At home with the Nicholson family whose ancestors brought the Bramley apple to Armagh and created the Orchard County
Murdered vicar and his son, linen baron, Gold Rush prospector, founder of Armagh's apple industry and successful TV executive - Lorraine Wylie discovers the varied lineage of a family which first settled here back in 1588
It's known as the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, but Armagh's other title is Orchard County. St Patrick may have sown the seeds of Christianity, but it was local man Henry Joseph Nicholson, who in 1884 planted Armagh's first Bramley apple tree. Now, just over a century later, the apple industry is in full bloom.
Keen to know more, I arranged to visit Crannagael House, the Nicholson family's ancestral home and the place where Armagh's love affair with Bramleys first began.
Thirty-seven miles from Belfast, just off the main Ardress Road, Crannagael House, enjoys an enviable location. From its hilly standpoint, the two-storey, grade 2 listed Georgian property overlooks a stunning display of rolling drumlins and lush green fields. As though mindful of the surrounding beauty, the property is dressed to impress. Its walls, covered in Boston Ivy, are at their best in autumn when the shiny green leaves turn red, transforming the house into a fiery blaze. Not to be outdone, a wisteria at the side of the property shows off with shades of purple and adds a unique fragrance to the country air.
Today, Crannagael House is home to John and Jane Nicholson, their friendly terrier, Toby, and his feline chum, Maisie. With formalities out of the way, the couple usher me into their cosy family room and, while John goes off to make coffee, Jane gives me a brief run-down of who's who in the Nicholson clan.
"The first Nicholson to come to Ireland was the Reverend William Nicholson. He came over from Cumbria in 1588. At that time, Elizabeth I was trying to Anglicise Ireland. So, in his role as vicar, William was sent over to help. I suppose she wanted him to come and settle the natives!"
Instantly likeable and with an infectious chuckle, Jane speaks rapidly as though trying to cram as much information into one sentence as possible. John takes a more measured approach, weighing his words with care.
"When William first moved up here from Dublin, his parish was called Derrybracus," he says, dispensing mugs of milky coffee before settling into his favourite armchair. "Derrybracus extended from here, right up to the Moy. William lived at a place called Tallbridge House, not far from here, but it was burned in the 1641 rebellion and both William and his son were killed. His grandson escaped with his mother and nanny. Of course, the family returned and reclaimed the land. Time moved on, sons were born and, while some families went to live in Dublin, others stayed and got into the linen industry. Then James Nicholson bought this portion of land from his relatives at Tallbridge and in, 1760, built this house. The Nicholsons have been here ever since."
Jane joined the Nicholson family in 1974 when she married John. Born in England in the East Midlands area, her family moved to Northern Ireland when Jane was a teenager. Initially, she found the locals difficult to understand.
"Both my parents had been in the RAF and when they were demobbed, they had to find work. Dad found a job with Goodyear, the tyre company. Later, Goodyear opened a factory in Portadown and offered dad a managerial post. There were a lot of grants and everything so we moved over - lock, stock and barrel, plus an old pony and some guinea pigs. I was 14 and couldn't understand a word people were saying. They seemed to have trouble understanding me too because at school they told me I spoke too fast and had to slow down. School here was a major shock because, back in England, I'd attended an all-girl's school. Suddenly, I was in a classroom with boys. I was painfully shy then and it was quite an eye-opener."
Having settled into her new home, did Jane have any specific career plan in mind?
"I hadn't a clue," she laughs. "My sister had the brains in our house. I loved animals, especially horses so I'd go around trying to scrounge a horse, asking people if I could take the animal out for some exercise. But you can't make a career out of that. So I decided to go back to college. I lasted half a day and thought, 'I can't be bothered with that' so I did a year's secretarial course and ended up working in the Northern Bank."
The animal-loving, country girl rapidly discovered that banking wasn't for her so she decided to try her luck at journalism.
"I got a job - junior reporter with the Portadown Times but I was hopeless," she chuckles. "The editor gave me a 'woman's page' to do and it was absurd. Can you imagine, me doing that?"
I have to admit that, no, I can't imagine it at all. With a fashion sense that leans more towards Wellington boots and a cosy cardigan, Jane is happiest when digging in the garden or mucking out a stable. Writing about beauty products is not her scene. Her husband can't envisage it either.
"Jane has always been a bit of a tomboy," he grins affectionately.
How did the couple meet?
