journey from Lancashire mill towns to see the spectacle.

After the harvest in September tons of damsons were despatched to jam-making factories in Lancashire and Yorkshire, while Kendal’s ‘Damson Saturday’ in October saw growers and farmers piling into the town to sell damsons to the public.

By the 1970s the numbers of the trees had declined significantly. Changing farming practices, changing eating habits, less people on the land willing or available to carry out the arduous task of picking the fruit, and jam makers sourcing fruit elsewhere all played a part in the demise of the orchards.

Peter Cartmell, whose family had lived in the area for centuries, witnessed the decline and was determined to do something about it. So in 1996 he and a number of enthusiasts formed the Westmorland Damson Association. Its aim was to restore the orchards to their deserved glory, promote the cultivation and use of Westmorland damsons, extend the market for damson products and look after the interest of local growers.

20 years on the picture is quite different. Damsons are used by local producers in the making of jam, jelly, chutney, pickles, wine, beer, gin, syrups, vinegars, cake, bread, chocolate, ice cream, sorbets, cheese, pies and more.

Cowmire Hall, High Cup Wines, Hawkshead Relish, Claire’s Handmade, Friendly Food and Drink, Savin Hill Farm, Hawkshead Brewery and Stringers Beer are some of the producer names to look out for.

You’ll also find that a number of local pubs like the Masons Arms at Strawberry Bank (pic) use damsons in their food as well. And every year in April, Damson Day celebrates the revival of this wonderful fruit in the Lyth and Winster valleys.

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