Orchard Visit: Two at Phillips Park, Prestwich

Phillips Park Road, Prestwich, December 2021, once the main access route to the Park entrance from Bury New Road

Phillips Park, in Prestwich, North Manchester[1] is one of those faded remnants of a Victorian era country estate that are scattered across our part of the world[2]. Once the home of the Phillips family[3], today the estate is a council-run public park and nature reserve, criss-crossed with woodland walking routes and a mountain bike trail for the more adventurously included.

Despite living in Prestwich for over 25 years now, my wife Jo and I had somehow managed not to visit the park before this past week, but our lockdown-found fondness for long walks – coupled a spell of mild but rather wet December weather that has kept us off our allotment’s soggy soil – tempted us to explore the park. I was particularly pleased we did, as we discovered not one, but two new orchards within the park’s environs.

The first is the forest garden that has been planted up by volunteers from Incredible Edible Prestwich & District. It’s situated close to the fruit garden and nursery that the group has been running for around seven years now – which also includes some wall-trained fruit trees, although we didn’t venture in to take a look, there being no-one around to invite us in – behind the outdoor learning centre known as The Barn.

The forest garden fruit trees are dotted in amongst a patch of much more mature woodland and the labels that Jo and I spotted were attached to various plums and/or gages. They’ve not long been planted, so I suspect it might be a few years yet before they begin to bear fruit. I’ll be interested to see how they develop.

The second Phillips Park orchard is also newly-planted and at the moment is something of a mystery, with no obvious clues as to its origins or current caretakers.

Jo and I had spotted on the Phillips Park map that the site of the house’s kitchen garden could be found not far from the dilapidated stable block and across the lawn from the former location of the main house, so on our second visit we made a point of searching for it. Following the path that circled the lawn and rounding a stand of trees and rhododendron, we came across a dip, or dell, wherein the ground dropped steeply away towards the south. Could this be what we were looking for?

Two stone pillars still stand to mark what might once have been an entrance to a low-walled enclosure surrounding the dell, and a there’s a broken stone trough that might once have held water, perhaps run-off from a building or shed?

Although it would have been a little unusual to position a kitchen garden within sight-line of the house, rather than closer to the stables and other working areas of the estate, in this case it does make a lot of sense, given the topography of the site. Immediately to the south of the dell, the ground drops away quite steeply, effectively positioning it on top of a south-facing ridge. So not only would the kitchen garden have caught the best light, it would also have shed frost in winter, as cold air rolled down the dell and over the low wall at the bottom end[4] The walls around the dell would also have masked the gardeners from sight, should the sight of working men going about their muddy business prove unseemly to the eyes of the Phillips family and their guests.

The OS Map 1888-1913 shows what could indeed be a walled area at the south end of the lawn. In the following image you can see the kitchen garden, just above the label ‘South Wood’:

Intriguingly, there are still traces of brickwork to be found at the bottom end of the dell. Could these be the foundations of the original kitchen garden wall, or perhaps that small shed or structure shown on the OS map?

But I digress. I mentioned a second orchard, and this one has been planted up within the sloping dell. There are around a dozen trees – none of which were labelled, but most of which appear to be apples based on the size and shape of the buds and the patterns of the lenticels on the bark – surrounded by a bark-chipped path and with new steps cut into one of the sloping sides of the dell, so the space is clearly intended for public access.

The trees have all been staked and fitted with rabbit-guards and they appear to be around one to two years old, based on the amount of side-growth from the main stems. As you can see, they’ve each been provided with a good tree circle and mulched with bark chippings to help suppress the ground cover – although that will come roaring back in Spring and will most likely require re-clearing – so it’s I’d say they’ve been planted up by someone who knows what they’re doing.

I wonder who that someone might be? Is this another Incredible Edibles project? Have Bury Council added the trees in order to restore an element of food production to mark the site the old kitchen garden? Or is it the work of another group entirely? The path-work and bark-chippings suggest an organised effort, rather than any sort of geurilla planting, but at the moment there’s no signage to provide confirmation.

Well, whatever the origin of these trees, I think they provide a rather superb link back to the old purpose of the kitchen garden site. They should grow well in the dell, with plenty of light and shelter from the surrounding mature trees, assuming the ground cover isn’t allowed to swamp them[5]. I’m looking forward to making many further visits to the park to see how they develop in years to come.

In the meantime, I’ll make a few enquiries to see if I can find out whose work I’m admiring. But if you happen to know the answer already, then please do tell me, via the comments.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Or South Bury, depending on your point of view.
2 Manchester City Council’s Heaton Park is another prime example and there are many other former country estates nearby, homes of either the aristocracy or the nineteenth century nouveau riche industrialists who owned many of the mills and factories that this area was once renowned for. Other lost houses within walking distance of where we live include Polefield Hall and Langley House, both estates long since replaced by social housing, and a large part of the latter’s former land given over to the allotment site where we have our plot. A little further afield and westwards there was the likes of Agecroft Hall, Clifton Hall, and Worsley Old and New Halls. Worsley Old Hall is a Brunning and Price pub and the site of Worsley New Hall is now the RHS’s Bridgewater garden. And of course, there’s Ordsall Hall – still standing – where I work as a part-time gardener. I’m sure there are many, many more local examples that could be found via the National Library of Scotland map archive.
3 If you’re interested in the history of Phillips Park, there’s a detailed summary document by Sara Gremson, Ian Pringle and Diana Winterbotham, which is available as a pdf download from prestwich.org.uk.
4 The same topographical effect was put to good use at Quarry Bank, now a National Trust property in south Manchester. There the walled garden was built on the flat top of a ridge, but with no wall at all at the south end, which allows winter’s chill to flow freely down into the valley below.
5 I’ve seen that a few times too often in orchards that have been planted up on rough ground which hasn’t been subsequently managed. Always sad to see, and nearly always because the original project has come to an end and no-one can be found to carry on the hard graft involved in keeping an orchard space functional.

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