"I was going to a dance at the boat club," Jane recalls. "My mother didn't want me to go as the place had a reputation for being a bit rough and mum warned me I'd get hit on the head with a bottle. Anyway, I went along with my friend and I remember John getting into the car and giving off about the smell of our chips. When we got to the dance, I realised I'd left my purse behind and John had to pay my way in. I was mortified and anxious in case he thought I was pulling a dodge. I liked him at first but went off him half way through the evening, he was far too smiley and cheerful and I thought nobody could be that happy. It couldn't be genuine. So no, it definitely wasn't love at first sight."
At least she didn't get hit on the head with a bottle as her mum had feared.
"No, I didn't get hit on the head, I got hit on the leg instead," she deadpans. "Some bloke threw a bottle on our way past the loos."
Curious, I ask Jane how John eventually won her heart."Well the next week he took me to a dance at the Bodega (a bar in Portadown), where he had far too much to drink and started doing press-ups on the bar and I thought to myself, 'Oh this bloke's not so bad after all!"
Engaged on February 23, Jane's birthday, they married nine months later on November 23. I comment on the short engagement.
"Yes, it was a bit mad," Jane nods in agreement. "But, sure I was green as grass. After we were married I came to live here at Crannagael. John's parents were also living here at the time and John was farming. I loved it and was bowled over with the animals."
Once again conversation turns to the Nicholson's family history and Jane introduces me to one of their most famous characters, Henry Joseph.
"Yes, Henry Joseph brought the Bramley to Armagh. But the story of the apple goes way back to 1805, the time when Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar. Apparently, it all started in a cottage kitchen when a young girl, by the name of Mary Ann Brailsford, took some seeds left over from her mother's baking and sowed them in a flower pot.
"When they germinated and became too big for the pot, they were transplanted into the garden. Down through the years the tree continued to grow and the cottage changed hands until it was eventually sold to a Mr Bramley in 1846. To cut a long story short, the seeds found their way to a nursery owned by Messrs Merryweather in Southall."
John takes over.
"By this stage, my great-grandfather, Henry Joseph had married Emma McCallum, a lady from Nottingham, and they liked to travel back and forward to Southall. On one trip in 1884, my great-grandfather purchased 60 seedlings from Mr Merryweather and brought them back here to Crannagael. That was the beginning of the Bramley Apple industry in Armagh."
Last year, history came full circle when John and Jane went to Southall for the Bramley Apple Festival.
"While we were there I decided to look up Roger Merryweather, the great-grandson of the man who sold my ancestor the seedlings," he recalls. "We went to meet him and it was a wonderful moment when the great-grandson of the Bramley Apple breeder shook hands with the great-grandson of the man who brought them to Armagh."
Down through the centuries, Co Armagh has indeed produced some famous characters but when it comes to adventurers, the Nicholson family are hard to beat.
"John's grandfather, now he was an incredible man," Jane smiles, nudging her husband. "Tell her about the time he went to Canada and ended up going down the rapids in a barrel."
She passes the story baton to John.
"Well it all happened during the Klondike gold rush that started around 1896. Many people from Ireland joined the adventurers and went off to seek their fortune. My grandfather George Roe Nicholson was among them. However, the journey to the gold bearing parts of the Yukon river was tough and hazardous. Even if they arrived safely, the harsh weather and extreme living conditions claimed many lives.
"We don't know which route my grandfather took, whether or not he ventured by the infamous Chilkoot Pass is unclear. However, we do know that he hired a member of one of the local Indian tribes to act as his guide. At one stage of their journey they came to a stretch of treacherous rapids and, not to be outdone, they decided to go down in a barrel. The unfortunate tribesman was killed but my grandfather survived and spent some time living with a local tribe to recover."
Did he find gold?
"There is no record of him ever finding gold but he did eventually find his way to Vancouver where he bought a coal mine. Unfortunately, it was during the Great Depression so the mine didn't prosper and eventually he returned to the peace and tranquillity of Crannagael."
John explains how his own life took a dramatic change after the death of his father.
"When my father died I carried on farming for a while, but we soon realised this place was too big and we needed to do something to bring in more money. I'd been a keen member of the Young Farmers' Clubs and was their representative on the board at the BBC.
"When an opportunity arose for the position of agricultural reporter during the Eighties, I applied and got it. Through time I became Head of Agriculture and eventually moved into more general programmes. I ended up Acting Head of Television. It was a great time and we have some wonderful memories.
"But it soon became obvious that unless we moved to England I wasn't going to progress in the BBC, so Ian Kennedy (former Head of Television) and I started up our own production company called Straightforward Productions based in Co Down." The company made programmes for both BBC and UTV.
