All in the name of research…

Over the summer, when I was deep in the throes of writing the first draft of Far From the Tree, I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour of the site of the local cider producer, Thatchers Cider. This is a business that remains in the family, and is into its fourth generation; a business that has grown from strength to strength over its 110-year history, and now exports its products to Australia and, most recently, the USA. I think you can see why it was important for me to go and visit them!

It took a while to get them to agree to let me through the door, (can’t say I blame them – I mean, even with my village pedigree, I could still have been a total nutter!), but, once I was there I spent a really informative morning chatting to Matt, who is one of the Marketing Team. He took me around a site that I had vague, twenty year old memories of (the last time I’d visited, I was seventeen and in charge of a group of Girl Guides!), and I found a lot of what I’d written from that hazy, decades old memory had come back to me subconsciously.

Cider making in the twenty first century is a serious business, especially so for a multinational such as Thatchers, but I still got that feeling when I wandered around the site, asking questions and filling Matt in on the plot of the novel. I realised that the fact I’d been living on the doorstep of a business that is so ingrained in the Somerset landscape had got into my mind, got into my bones. And while I couldn’t hope to understand the complex processes that make up the journey from tree to bottle, I got a brilliant insight into what the company does.

The contrast between the extremely high tech wings of the organisation (the bottling and kegging plants are something to behold!), and the quiet serenity of the cider barns was so pronounced; I could see the old and new merging before my eyes. With my writer’s head on, this was absolutely perfect; writers deal in contrasts, in old world versus new world conflicts, and the Thatchers site is testament to how the old can co-exist with the new. Thatchers is at once a local business and a multinational one; steeped in tradition while embracing the twenty first century, and this is apparent when you visit.

The highlight of my morning was definitely the moment I got to step up onto  the gantry that runs along the rafters of a certain barn on site. This was the barn I remembered from my visit as a Young Leader all those years ago. In the words of Marianne Moore, this was my ‘real toad in an imaginary garden,’ the actual, tangible thing that inspired the rest of my very fanciful and fictional world.  This is where the oak vats are stored, and it is, for me, a pivotal image. And although I wasn’t in Anna’s shoes as I looked out over the tops of the vats, I could feel my characters’ presence as I stood there. The image of those oak cider vats has stayed with me for twenty years, and it has been an utter pleasure to immortalise them in Far From the Tree.

‘Come on,’ Matthew said. ‘I won’t let you trip this time.’ He took her hand again, and led her to the stainless steel steps that were attached to the gantry overlooking the top of the vats. In the air was the earthy scent of fermenting apples. Underlying the sweet, fruit smell was the faintest whiff of cognac from the barrels themselves.

‘Wow!’ Anna breathed as they reached the top. ‘That’s quite something.’

‘It’s certainly quieter up here,’ Matthew replied. ‘I’m not often the last person on site, these days – we work through the night most of the time so there’s nearly always someone here, but every so often I like to sneak in when nearly everyone else has knocked off and just spend a few minutes up here. It’s a good place to think.’ He looked around. ‘This was where I came the night Tara left me. It was also where I made the decision to take Carter’s to the USA.’ Gesturing to the vats, he smiled. ‘It’s like they’re the guardians of this place – patient, watchful, making sure we do the right thing. They’ll be here for another hundred years I would think, long after the next few Managing Directors have moved to pastures new.’

‘It’s quite a contrast to the rest of the site,’ Anna said. ‘Everything else is so high tech – so scientific.’

‘I like to think of this barn as the beating heart of the farm,’ Matthew replied, turning to look at Anna in the low light. ‘Everything reaches out from here and touches everything else.’ Slowly, deliberately, he took her right hand and placed it on his chest.  ‘It’s all linked, connected, alive,’ he kept her hand covered with his. ‘A living, breathing, thing…’

Anna felt the roughness of his thick jumper under her palm, and below that, his real heart beating, the heart of a man steeped in the tradition that surrounded them, shaped by the land and the fruit of four generations. A man who’d put his own dreams on hold to take the business to the next level, but who had suffered for that choice. A man who was now sharing this moment with her. Cider might have been in Matthew Carter’s blood, but life and passion was in his veins, and Anna could feel it burning.

Far From the Tree, Chapter 9

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