The Skimmity Hitchers Dorset Cider Shed tour of Dorset
Playing Scrumpy and Western, the Skimmity Hitchers often sing about cider sheds. In April 2017 they set out to take their music back to the sheds that they sing about. A cider shed takes many shapes and sizes, some are privately held, others are operated by cider clubs, groups of enthusiasts who get together each fall to press apples, and then meet up throughout the year to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
(For those outside the UK it’s important to note that all British citizens are entitled to produce up to 7000 Liters (1800 US gallons) of cider without a license or need to pay any tax. The Skimmity Hitchers sing about it in the song “It’s just a bit of persie, it’s just a bit of personal,” on their forthcoming album.
The tour began at the Nettlecombe cider club’s cider shed. We had a bit of trouble finding it at first, as it isn’t sign posted, the directions were go past the pub (the Marquis of Lorne) and down a track. With a population of less than 50 people, Nettlecombe is a lovely little village. In true West Country fashion, we had to make way for a farmer with a load of manure, but when we asked some people where we might find the cider shed, they told us to park up and come in. Past an old stone stone barn, a small square stone building with a corrugated metal roof, about 15 feet square and 15 feet high.
The old stone building dates from the 1300s and has been used for cider production since the 1600’s, originally as part of the manor. We are welcomed in with cider and bacon butties (bacon sandwiches). At the center of the building sits the massive Victorian double-screw press, built in the 1880s which the club uses to press its apples each fall. The juice is then pumped into blue plastic barrels up on a loft above the press for primary fermentation, then the cider is gravity fed into oak barrels to mature.
The 2015 cider on offer had a slight acetic note, but notable tannins from bittersweet cider variety apples. A small orchard sits out the back of the shed, and other apples are gathered in. On hand were cider notables from Nick Poole, organizer of the Powerstock cider festival and head of the West Milton cider club, and West Milton Cider Company, Alan Stone, an author who’s written several books on cider, including Dorset Cider and In Search of Good Cider. There were also a range of apple growers (such as Mark, who only grows a little bit of Kingston Black about 60 tonnes) and music enthusiasts come out to see the Hitchers and taste the cider. Packing a drummer, double bass, electric guitar and singer plus an audience into the shed took some doing but it worked, and the lads launched into a few of their cider-fuelled songs. Mark the apple grower read a poem by William Barnes, Dorset’s national poet.
After Nettlecombe the band and a minibus full of locals headed on to Shane Phillips’s Shed at Bidlake Farm near Bridport . Pulling up by the mobile home, I felt like I was back in Yamhill County. A Kingston Black blend was on tap directly from a blue plastic barrel, and the band set up in woodworking shop around a very impressive bandsaw. The artistic clutter and sawdust reminded me very much of my dad’s woodshop.
In addition to the Skimmity Hitchers Dorset Phil, a local singer songwriter sang a few songs on Dorset themes. A lamb roast was served up along with a selection of local cheeses and homemade pickles. At Shane’s shed we were introduced to the 2-handled cup.
These mugs are made for sharing, the two handles make it easy to pass the mug on to the next drinker. The one at Shane’s Shed was a beautiful enameled ceramic number with the inscription “God Speed the Plow”
Shed number three in Symondsbury was in the village, in the back garden of Collin Phillips, Shane’s father. Like a garden shed or garage, decades of accumulated detritus were stacked on shelves. Here the two-handled cup was in circulation, Collin insisted that everyone pass round the cup. We only have one cup, he says, when Kev from the Skimmity Hitchers quipped “saves on the washing up” Collin laughed “We don’t go in for that sort of thing round here.” The Skimmity’s set up in front of a tin shed across the lane from the cider shed, and played to a crowd that had swelled to about 30 people.
Shed 4 was located in North Chideock, just inland from the seaside village of Chiddoeck. Collin’s shed is located across the farmyard from a tractor storage shed, which was also home to an antique motor coach along the usual assortment of tractors and implements of a working diversified farm. Operated by Collin Hopkins, the North Chideock Cider club moved to its current location after the original shed burned down in 56 years ago. The shed also has an attached skittles alley attached, which is no longer used, but once hosted skittles tournaments for charity. Skittles, once common in pubs throughout the West Country is a game similar to 10-pin bowling, but the balls are smaller (akin to a lawn bowling ball) and have no holes, and the “skittles” as the pins are called are heavy and shaped like miniature pipes (cider barrels).
The Skimmity Hitchers set up in the fermentation shed, while Collin Hopkins showed off his press, another Victorian double screw number. The 2015 blend on offer was largely Kingston Black, Brown Snout, and King’s Favourite apple, but included about 96 varieties of apple. The cider from Collin’s Shed is never sold expect to raise money for charity.
The final stop on the tour is Winston’s Farm, near Monkton Wyld. Winston and Di are a lovely couple, who’s main enterprise is Christmas tree farming, and Winston is a relative of the Weston’s family which operates on a massive scale in Herefordshire. Winston’s cider shed is located in the original farmhouse, a stone longhouse dating to likely the 1500’s. Originally people lived in one half and animals in the other in the tradition of house barns, or longbarns.
Being that it is located next to a creek, the house was prone to flooding so a modern house has been built on the hill looking down on the cidershed. Winston has gone all-out with a large tent (marquee) erected outside the cider shed, and amazing potluck spread of food including local cheeses and cured meets and pickles of various sorts. The locals turned out in droves to share some cider and see the Skimmity’s performance.
In the cider shed a stack of barrels bearing different names with spigots protruding invite the visitor on a choose your own adventure of ciders of various vintages, including Skimmity Scrumpy which the band helped to press. I found about ¾ of a pint of the Skimmity Scrumpy topped up with some of Winston’s Scotch whisky barrel aged cider was just the thing.