How apples and entrepreneurship brought the community of Congleton together
PUBLISHED: 16:45 11 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:45 11 October 2018
A thriving community and people keen to get things done mean things tend to end appley in Congleton
Community spirit in some towns is skin deep, but in Congleton it is at the core of everything they do. Take the response to having a few boxes of leftover apples at the end of a community seed swap event (or, indeed, holding a community seed swap event in the first place). Did they compost the apples? Well, that was the first thought, but they then decided to make use of them.
The apples were pressed into juice which was sold at the town’s Christmas fair and even if other towns had got that far, the chances are they would have left it there. Not in Congleton. This year they are hoping to collect 20 tonnes of apples from around the town which they will press on their own machinery to create more juice as well as cider and – new this year – cider vinegar.
The bottles are now sold not just at community events like the Christmas fair (this year being held on Saturday November 24) but at shops around the town and the community café.
It’s good stuff too; it must be, because the apple juice won the Product of the Year title in the 2016 Cheshire Life Food and Drink Awards.
Peter Aston has been involved from the start with the town’s sustainability group which collects and presses the apples. He said: ‘In 2009 was shown the Congleton town strategy. I said I thought it was quite light from an environmental point of view and I found myself chairing the Congleton Sustainability Group.’
Their first mission was to seek green flag status for local schools and a few months after they launched, they held that seed swap which resulted in ‘four or five boxes of unremarkable apples being left behind’.
‘I approached Eddisbury Fruit Farm and they said they’d need about 200kg so we asked around and found ourselves enough apples for 109 bottles of juice which all sold at the Christmas fair. The following year we planned for it and managed to 1200 bottles and starting selling them through farmers’ markets and local shops.
‘I had always wanted to make the juice ourselves and when the people at Eddisbury retired, we bought equipment from a company that had closed in Derbyshire and began to search for premises.
‘We found an old mill in a back street and fell in love with it. We moved in in April 2016 and decided to do everything on a volunteer basis and to use what people would donate. That’s when we realised we could do more than make juice. There was space for a café, meeting rooms and what you might call a community hub, so it all sort of came together.
‘We are as far from the modern, sleek corporate café as you can get, we’re more like your favourite auntie’s living room, and it all feels very cosy, comfortable and welcoming.’
This month marks the second anniversary of The Old Sawmill Café and they now offer work experience placements and a venue for community events as well as wholesome home-made food and some particularly fine cakes.
They have been making cider for some years now – ‘It’s flat and less harsh, or less full bodied depending how you look at it, than a West Country cider’ – and are now exploring more sophisticated techniques. They’ve also now expanded their range to include cider vinegar which can be a tasty addition to dressings, marinades and vinaigrettes and is reputed to have health benefits including reducing blood sugar levels and helping with weight loss. ‘Some of our older customers swear by it for inflammatory diseases, too,’ Peter added.
‘I don’t think things would have happened in the same way elsewhere. This is a town where people get things done. They can see that things can happen here and if they have ideas about doing things, it can be turned into action in a way that doesn’t quite seem to happen in other towns. It’s an amazing place really, with so much going on.’
One of the people behind many of the things going on in Congleton is Jo Money, the manager of Congleton Community Projects.
The group, which is based in the Electric Picture House, raises funds for projects around the town and hosts festivals, workshops, parades and all sorts of other community events.
One of their recent successes was the Congleton Play Day where the town centre became a huge play area with fitness groups, dance groups, board games, den building, arts activities and more. They also supported the new two week Heritage and Antiques Festival which closed on September 23rd.
Jo said: ‘We are community based and love getting the community involved. I know the town has always been community oriented. People have often said that they like to come here because of all the things that are going on.
‘My events are to serve Congleton and I love it, I love doing events and parades and festivals. The more you can offer people, the happier they are and the more they are encouraged to do things.
‘There is a tremendous sense of community here; there are more than 200 voluntary organisations in the town which we help to promote and we have the community café, the sustainability group, a contemporary arts centre, the Daneside Theatre. It’s a very busy, active town.’