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Long Ashton: the home of cider science

by Inside Out producer, Kevin Burden
Long Ashton Research Station THIS STORY LAST UPDATED:
01 April 2003 1218 BST

On the very outskirts of Bristol, at the far end of the very long Long Ashton, lies a collection of unremarkable buildings.
Long Ashton Research Station began by researching into cider quality
:: This story

> Internet links:

Long Ashton Research Station

Genetic modification

Inside Out

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But remarkable things have taken place here - for this is Long Ashton Research Station.

For 100 years it's been at the forefront of agricultural research.

And if that sounds dull - think again!

Among the products that we probably wouldn't have without their efforts are today's high quality Somerset cider, and the children's blackcurrant drink, Ribena.

Working at the research station

Drink up thy zyder

Long Ashton started life in 1903 as the National Fruit and Cider Institute.

Farmers who despaired of producing sour and undrinkable cider wanted to know what made their cider good or bad.

Over the next 80 years, Long Ashton provided the answers.

Scientists identified the best apple varieties, growing conditions, and production methods for grateful growers and cider-makers.

"Long Ashton has done a huge amount for the cider industry," says Martin Thatcher, whose family has been making Somerset cider for almost a century.

"They developed a lot of the techniques that are used today in cider-making.

"They helped to work out what made the cider really good, batch after batch. That, of course, is something we're reaping the benefits of now."

Scientists helped shape the cider industry


The expertise was applied to other fruits - notably pears, but also strawberries and blackcurrants.

Many varieties of currants still bear the names they were given by Long Ashton.

So, when sources of vitamin C dried up in the war years, it was natural that the government should ask the Bristol researchers to find a replacement to keep Britain's war babies healthy.

Scientists discovered that blackcurrants were the best alternative to oranges.

They even found a way of turning the berries into a concentrated syrup which could easily be mixed up into a healthy and flavoursome drink.

Ribena was born.

For many years it was made in Bristol until production was moved to the Forest of Dean, where it is still made today.

'Improving on nature'

Long Ashton continued to innovate on behalf of fruit farmers, notably breeding shorter trees that were easier to harvest than traditional varieties.

They also bombarded young trees with radiation to eliminate diseases.

Growers were delighted with this disease-free stock. But questions were already being asked about this hi-tech science.

Research is moving to Hertfordshire

In 1972, John Craven, then a young reporter on the BBC's Points West programme, asked the station director John Hudson: "Do you think this messing about with nature could be harmful?"

"Oh no, not at all," answered Hudson. "We're not messing about with nature, we're improving on nature."

In 1975, the government told Long Ashton to reduce its work on fruits and cider and concentrate on other arable crops, such as wheat.

Over the years, research teams made significant advances in weed control and the effective use of farm chemicals including, in later years, reducing the amounts needed.

But little of the work at Long Ashton attracted the public's attention until the late 1990s.

'Frankenstien foods'

Researchers like Dr Nigel Halford were using a relatively new technology called genetic engineering.

They hoped to improve crops for farmers and consumers by altering their genetic make-up.

For example, instead of Britain importing flour from America, they could improve the bread-making qualities of European wheat.

"Transgenic plants are going to be healthier, tastier, and last longer, and require less herbicides and pesticides during production," Halford told the BBC at the time.

"It almost sounds too good to be ture, but it's not."

Lost opportunity

But consumers didn't agree. Again the scientists were accused of meddling with nature.

Prince Charles called the new crops 'Frankenstein Foods'.

The Daily Mail joined the anti-GM campaign and before long, every major supermarket chain had turned its back on genetically engineered food.

In Halford's view, a great opportunity was lost.

"People in the UK might be surprised to hear this, but GM crops are reducing chemical use, increasing farm safety, and increasing profits for farmers right around the world," he says today.

"The debate in the UK has undoubtedly been extremely damaging to what was a plant biotech industry with tremendous potential a few years ago. Much of that has gone now."

The greenhouses and labs will be flattened

Long Ashton's fate was sealed in 1999, when a government review decided to concentrate agricultural research on a single site at Rothampsted in Hertfordshire.

Research was wound down, staff transferred or retired, and trees pulled up.

A handful of staff remain, waiting for new labs to be completed in Hertfordshire.

But planning permission has already been granted for 350 houses on the 37-acre site at Long Ashton.

The original laboratory building, glasshouses, conference hall and canteen, even a modern library building, will all be pulled down.

"We're all very sad the site's closing," says the research station's director, Prof Peter Shewry.

"We'll be here probably another three or four months, and then slowly you'll find the place will close. We'll certainly miss being a part of the community.

"On the other hand, things do change. I think we should look forward probably rather than looking back."

The villagers, who've enjoyed having up to 240 scientists as rather peaceful neighbours for a century, are rather sorry to see the research station close.

"It's so much a part of this village that it is a very great loss to us," says Angela Neale, the chairman of the parish council.

"We wish all those who are moving elsewhere well. We don't look forward to what is taking their place."

Wurzel Tommy Banner investigates Long Ashton Research History on Inside Out, BBC1 West, 3 March 2003, 7.30 pm

A book - Long Ashton Research Station: One Hundred Years of Science in Support of Agriculture - has just been published and is available from the research station on 01275 392181.

1903-2003: Key achievements

:: Discovered the secret to good cider

:: Invented Ribena as a vitamin C supplement for children

:: Eliminated viruses in fruit trees

:: Found ways to reduce the use of farm chemicals

:: Led research into genetically- modified crops

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