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Its ripened apples, its russet hues, the return of the school run... it can only mean that Autumn's back

Swaying in the gentlest of breezes on a soft September morning under a still cloudless, blue sky, the trees of Co Armagh are stubbornly clinging to their green hues, giving little outwardly sign that an idyllic summer is about to make way for the cooler days and shorter nights of autumn.

But it would be foolhardy to be duped by first impressions in the lush languid countryside between Portadown and Loughgall, where the townlands revel in magical and musical names like Drumnasoo and Mullantine.

For dig a little bit deeper and it's clear that the inevitable shift in the seasons is most definitely taking root in the carefully planted fruit trees that sprawl away into the distance in the Orchard County, not for nothing nicknamed the apple of Northern Ireland's eye.

Just a few short weeks ago the apples were all but hidden from view on the clusters of gnarled trees but all of a sudden, they've pushed their way through the leaves and there's no better illustration that a change is coming than on Philip Troughton's rambling farm, where pheasants casually wander in the laneway and through the hedgerows.

You can almost smell autumn in the air in the midst of a vibrant and colourful canvas of rural beauty just off the busy Armagh Road where the Troughtons are readying themselves to meet the hectic harvesting demands that autumn brings for apple growers like them.

"Autumn is the labour intensive time," says Philip. "Most of the growers around here would have gangs of apple pickers in for the harvest."

Even though Philip's Ballinteggart House is also home to a stud and a rosette manufacturing business, there's no doubt that the apple is king – the core of the family business, so to speak.

On their farm, the Troughtons grow their apples on 100 acres which are either in, or about to come into, full production but they don't just produce fruit for eating or for pie fillings.

For the Troughtons have now established themselves as one of Northern Ireland's top cider makers. They started off in a small way in 2006 working in tandem with a master cider maker in England to whom they sent their apples, but they brought it all back home in 2008 to Armagh, where eight other cider businesses are now in operation.

Initially, the Troughtons' Armagh Cider Company made around 7,000 litres of cider. This year they will produce more than 200,000 litres of two different kinds of cider, along with apple juice, and they're about to expand their sales into Britain with Finland, Russia, China and India also identified as potential markets.

"We do everything here. We grow the apples, we harvest them, we press them, we ferment them, we bottle them and put them on pallets and onto a lorry," says Philip who, if the history books are to be believed, is following a 3,000-year tradition in Armagh.

The apple annals say that St Patrick planted a tree near Armagh and King Billy is also reputed to have sent a cider maker to the county to quench the thirsts of his soldiers.

Be that myth, or be it legend, there's no dispute that modern day artisans like the Troughtons take their cider making seriously. And at Ballinteggart House, it's essentially a family concern.

Philip's wife Helen, son Mark who's the master cider maker, and daughter Kelly, who's in charge of accounts, make up the workforce.

Helen and Mark both studied cider making which Philip says is all about science over art.

"The science you can learn, but the art you can only acquire from experience," insists Philip, who enjoys the arrival of autumn despite its pressures. "I look forward to it, because we can sell a few apples and get a few pounds in. The cashflow in the industry is horrendous."

Last year, apple growers in County Armagh reported one of their worst crops on record due to low pollination levels and heavy rain.

But Philip is hoping his harvest, which will start on Monday by hand and with the aid of machinery, will be rosier. "This year we had a very late Spring, but it jogged us out of a period of time when we would have had frost damage, but we had a good summer. It won't be an exceptional crop, it will be a reasonable one, but hopefully it will be twice as big as 2012."

Once the harvest is over, Philip is planning to grow more varieties of eating apples in his orchards, moving away from the 'monoculture' of the traditional Bramleys for which Armagh is renowned and revered. As well as the eating apples, he aims to produce more cider apples for mixing with the Bramley for his drinks production.

The number of apple growers in Armagh has fallen dramatically in recent years and there are fewer young people coming into the business.

"That's because of the economics," says Philip. "It's hard, long work and I would be afraid to count up my hourly rate of pay. It would be embarrassing. But, then, that's the case for all farming."

