Orchards and places by Common Ground

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the environmental and arts charity Common Ground, we are delving into their archives to publish an occasional series that explores the background thinking and inspiration to much-loved projects like Apple Day, Community Orchards, Parish Maps, Tree Dressing Day, Seasonal Schools, and the rich seams of Local Distinctiveness that runs through it all. If you would like to write essays, poems or anything else in reply to these archival reaches, please do get in touch as we’d very much like to invite new writing in response to Common Ground’s fine work. 


“What can your eye desire to see, your ears to hear, your mouth to take, your nose to smell, that is not to be had in an orchard, with abundance of variety?”
William Lawson, 1618, A New Orchard and Garden


To define an orchard seems an easy task: a parcel of land with a few fruit trees. But orchards are much more than this. There is a long tradition of orchards being used for many different purposes, and valued for many reasons. In medieval times orchards were used for tournaments and games, and William Lawson himself suggested that they were the ideal place for a ‘bowley alley’. A ninth century plan of a monastery garden in France depicts an orchard combined with a cemetery. William Cobbett, in Rural Rides, comments critically on the old Kentish practice of inter-cropping, growing “apple trees, cherry-trees or filbert trees and hops in the same ground . .  . and then they cultivate the middle of the ground by planting pota­toes.” Farm orchards have also traditionally been grazed by cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. Associated with country houses, they have been highly valued as gardens for walking, picnicking and relaxing. The orchards would themselves have contained a variety of different fruits, plums, pears, medlars and apples: peaches, nectarines and apricots were grown as well in sheltered positions or against a sunny south-facing wall.


Modern orchards break with this tradition, with their close-packed ranks of bush trees, permanently staked, heavily pruned, and some growing in bare, herbi­cide-scorched earth.


The best orchards are ambiguous places, “poised between the purely useful vegetable garden and the purely ornamental garden.” (John Stilgoe). Their ambiguity is what makes them so special as places to reclaim for all of us to enjoy.


The importance of orchards

Few of us are without strong memories of fruit trees. Ruskin describes the garden of his early home with characteristic vividness, evoking personal memories of childhood play and a source of irresistible temptation:


“Renowned over all the hill for its pears and apples . . . and possessing also a strong old mulberry tree, at all white heart cherry tree, a black Kentish one, and an almost unbroken hedge, all round, of alternate gooseberry and currant bush: decked, in due season, with magical splendour of abundant fruit: fresh green, soft amber, and rough bustled crimson bending the spinous branches; clustered pearl and pendant ruby joyfully discoverable under the large leaves that looked like vine. The differences of primal importance which I observed between the nature of this garden, and that of Eden, as I had imagined it, were that, in this one, all the fruit was forbidden . . .”
( in Praeterita, 1899)


Orchards and fruit trees have inspired and nourished art, painting, poetry and literature, perhaps more than any other aspect of our surroundings. Many poets have written of them. According to the Bible, our first home was among the fruit trees, and the fruit thereof determined the human condition. A scene from Shakespeare’s Henry IV takes place in an orchard belonging to Justice Shallow (which, it is said, provides evidence that Shakespeare was a countryman). An orchard can be a powerfully evocative place.

Apple Day was launched by Common Ground in October 1990 and the first celebration was in Covent Garden.


Fruit trees, particularly when grouped in an orchard, can make beautiful and distinctive landscapes. Orchards were once common throughout Britain and were found in town and country alike. Norwich was described in Tudor times as “either a city in an orchard or an orchard in a city”. In medieval times, fruit trees flourished in the gardens of the City of London.


Covent Garden, before becoming a thriving fruit market in the eighteenth century, was the ‘convent garden’ of the Abbey of Westminster, surplus fruit being sold from the garden as far back as the eleventh century. Orchards have strong associations with particular areas. They have given Kent its name of the ‘Garden of England’; the Vale of Evesham still conjures powerful images. The valleys along the southern coast of Devon and Cornwall were well known for the beauty of their fruit blossom in spring.


