Climate change and viticulture:

the cultivation of grapes and grape vines in Epsom during the 18th century

Vineyard at Wyken Hall.
The Vineyard at Wyken Hall, Cambridgeshire.
© Bob Jones and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence
Source www.geograph.org.uk

Evidence that climate change is not a new phenomenon is provided in an article On the Polar Ice and Northern Passage into the Pacific by Lieut. Chappell R.N., writing about a voyage to Hudson's Bay aboard HMS Rosamund, 1817, contained in the Quarterly Record, Volume 18: -
"That our climate has been more particularly affected, in the course of the last three years, by the descent of the ice into the Atlantic, and more especially in the summers of the years 1816 and 1817, is a matter of record...

Tacitus states that vineyards were planted by the Romans in Britain; and Holinshed* quotes the permission given by Probus to the natives to cultivate the vine, and make wine, from it. The testimony of Bede - the old notices of tithe on wine, which were common in Kent, Surrey, and other southern counties - the records of suits in the ecclesiastical courts - the inclosed patches of ground attached to numerous abbeys, which still bear the name of vineyards - the plot of ground called East Smithfield, which was converted into a vineyard, and held by four successive constables of the Tower, in the reigns of Rufus, Henry and Stephen, 'to their great emolument and profit', seem to remove all doubt on this question. The Isle of Ely was named, in the early times of the Normans, Ile de Vignes, the bishop of which received three or four tons of wine, yearly, for his tenth. So late as the reign of Richard II, the little park at Windsor was appropriated as a vineyard, for the use of the castle: and William of Malmsbury asserts that the vale of Gloucester produced, in the twelfth century, as good wine as many of the provinces of France. 'There is no province in England hath so many, or such good vineyards, as this country, either for fertility or sweetness of the grape; the wine whereof carrieth no unpleasant tartness, being not much inferior to French in sweetness'. It is remarkable enough that in a park near Berkeley, in this county, tendrils of vines are found springing up yearly among the grass, from one of which a cutting is now flourishing in the garden of Sir Joseph Banks. But wine is known to have been made in England at a much more recent period. Among the MS. notes of the late Peter Collinson, (to whom the European world is indebted for the introduction of some of its choicest plants,) is the following memorandum. 'Oct. 18th 1765. I went to see Mr. Roger's vineyard, at Parson's Green, all of Burgundy grapes, and seemingly all perfectly ripe. I did not see a green half-ripe grape in all this great quantity. He does not expect to make less than fourteen hogsheads of wine. The branches and fruit are remarkably large, and the vines very strong.'"
Articles about the Rev. Jonathan Boucher and Sir Frederick Morton Eden on this website contain references to their collaboration on research for the latter's book The State of the Poor, published in 1797. Many of the underlying facts had been established by 'a remarkably faithful and intelligent person', recommended by Boucher, using a questionnaire devised by Eden. The surveyor's travels on that account were reported in The Monthly Magazine, or British Register, Volume 4, 1798, as: -
"Journal of a Tour through almost every county in England, and part of Wales, by Mr. JOHN HOUSEMAN, of Corby, near Carlisle; who was engaged to make the Tour by a gentleman of distinction, for the purpose of collecting authentic information relative to the state of the poor. This Journal comprises an account of the general appearance of the country, of the soil, surface, buildings, &c. with observations agricultural, commercial, &c."
An extract about his visit to Epsom is of particular interest: -
"July 15th, London to Epsom in Surrey, sixteen miles. The people busy mowing and making hay, and much grass yet to cut, which I thought rather singular at this time of the year, and so near the metropolis. In this day's journey I crossed a common, occupied with furze and a few ill-looking sheep; a sight I little thought to have met with in this enlightened part of the country; and on travelling a little farther, I was still more convinced of my ill-founded ideas as to agricultural improvement in these southern climes: I passed over a very extensive common field, where the naturally fertile soil is exhausted by constant cropping. The surface of this district is pretty level, but not without some easy swells. A great many elm-trees grow on the hedges; elm seems to be the principal sort of wood attended to, both in this county and Essex. It is a knotty, and, in my opinion, far from being the most serviceable species of timber, either for building or farming purposes; the knots, however, seem to be produced by an injudicious practice, which prevails here, of lopping off the branches. Sheep are a long-horned white faced and legged breed, and in shape somewhat resembling those of Norfolk. Buildings are generally made with brick and tile, and almost every cottage has a vine or two spread along the walls, which produce grapes often in abundance. Great neatness seems to be observed about the houses and gardens: in and near the latter, there appears to be a taste for having pieces of water, overlooked by weeping willows, and occupied by various and curious sorts of fish, swans, etc.

Epsom is an extremely pleasant well-built town, surrounded with good land, pretty fields, and plenty of trees, without being an incumbrance. Here I spent two or three days in the most agreeable manner, at the house of the Rev. J. BOUCHER, rector of this place. The elegant house, gardens, and pleasure grounds occupied by this gentleman, are his own property, and are planned with a degree of taste and neatness, not often equalled: his collection of plants is large, and curious; and besides all the common sorts of fruit, there is scarcely a wall which does not support the spreading vine, covered with clusters of grapes. Mr. BOUCHER is gentleman of extensive landed estate, his moral character, and literary abilities are too well known to need any comment, and I am proud to call him my countryman, but whose absence from his native soil, I have to lament in common with the rest of the inhabitants of Cumberland. Close to Epsom is a large common, on which the soil is naturally very good, but like all other commons in the kingdom in that state is not equally productive."
Although 38 vineyards may be identified in the 11th Century Domesday Book, large- scale production of wine appears to have disappeared by the end of the 14th Century when a relatively warm period (thought to be 1 -1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than today) came to an end and summers became wet and cloudy. A " mini ice age" is conventionally defined as having extended from the 16th to 19th centuries with warmer intervals. About 1720 John Warner of Rotherhithe had "discovered that Burgundy grapes ripened against a wall earlier than others. He conjectured that they might ripen on standards, and, finding on trial that they succeeded beyond his expectation, he considerably enlarged his vineyard and gave cuttings from his vines to all who would plant them. When he commenced his experiments there were only two vineyards in the country, one at Dorking [by a house named The Vineyard, later Chart Park] and the other at Bath, and neither was planted with grapes suited to the English climate". Whilst vines were being grown in Surrey during the 18th century, in England, they did not again become a commercial proposition until 1951 when the first modern planting was at Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire.


Brian Bouchard © 2010
Member of Leatherhead and District Local History Society

* Holingshed's Chronicles of England Scotland and Ireland


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