Diversification is the name of the game and Philip's planning to turn his apples and cider-making into a tourist attraction – and not just in the autumn, or at that Apple Blossom special time of the year in May, when there are already guided trips in the county for visitors who want to see the trees come alive with their distinctive pink and fuchsia flowers.

In the US and Canada, autumn itself is a lure for countless tourists, who will drive thousands of miles to witness the deep earthy colours of the fall, when leaves turn from green to gold, orange, or red before doing what it says on the American tins – falling. 'Leaf peeping' they call it.

The seasonal changes aren't quite so spectacular in Ireland, where autumn is a bit like Marmite, liked and loathed in almost equal measure.

It's a time which serves as a staging post, an interlude, if you like, between the year's two extremes. For some, it's the Goldilocks season when after a summer which is too hot and before a winter which is too cold, the autumnal temperatures can be just right.

But the seasonal adjustments can be surprisingly quick to thrust themselves on the unsuspecting Irish.

Only a few days after weather forecasters were warming to 25 degrees of sunshine at Murlough Bay this week, they were warning of night-time frosts.

And there's nothing quite like a hint of a morning mist on a windscreen to bring a shiver to an unprepared motorist and a mental memo which is invariably forgotten to stock up with de-icers for the months ahead.

And talking of ice, autumn's also a season when a visit to Morelli's, or Maud's, can become an indulgence, rather than a cooling down necessity.

It's also a crunch time which brings out the inner child in many people as they kick or stomp their way with glee through piles of fallen foliage on footpaths.

Indoors, come September, windows which were flung open with complete abandon and absence of fear of agile burglars are shut in autumn as sleep becomes easier in the sweat-free dead of night. However, as one window shuts, another one opens – the window of opportunity for some oil distributors who are regularly the target for radio phone-in ranters, who accuse them of cashing in on the emergence from hibernation of central heating systems across the land.

But that flick of the on-switches is also invariably greeted by the sound of thousands of people kicking themselves because they didn't order their fuel before the prices went up as the temperatures went down.

And, just as the nights darken, psychologists say people's moods in autumn can also turn blacker and bleaker with the anticipated advance of winter and the depression associated with the reduction in daylight hours and the rise in colds and flu.

The winter woollies aren't necessarily the fashion in autumn, but thousands of people will get the first heads-ups about donning warmer clothes from their feet, which demand the replacement of thin cotton socks with their thicker woollen big brothers.

And talking of brethren, autumn isn't all bad news, because it normally brings the curtain down on the marching season and memories of a long hot summer on the streets are pushed to the back of people's minds. Until the next one. Or, God forbid, another winter of discontent over the flying, or non-flying, of flags.

For sedentary sportsmen who wouldn't walk the length of themselves at any time of the year, the temptations of two live Premiership football matches in the new season on the box on a super Sunday can be just the thing to put off the jobs that the wife says need doing around the house.

Mind you, the missus might be the very one who welcomes the advent of the autumn TV schedules with the shows the programme-makers didn't want to waste on smaller summer audiences. And at the cinemas, the family fun fantasies aren't choking every multi-screen as the Hollywood moguls reckon it's safe to unleash their blockbusters on grown-ups weary of barbecues and caravans instead of bored kids on their school holidays.

The same goes for theatres, which suddenly awake from their summer slumbers and temporary closures to showcase the sort of plays which wouldn't have been conducive to putting bums on seats in July or August.

On the roads, too, there are more dramas as the return of the school run helps bring the traffic jams back to the M1 and the M2.

Autumn is also a time of new beginnings, new promise and new hope for children and teenagers kicking off on new academic journeys and the season's arrival and the accompanying departure of the silly season is welcomed too by the media all over the world. Apart from Northern Ireland, where the news may be crazy, but never silly in the summer.

The G8, sectarian clashes and the death of Seamus Heaney ensured that news editors here were never short of a story.

And as for the great bard of Bellaghy, he once talked of how John Keats' Ode To Autumn had been an inspiration to him as a schoolboy. "It was the ark of the covenant between language and sensation."

Belfast Telegraph


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