Place names frequently bear testimony to the past importance of orchards and fruit trees. A district of Aldgate in London used to be known as Blanch Appeltun, or the ‘apple orchard belonging to Blanch’. Modern housing estates, on the edges of villages and towns also often reveal associations – Orchard Mount in Leeds and Summerhouse Orchard in Glastonbury.


Many old varieties and types of fruit have local associations. John Gerard’s Herbal of 1633 noted, “every county and many parts of each county producing some sort or other of fruit not known in the next, or at least giving them other names.” The local naming of varieties is itself intriguing. Many are named after farms where the fruit was first found, or after local people who raised or discovered them. Others may simply be local descriptions of widespread varieties. The Blenheim Orange apple, for example, boasts 67 different local names.


Orchards are also valuable places for wildlife – animals, birds, insects and plants. They have long been enjoyed for this. William Lawson wrote, as early as the seventeenth century, “The blackbird and the throstle . . . sing loudly in a May morning and delights the ear much, and you need not want their company if you have ripe cherries or berries, and would as gladly rest do your pleasure; but I had rather want their company than my fruit.” While John Birtles, farming in twentieth century Somerset, describes the wildlife in one of his orchards in 1988:


“. . . It provides nesting sites for the green, lesser and greater spotted woodpeckers, and insect-eating summer visitors are dependent on the food which abounds in the leafy canopy. Owls can always be found, badgers setts, foxes earths. Songbirds, blackbirds, songthrushes, finches and all the tit family groups,and in the late summer evenings the bats.”


Orchards don’t have to be old to support a rich and diverse wildlife. Artist David Measures visited a modem orchard on a commercial fruit farm in Nottinghamshire once a week during 1988/9. He describes the links between the orchard and wildlife:


“Fruit drops to the ground around the trees leaf drop. It ripens and rots providing a food source for insects, birds and animals, between the rows are gangways of turf, the combination ensuring an increased supply of earthworms attracting hedgehogs and moles. In autumn, Red Admirals sip the overripe juices. Blackbirds are attracted all the year round and over wintering thrushes, fieldfares and redwing feed at the fallen fruit until they depart. Shelter for blossom and fruit is provided by the rows of trees, formerly Lombardy Poplars, more recently alders that have the advantage of carrying cones and catkins when there is no leaf. The catkins, birds and foliage attract tits, the alder cones support goldfinch and during the winter unusually large flocks of siskin.”


Bees thrive in orchards, too, and perform an invaluable job in pollinating the flowers of the trees in spring to ensure a good crop later in the year. Beehives were often kept by fruit growers in a corner of the orchard. Nowadays, beekeeping is also a business and commercial fruit growers have special pollination contracts with beekeepers in other regions. The blossom of fruit trees is an important source of pollen for bee colonies, enabling them to build up the population and in good years produce surplus honey.


Orchards yield more than just fruit and honey. Wood from fruit trees is much valued by craftsmen. Pear wood, traditionally used for making harpsichords, has good texture and finishing qualities and is used for carving. Apple wood is well known for its hardness and was used for the cogs in mill and wheel gearing mechanisms and the heads of golf clubs. Cherry and mulberry both produce attractive woods, sought after by furniture makers. The trend towards dwarfing trees has made good lengths of apple and pear wood increasingly hard to come by. Mistletoe  grows best on old apple and pear trees, and is still harvested in Herefordshire and sold in an annual market at Tenbury Wells.


Disappearing Orchards

Orchards are disappearing at an alarming rate. Statistics collected by the Ministry of Agriculture* for orchards in commercial production, suggest that in the last 30 years the total area has declined by two thirds. Around 150,000 acres have been lost. Certain parts of the country have experienced greater losses than others. Devon, which in 1883 enjoyed the second largest acreage of orchards of any county after Herefordshire, lost more than 7,000 acres between 1905 and 1978. Ministry of Agriculture figures suggest that almost 90% of Devon’s orchards were lost between the 1970s and 1990s. In 1935, Wiltshire (never a major fruit producing area) had small orchards scattered through 70% of its parishes mainly growing fruit for local consumption. Now, the area of orchards in Wiltshire is only 5% of what it was 50 years ago. Today fruit production is highly concentrated in just a few areas, with Kent containing around half the national orchard acreage.


