Orchard Visit: Hidcote, Gloucestershire

This post is the second of a set of four, talking about the orchards that I visited on a trip to the Cotswolds in June 2021. The other orchards are those at Snowshill Manor, Painswick Rococo Garden and the Museum in the Park in Stroud.


Veteran trees in the old orchard at Hidcote, June 2021

Hidcote is one the best-known and best-loved of the National Trust’s garden-focused properties. The garden was created and nurtured over several decades by Major Lawrence Johnston, who bought the property on behalf of his mother Gertrude in 1907 and continued to develop the gardens – with an interruption for his service in the first world war – from then until it passed to the National Trust in 1948.

Hidcote has been heralded as “England’s most influential twentieth-century garden”[1] for the great variety of garden styles on display in a series of individually themed ‘rooms’, and for the sheer breadth, depth and quality of the planting they contain. The vistas the visitor sees today are as close as possible to the original planting schemes introduced and arranged by Johnston, who was a superb botanist, plantsman and avid plant collector, who travelled widely during his lifetime and brought in plant specimens from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.

For a great many gardeners, the name ‘Hidcote’ will also be strongly associated with the gorgeously deep blue Lavandula angustifolia cultivar introduced and named by Johnston. I wasn’t looking out for the lavender though, when we visited on a sunny summer’s day in June. As usual, I mainly had eyes for the fruit trees. And what a wealth of orchard spaces Hidcote offers.

There are three main areas of orchard planting: the old orchard, the new orchard and the trained trees in the kitchen garden. Depending on the route the visitor takes through the gardens, the old orchard is likely to be the first that they encounter: through the exotic plant house, bear left towards the long border and then duck off to the right. Suddenly you find yourself stepping out of what, on a lovely day such as the one we visited on, can be quite a busy, bustling, tourist-packed garden, into a cool, calm green oasis of veteran trees, wildflowers, birdsong and an intensely serene, natural beauty.

Mown paths through the grasses and wild flowers draw you in and invite you to explore. My wife and I were there early enough to be the only people around, which allowed me to take some delightfully interruption-free photos. It was absolutely magical:

These veteran trees have certainly seen some decades. A great many of them are gnarled, twisted, scarred by past branch losses, carpeted by shaggy mosses and coated with creeping lichens:

There are also signs of former trees long gone, but rather than clear away and replant to fill the gaps, the gardeners at Hidcote have left some dead wood in-situ, allowing decay to provide food and habitat for a variety of insect and arachnid species; all part of the natural cycle of any well-managed veteran orchard:

I emailed the gardens team at Hidcote to ask whether they had any information on the trees in the old orchard, and Assistant Head Gardener Sarah Davis very kindly replied, saying that they’re actually something of a mystery: “We have no records of apple varieties or a map as to their location. I believe there has always been an orchard on this site, and Lawrence Johnston, the creator of the garden created the Long Borders cutting straight through this area. Indeed, some of the original apple trees were incorporated into the borders themselves with roses growing up them. In the 1960’s the National Trust ring barked them and they were felled once they had died. The borders have been without apples since then.”

An orchard that pre-dates Johnston’s purchase? So some of the trees could have been planted long before 1907? How fascinating! I wonder if the National Trust might consider sending material to the National Collection at Brogdale for genetic analysis of the varieties? That would be something to discover.

Hidcote’s second orchard space is the new orchard, which was planted around thirty years ago and is sited beyond the gardeners’ working area[2], between the long borders on one side and the kitchen garden on the other. The space here is clearly more visitor-oriented, with surrounding grass mown flat to allow access for picnics and seating:

It’s still a very lovely space – I haven’t yet met an orchard that isn’t – but even though the trees here are mature, it does feel very new in comparison with the old orchard, and its very different purpose gives it a more modern character. I’m sure the trees here[3] are more productive than those in the old orchard though – veterans tend to produce less and less fruit as they reach a considerable age – and Sarah told me what happens to the fruit: “In the past,” (which I assume would be the before-times, pre-pandemic) “when we had an allocated member of staff, we collected the apples and sent them to Pershore to be made into cider. Sometimes the restaurant has apples for their menu. Again, when we had staff and volunteers available to pick them we would put them in the potting shed for visitors to buy. We leave windfalls on the ground for over wintering birds, and the orchard is alive with Redwings, Blackbirds and Fieldfairs.”

Moving anti-clockwise from the new orchard – assuming you can resist the allure of the magnificent long borders – you’ll find the kitchen garden. Here a number of espaliered trees provide structure, form and an effective wind-break for the crop-planting areas:

I’m a big fan of espaliered trees and it was heartening to see the pear fruitlets (above) had set well and were just beginning to swell. Here’s hoping the Hidcote kitchen garden enjoys a good crop this year, and that the pandemic will have eased enough to allow more volunteers in to help pick and distribute the fruit.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Stephen Lacey, Gardens of the National Trust (2016)
2 The propagation glasshouse is right in the middle of the area accessible to visitors, rather than being tucked away in the back-sheds as it usually is; my money is on this being one of the tidiest working areas in the country…
3 Of course, I was so busy taking photos that I forgot to make a note of the cultivars on display… memo to self: must keep better records!

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