Fruit Forum

Traditional Orchards for Commerce and Community

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Orchards have long been a feature of our countryside, especially in Kent and the West Country, but over the last forty years traditional orchards of tall standard trees grazed by livestock have been disappearing at an increasingly alarming rate. Many were replaced by modern intensive plantations of dwarfed trees, first adopted in the 1970s, but tragically many more were lost altogether under the plough and the developer’s concrete. The fight  to save and revitalise traditional orchards, underway by the late 1980s, was to good effect it seems in Somerset and Gloucestershire, the two counties that form the subject of James Russell’s aptly named Man-Made Eden.

Days Farm in Brookethorpe near Gloucester, for example, is a thriving business supplying locally produced fruit  and juice from a rejuvenated old orchard. In Somerset Wilkin’s Farm House Cider, little changed since the days of Roger Wilkin’s grandfather, has a loyal following of cider pilgrims drawn from far and wide. The well known Burrow Hill Cider and Royal Somerset Brandy comes from orchards of standard trees that Julian Temperley continues to plant and who has recently bought the largest standard orchard in the country - 75 acres planted more than 30 years ago by the cider company Showerings, and scheduled  to be grubbed but now safe and fully functional. Local councils, concerned at the damage been done to regional landscapes through the loss of orchards, have been generous in their support: Somerset County Council gave grants for planting standard apple trees (£10 per tree) that resulted in 15,000 trees planted between 1986 and 1996. Gloucestershire Country Council in 1991 introduced ‘Restoring our Landscape’ grants and helped found the Gloucestershire Orchard Group to ‘conserve, promote and celebrate traditional orchards’ while the conservation charity Common Ground launched a national campaign to save orchards.

This is an absorbing account of the author’s journeys and discoveries which trace out the development and recent decline of orcharding in the West Country. From the legends of the Isle of Avalon and the activities of the Medieval monks of Glastonbury the story moves across the centuries to Lord Scudamore’s celebrated and profitable Red Streak apple that put quality and national renown into Hereford’s cider. There is detective work on the identity of Dr Ashmead of Ashmead’s Kernel fame and investigations into the fate of the vast orchards planted by Lord Sudeley at Toddington, Gloucestershire, in the 1890s. This remains a fruit growing area, although on the modern intensive system that traditionalists do not count as proper orchards, damning them more like vineyards.

Russell is nostalgic for the old times and all the community and cultural life that went with traditional orchards, yet also realistic arguing that campaigns and conservation schemes can only work if people want the apples, if the fruit can be sold or used. The future of  standard trees in the cider orchard looks hopeful with cider’s popularity soaring. For juice making where, as with cider appearance is not important, the standard tree can continue to fulfil a productive role, but whether it will share in the revival of interest in old apple varieties is more problematic.

Niche and wider markets are opening up for seasonal apples with memorable flavours, as the successful Charlton Creech orchard of June and Robin Small near Taunton demonstrates, and other growers around the country are now selling a wide range of apples. Most of these, however, will not be grown on standard trees, but on dwarfing rootstocks as spindles to achieve good looking, good sized, disease free fruit.  We will have to accept some imperfections in our fresh fruit to save the much loved standard, although blemishes may not matter in the context of  Community Orchards, of which hundreds are now established throughout Britain, maintained by local people who share the crop.

A thought provoking, engaging and  informative book that everyone interested in the countryside will enjoy. Well illustrated with contemporary  photographs plus a  directory of  local producers and other useful contacts, Man-Made Eden is a valuable addition to the fruit lover’s library.

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The idea of a Community Orchard was first suggested by Common Ground’s founders, Sue Clifford and Angela King, in 1992. The same year they successfully lobbied for traditional orchards to be included in Countryside Stewardship Scheme and last year for them to be designated a UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Habitat. Now they have produced the handbook, Community Orchards, with guidance on rescuing old orchards, planting new trees, setting up a neighbourhood scheme to look after them and much more.

Case notes on successful community orchards  - over 300 now exist in the UK - are used to illustrate each step, from interesting local people in the plight of a threatened orchard, how to keep them engaged in the project and what to do with the fruit. A ‘wonderful opportunity to be innovative and generous, it should not be a burden’ and the authors give examples of  juice and cider making schemes using mobile mills and presses,  and novel ways to sell and circulate fruit. Orchard Live in Devon holds an annual Apple ‘Boot’ Sale in South Molton, Symonsbury Apple Project in Dorset a Fruit Swap Day when people can exchange surplus fruit and in Waltham Forest in East London, Organic Lea picks fruit from people’s gardens, leaving 20% with the owner and distributes the rest to clubs, markets and food projects in the borough.

The issues covered are wide ranging, not only on the practical aspects but also the  business of  choosing the right legal structure to manage the Community Orchard, ideas for funding and lists of organisations and orchard groups, which can give help and encouragement. Stamford Community Orchard Group, for instance, have been planning and raising money since 2004 and at last found a patch of land.

Conservation designations, crucial to any campaign, are covered: Tree Preservations Orders do include fruit trees, which are automatically protected in a Conservation Area. Orchards can form Local Nature Reserves, but it is up to us to ensure that they get recognised in local authority plans, that is the new Local Development Frameworks; every Parish Council should have a copy of this book!

As one has come to expect of books from Common Ground, this is beautifully produced -  well designed, clearly written, full of inviting pictures and appropriate for its function. A handy A5 size and spirally bound making it  easy to flick through the pages and display a section, it is certain to become an indispensable guide.

Joan Morgan

Man-Made Eden, Historic Orchards in Somerset and Gloucestershire; with photographs by Stephen Morris; published by Redcliffe Press Ltd, Bristol; 156 pages; numerous colour photographs; £15.00

Community Orchards; Handbook by Angela King and Sue Clifford; published by Common Ground; 225 pages; many coloured illustrations; £10 + £3 p&p from Common Ground, Gold Hill House, 21 High Street, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP& 8JE (01747 850820)