Damsons in distress:Thousands of visitors will gather to visit the orchards blossom in Cumbria this April

The Lyth Valley in Cumbria is one of the loveliest of places in Britain at any time of the year, but it takes on a special beauty during April when the damson trees are in blossom.

Today, thousands of visitors will gather to enjoy the spectacle, recreating a custom that virtually died out a few decades ago.

Underpinned by limestone, the area's alkaline soil favours damsons, and local people believe that the fruit produced here has an especially intense flavour.

Plum jam in jar and a piece of bread and jam

The damson's acidic flavour means it makes particularly good jam

In the years after World War II, there were 40,000 damson trees in the region and charabancs of sightseers and legions of hikers would descend to see the valley foaming with the white blossom of the orchards.

The damson's acidic flavour means it makes particularly good jam, and at the end of the summer, jam makers from all over the country would send trucks to collect large quantities of fruit. But as the 20th century wore on, the damson went out of fashion.

The cost of picking began to outweigh the value of the crop and they came to be seen as a speciality, at a time when food was becoming mass-produced. Commercial jam makers turned their back on it and the orchards were neglected.

Now, the Lyth Valley and its neighbour, the Winster Valley, are fighting back, thanks to the Westmorland Damson Association.

It started with a letter written by Peter Cartmell to the Westmorland Gazette, expressing his regret at the decline of the damson orchards he remembered from his youth, and wondering if anyone else felt the same way.

This led to a meeting at Crosthwaite village hall. 'We expected a few people to turn up,' recalls Mr Cartmell, president of the Association, 'but it was packed.' The newly formed association vowed to promote damson recipes and regenerate the orchards.

It has been a success story, publishing a cookbook, A Taste Of Damsons by Victoria Barratt and, every year, holds a Damson Day festival to celebrate the fruit and the products made from it, amid a setting of damson blossom.

This year's takes place today at Low Farm, in the Lyth Valley, and promises to be one of the best ever. Victoria herself sells damson gin from Cowmire Hall, at Crosthwaite, a magical 17th-century house that incorporates an ancient pele tower (a type of fortified keep).

'We make Christmas puddings from the damsons once they have been used for the gin,' she tells me. 'They sell very well.' John Holmes, who organises Damson Day, thinks they're spot on with this year's date.

'The whole valley should be glowing with the white blossom,' he predicts. With its displays of damson ice-cream, damson chutney and other damson products, 3,000 people are expected to visit the event.

Experts will be on hand to advise on growing damson trees, which tolerate most soils, except heavy clay, and should be planted about five metres apart. They dislike being shaded, and young plants will take eight or so years to come into fruit.

While many of the Lyth Valley orchards are old  -  some having been established in the 18th century  -  the association encourages new planting.

It can provide grants towards the cost of trees, and help with the crucial effort to protect them in their first years  -  unfortunately, deer like to nibble them.

In 1999, Valerie Harrison published a book of walks called Damson Country which, although now out of print, has been published online at www.crosthwaiteandlyth.co.uk.

Walk 11, a four-mile circular route that takes about two hours, climbs past two small mountainside lakes and provides glorious views of the Cumbrian countryside. Leave from the church of St Anthony, Cartmel Fell  -  a simple church hardly touched since it was built in 1504.

The whole of the interior lurches downhill towards the altar and the walls have long given up the effort to stand straight. From Cartmel Fell, you can look down on the Lyth and Winster Valleys  -  not quite the sea of white that it would have been in the 1950s but, with a lace of white blossom flowering on the twigs of so many damson trees, a glimpse of heaven nevertheless.

Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of Country Life.  

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now