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Monday, October 1, 2012

on the grape vine

I was quite taken by a tiny grape vine at a friend's home in south west France just recently. It stretched across a single wire between two small posts, groaning with luxurious plump bunches. It looked happy and content nestled against the side of my friend's house. Perfectly positioned to capture the warmth of the southern sun with an uninterrupted view of the Pyrenees.

I was captivated by the size of the vine, its massive crop and the freshness of the fruit, only moments from harvest. How could I have not noticed this before, just walked by?

The story was soon relayed to me. Alex (my friend) planted the vine several years ago. It was a present from her sister, Charlie. Bought by Charlie at Hampton Court Palace on one of those rare plant sale days. Charlie knew full well Alex would tend it, love it and appreciate its extraordinary history.

This very grape vine is a cutting from the original grape vine planted at Hampton Court Palace in England in 1769 by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. To me, this is mind boggling!

Capability's legacy has spread as far as south west France! His grapes are growing strong here, year in, year out and have even found their way to my table. How glad I am I spotted the tiny vine growing in Alex's garden and asked the question.

We devoured the bunch (above photo) Alex gave us and we savoured each and every grape. Indulging ourselves as we did so in the romance of the past and with grateful thanks to her, to Charlie and to Capability and to those in between who have cared enough to preserve this precious, living, important monument from our past.

Alex's home in south west France is also a B&B. If you love great food and great comfort with stunning views look no further. Find Alex's details at If you look carefully, on the very far left of the house, in the photograph on the website's front page, you can just see this precious vine.

The following notes from might be of interest:

The Great Vine in the Hampton Court Palace Gardens is the oldest and largest known vine in the world. Here's what the palace staff have to say about this remarkable grapevine:
The Great Vine is more than 230 years old and 36.5 meters (120 feet) long. It is believed to have been planted by Lancelot "Capability" Brown around 1768, during his time as Surveyor to George III's Gardens and Waters. The vine is also the oldest plant in the palace gardens, having come from a small cutting at Valentine's Park in Essex (which no longer survives)
The Great Vine was first planted in a glasshouse built to house Queen Mary's collections of exotics from the tropics. Its roots were planted outside, and its branches were trained inside the glasshouse, which measured 18 by 4 meters (60 by 13 feet). By the 1790s, the vine was thriving so much that the glasshouse had to be lengthened by a further 3.5 meters or 11½ feet.
In 1800, the girth of the trunk was 330 mm or about 1 foot. In 1887, it was already 1.2 meters or 4 feet around the base; today, it measures 3.65 meters or 12 feet around the base. Its longest rod is 36.5 meters or 120 feet.
The current aluminum Vine House was built in 1969. It incorporates wrought-iron Victorian supports. The rebuilding was unique as it was the first time a glasshouse was built around a plant. Both the frame that supports the Vine and the viewing gallery (still used by the general public) come from a 19th Century wooden vine house.
The Vine was first shown to the public in the 1840s when Queen Victoria opened the gardens to the public.
The Vine usually blossoms in early May with small and fragrant flowers.
The crop is usually harvested in September. It takes the Vine Keeper around three weeks to remove all the grapes. The crop averages 500 to 700 bunches of grapes that weigh 220 to 320 kg (507 to 705 lb). The largest recorded crops of grapes from the Vine were 1,800 bunches in 1798 and 2,245 bunches in 1807.
The grapes, which are black and sweet, have always been used by the Royal household as dessert grapes. In 1930, however, George V started sending the grapes to hospitals, and within five years they were being sold to palace visitors. Today, the full crop of black eating grapes is sold to visitors in the palace shops in late summer or early autumn.
In 1933, the grapes were 6 shillings per pound. A shilling of this went towards the baskets in which they were sold. These baskets were specially made by soldiers blinded in the First World War.

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