By far the greatest proportion of the loss of orchards can be put down to conversion to other kinds of agricultural use, mainly arable. In Devon, almost 85% can be attributed to agricultural conversion: farmers finding there was more money to be made from other crops. Substantial grant-aid from the Ministry of Agriculture has encouraged the grubbing-up of orchards. A large area has also been lost to new development, housing or industrial estates and new roads. Old orchards on the edge of villages and towns are frequently considered by planners and developers to be second-rate agricultural land and therefore ripe for improvement. While grants to grub-up old orchards were withdrawn from November 1988, the development threat to orchards is growing. Unless we act now to defend old orchards, the current relaxation of planning legislation is likely to cause further losses.


The decline in orchard area has not necessarily meant a decrease in fruit production. Bush trees on dwarfing rootstock dominate in new orchards which are planted with more than 300 trees to the acre. A traditional standard cider orchard will comfortably support around 50 trees to the acre. The effect on the landscape is dramatic, and on the land – to sustain such high densities of planting (often with just two or three varieties), alongside the use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Despite higher planting densities, in 1987 the UK imported almost two-thirds of the apples used in this country and over half the pears. The proportion of our fruit consumption met by other countries is steadily increas­ing. Today you would be hard pressed to find a cherry orchard outside of Kent, and even there 85% of the area has been lost in the past 30 years.


Varieties too are changing and diversity is being lost. Old local varieties are being replaced by types favoured for their keeping qualities, regular cropping and appearance, rather than taste. Statistics show that Cox Orange Pippin and other Cox clones accounted for more than 63% of all dessert fruit produced in this country in 1986, and Bramley for more than 90% of all cooking apples. In 1952, the figures were 45% and 52% (of area) respectively. Cider and perry production is changing too. The big commercial cider producers actually use fewer and fewer real cider apples and Perry pears, and import fruit concentrate from overseas and dessert fruit from Kent and East Anglia. The Somerset Branch of the National Farmers Union estimate that in 1987 at least 70% of the cider produced by British manufacturers was made with imported fruit. Traditional perry pears and cider varieties are as a result in decline, as are traditional cider orchards with their large standard trees and grazing pasture.


Very few commercial fruit producers are today planting orchards with stan­dard trees. The traditional role of the orchard in the local economy and farm life is in decline. New orchards are no longer used for grazing or intercropping, and specialisation has become the commercial grower’s maxim.



Orchards for the future

We need to find a place for orchards in the future. A greater diversity of home-grown fruit – apples, plums, cherries – should be available in local shops and supermarkets. But orchards are more than simply places of production. An annual fruit crop is an important feature of a fruit tree but should not be the sole justification for planting them. Orchards are valuable places of local cultural importance, for wildlife, the landscape and recreation.


Old orchards and fruit trees should receive special protection. With care and attention, fruit trees – on the right rootstock – are capable of living for well over 100 years and still produce fruit. Even a fallen or leaning tree can continue to produce fruit as long as at least a third of its roots are still in the ground. Pears are very long lived, a characteristic that has given rise to the saying ‘plant pears for your heirs’.


Every parish would benefit from a community orchard. By growing varieties and types of fruit with local associations, parish orchards or fruit gardens would enhance the distinctiveness of places. We could have orchards for streets, schools and hospitals. Real fruit trees, not just ornamental kinds should be planted in and around towns and cities. And as global warming takes hold, peaches, walnuts, apricots and figs may become commonplace in many parts of Britain.


We need more challenging thoughts and imaginative visions like William Morris’s view of Trafalgar Square in News from Nowhere:


“We came presently to a large open space, sloping somewhat towards the south, the sunny site of which had been taken advantage off or planting an orchard, mainly, as I could see, of apricot trees, in the midst of which was a pretty gay structure of wood, painted and gilded, that looked like a refreshment stall. From the southern side of the said orchard ran a long road, chequered over with the shadow of tall old pear trees, at the end of which showed the high tower of the Parliament House, or Dung Market.”