"We did several projects. Back then some of our political documentaries were quite scary to make. But one project I did enjoy was after George Best died we did a documentary on his father Dickie and the rest of the family. That was very special, lovely people."
"Oh that was a marvellous time," Jane muses. "The programmes, too many to mention, were amazing. There was a stage show, a musical called On Eagle's Wing. But the ones I really loved was the gardening show called Greenfingers and another about painting. We had some amazing guests, including Archbishop Robert Eames and the former gymnast Suzanne Dando. If only I'd thought to get their autographs."
While John was busy onscreen, Jane indulged her passion for horses.
"My friend used to bring in young horses and together we'd work on them then take them to Dublin and enter them in shows. I loved doing that," she says.
"When the children came along, I'd often leave them here with my mother-in-law and go off with my horses."
The couple have four daughters.
"We have Katie who is 42 and lives in France. She and her husband have two daughters, Chloe (8) and Ursula (6). Then there's Emma, she's 40 now. She married an Egyptian guy and their little boy, Omar, was born in January this year. In 1981 we had twins, Susan and Sarah. Susan lives between Portadown and Tandragee, her partner is a very successful mixed farmer. They have a son called Harry. Last but not least, is Sarah. She lives in a cottage, just down the drive, and has a little Westie called Jack."
As time went by, Jane discovered a hidden talent.
"Jane really has a knack for gardening," says John with a smile and begins to tell me about his wife's prowess in growing vegetables. "It must be in her genes. Her success actually led us to develop a small commercial industry."
When did Jane notice her fingers turning green?
"I do have a childhood memory of living behind a builder's yard in Devon," she recalls. "It had a scattering of soil on it and someone had dropped barley on the ground. As I watched it grow I was fascinated. Maybe the interest began there. But it wasn't until just after John's dad passed away that I even thought of gardening. He had started a vegetable garden but it had become overgrown. I remember looking at it and thinking people around the world would give their eyeteeth for an opportunity to grow vegetables. So, I started clearing the weeds and planted potatoes. That was it. I was hooked."
I accept Jane's offer to visit her garden and, on the way, she points out a self-catering apartment and, naturally, I'm happy to have a nosey round. Inside the three-bedroomed accommodation, the decor is attractive and cosy. With a fully fitted kitchen, visitors have everything they could want. But the real selling point is the view.
"Beautiful isn't it?" Jane says softly as she admires the orchards and countryside just beyond the window. "John and I planted the orchard here when we were first married, you know."
Outside, we make our way past a beautiful old fig tree, on through the orchard and into her beloved vegetable garden. All the while, Jane calls out the various varieties, plucking off leaves to offer me a taste.
"Is that rhubarb?" I ask, pointing to something with distinct red leaves.
"No," she laughs. "That's Swiss Chard and this is called oca, try that."
She hands me something that resembles a knobbly piece of pink ginger but tastes like lemon radish. Her delight in this earthy playground is written all over her face.
"There's nothing quite like your own produce. I mean, my sister is the same, she loves gardens. In fact, she lives up in Enniskillen and volunteers at Florencecourt so she has their gardens kicked into shape. Seriously though, the local restaurants here love our stuff." She sounds proud of her achievement, and rightly so.
Around the corner we come across a flock of guinea fowl, who shriek and run off as soon as they spot us. I ask Jane whether she keeps the birds for the table.
"Oh no, we keep them and our hens solely for eggs. We don't eat the guinea fowl mainly because we couldn't catch them!"
In recent years, Armagh has developed a reputation as a foodie's paradise and, as the home of the Bramley apple, its cider industry is a major tourist attraction. It seems only natural that the family responsible for the Bramley should be involved.
"Yes, the Food and Cider Festival is great fun," Jane grins. "We've done it for the past two years and all the vegetables used in the food were grown here. This year we're doing the Blossoms and Blooms - the apple blossom event, on Sunday, May 12, so that'll be exciting."
John joins us, carrying a box of eggs and a huge bag of what turns out to be Jerusalem artichokes, yet another knobbly root vegetable.
Making a mental note to google a recipe for the little veggies, I prepare to take my leave. As we look back, I tell Jane I'm impressed at how the couple manage to single-handedly care for such a big house not to mention, a self-catering apartment, a dog, a cat and a vegetable garden.
"Yes six bedrooms is a lot," she agrees. "It's a constant battle and it costs money. But generations of John's family have lived here in these rooms. My parents had a lovely retirement here and we've raised our family here too. It really is a wonderful place. The atmosphere is beautiful. I think John and I have been very fortunate."
For details about Crannagael and the Apple Blossom event visit www.crannagaelhouse.com or see them on Facebook