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The Westmorland damson. Small fruit, big flavour

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Lake District Travel Guide. The Westmorland damson

Until the formation of the Westmorland Damson Association in 1996 brought renewed interest in this small fruit, there was general agreement that the damson’s purple patch in Cumbria was in the first half of the 20th century. 

Thought to originate 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 during archaeological digs at their ancient camps and settlements across the country. 

Lake District Travel Guide. The Westmorland damson

By the early 18th century damson trees were already growing 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 (pic above Joseph Hardman, Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry).

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. 

Lake District Travel Guide. The Westmorland damson

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. 

Lake District Travel Guide. The Westmorland damson

This decline led, in 1996, to a number of enthusiasts forming the Westmorland Damson Association, aiming ’to promote the regeneration, and the creation, of damson orchards’, increase the market for damson products and look after the interest of local growers. 

These days Cumbrian producers make pretty good use of damsons, in jam, jelly, chutney, pickles, puddings, beer, gin, syrups, vinegars, cake, bread, chocolate, ice cream, sorbets, cheese, pies and more. 

Lake District Travel Guide. The Westmorland damson

Look out for products from the likes of Lakeland Artisan, Claire’s Handmade, Hawkshead Brewery, Stringers beer, Wild and Fruitful, Lakes Distillery, Cowmire Hall (gin), and Hawkshead Relish whom Prince Charles paid an official visit to on Monday (April 8). Local pubs like the Masons Arms (picture, below, by Nina Claridge) and Punch Bowl Inn use damsons in their food as well. 

Lake District Travel Guide. The Westmorland damson

Damson Day, held every April since 1998, celebrates the revival of this wonderful fruit. This at a time when a white mist of blossom has again descended on the Lyth and Winster valleys (pic below Nina Claridge). Damson Day 2019 takes place at Low Farm, Lyth Valley, LA8 8DJ on Saturday, April 13 (www.lythdamsons.org.uk).

Lake District Travel Guide. The Westmorland damson

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