Fruit Trees

Wild pear, sloe (or blackthorn), crab and ‘gean’ are ancestors of the plums, apples, pears and cherries grown in gardens and orchards today. Our forebears made full use of the fruits of these wild relatives. Sloe was used for dyeing and a constituent of home-brewed wine; crab used in cooking and to make verjuice, a kind of vinegar and precursor of cider. Wild fruits are still widely used, notably to make crabapple jelly and sloe gin.


Fruit trees can be grown from pips or stones but the resulting tree will never produce fruit exactly the same as its parent, as fruit trees do not grow true from seed. Many of the fruit trees we find growing wild in hedgerow, along railway embankments or on ‘waste’ grounds, are unlikely to be truly wild but rather ‘wildings’ or throwbacks of cultivated, domestic varieties – perhaps a result of a discarded apple core. As Edlin noted: “man’s roving and untidy habits tend to favour the spreading of fruit and nut trees at the expense of those that bear other types of seeding structures.” Perhaps no more than any other tree, the fortunes of the fruit tree have been intimately bound up with people on the move. Thoreau called the apple tree “the most civilised of all trees”, being “longer cultivated than any other, and so more humanised.”


In fact, many of the well known varieties have grown-up purely by chance, from discarded pips or stones. The fruits of some of these wilding trees are quite palatable. Bullace, which is similar to sloe, found in hedgerows, has a sweet taste and is thought to be an early type of cultivated plum.  The Victoria plum, one of the most popular varieties, was found growing wild in a Sussex wood in the 1830s. The Newton Wonder, a much praised cooking apple, was discovered owing in the thatched roof of a pub at King’s Newton in Derby­shire. Other fruit varieties in common circulation have been the result of careful and controlled breeding, by dabblers, nurserymen and scientists. Victorian nurserymen have given us many fine varieties – Allgrove of Slough is well known for plums, and Thomas Laxton of Bedford for his apples. Modern horticultural research stations have bred many new varieties. Yet few of those introduced recently can compare with the older varieties. Cox’s Orange Pippin and Bramley’s Seedling both originated over 150 years ago and have become the mainstay of commercial fruit production. In fact, two of Laxton’s most successful apples, Epicure and Superb, owe their existence to Cox’s Orange Pippin which was one of their parents. At Brogdale Experimental Horticulture Station in Kent, there are orchards containing over 500 distinct varieties of pear, 223 cherries, 350 plums and more than 2,000 apples. These ‘National Fruit Variety Collections’ are the most comprehensive in the world and form an essential resource for the breeding and testing of new varieties. The future of the Collections is now under serious threat due to the withdrawal of government funding.


“So much for the more cultivated apple trees . . . I love better to go through the old orchards of ungrafted apple trees, at whatever season of the year, so irregularly planted; sometimes two trees standing close together; and the rows so devious that you would think that they not only had grown while the owner was sleeping, but had been set out by him in a somnambulic state.” (Thoreau).


Old orchards are an invaluable reservoir of increasingly rare varieties of fruit – some of which might not be represented at Brogdale. And we must not forget the wild fruit trees. Few are still allowed to grow in woods and plantations, and as their numbers dwindle so do the chances of new sports which may bring new flavours and culinary properties. Oliver Rackham knew of only 4 true wild pears in Eastern England, and all of them growing in isolation in medieval woods. The wild trees and old, local varieties are the irreplaceable sources of genetic diversity and the disease resistant strains of tomorrow.


Originally published by Common Ground in the 1989 pamphlet Orchards: A Guid to Local Conservation. The photographs in this essay are by James Ravilious, who was commissioned by Common Grounding the late 1980s to document orchards in the West Country as part of the visual argument for conserving orchards and initiating projects like Apple Day.




Common Ground is an arts and environmental charity working both locally and nationally to seek new, imaginative ways to engage people with their local environment and celebrate the intimate connections communities have with the wildlife and landscape that surrounds them. It was founded in 1983 by Sue Clifford, Angela King and the writer Roger Deakin with the idea of Local Distinctiveness at its heart, and for the last forty years it has captured the public imagination with projects like Apple Day, Parish Maps, Trees, Woods and the Green Man, Community Orchards and New Milestones.

*Now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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