I’ve always loved books, ever since I was a lad. The house in which my wife1Thankfully, Jo is almost as bookish as me, in the best possible way, and although she’s not quite the helpless collector that I am, she does love a good book. and I now live contains a lot of books, on a wide range of subjects. The shelf space taken up by a particular theme or genre tends to expand and contract in line with our2Okay, mostly my… waxing and waning levels of interest in that subject area. Orchards, fruit-growing and fruit in general being my latest otaku3A Japanese word which, as I understand it, means something like “much more than a hobby, but not quite an all-consuming obsession”., I have amassed quite a decent collection of fruit books, a lot of which I’ve bought second-hand.
Which brings me on to the subject of this particular ramble: the additional bits and bobs of ephemera4According to the Mirriam Webster dictionary: “paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles”. that you’ll occasionally discover tucked into the front, back, or middle of a book that was once owned by someone else. Clippings from newspapers, shopping lists, handwritten notes on a the subject at hand. All of these things provide a point of personal connection with a previous owner of the book you’ve just happened to buy – often online in my case, therefore sight unseen, and so with no idea at all that it might come with a small snippet of bonus material – and their discovery always provides me with a moment of quiet joy5And can sometimes lead to an unexpected session of historical orchard detective work..
Here’s my latest discovery, which I found taped into the back pages of my copy of H. V. Taylor’s The Plums of England:
Just a simple list of fruit trees drawn up by a nursery to send to a customer, but it contains a wealth of detail to unpack and explore. Let’s dive in.
Snitterton Hall in Matlock, Derbyshire, is a Grade I listed house and associated estate with a history stretching back as far as the Domesday Book, according to Wikipedia and DerbyshireHeritage. It was was derelict in 1997 but was subsequently restored, apparently by, or with the involvement of, Bench Architects and was last sold for a very tidy sum indeed6I’m sure one source suggested around £3 million, but I can’t seem to find it again via my browser history..
Back in 1952, when the above receipt or invoice was issued, the property was owned by one Major Francis Ernest Gisborne Bagshawe and his wife, so I’m going to assume that the Mr. F. F. Board cited on the paperwork was the (head?) gardener at the time.
The firm from whom the trees were ordered – Clifford Proctor Nurseries Ltd. – is apparently still trading, as the Hope Valley Garden Centre7I’m pretty sure I passed the place numerous times as I travelled by train from Manchester to Nottingham for work a few years back. in Bamford. Back in 1952 they were selling half-standard fruit trees – which presumably meant they were on a medium vigour rootstock – for fifteen shillings each. Which means that Mr Board spent around £16/10/- (sixteen pounds, ten shillings) – possibly a bit more with the blackberry plant on top – on fruit trees, which is about £360 – £370 or so in today’s money.
Here’s what Mr Board bought, presumably at the behest of one of his employers, who clearly had a taste for gages:
- 2x Bryanstons Gage (Taylor lists it as ‘Bryanston Gage’)
- 2x Denniston’s Superb
- 2x Early Transparent Gage
- 2x Green Gage
- 2x Jefferson
- 2x Laxton’s Gage
- 2x King of the Damsons
- 2x Merryweather [damson]
- 1x Himalayan Giant Blackberry
- 2x Doyeux de Comice [pear – ‘Doyenné du Comice’?]
- 2x Pitmaston Duchess [pear]
- 2x William[s] Bon Chretien [pear]
All of which sounds like the making of a particularly fine plum and pear orchard to me; I’m a huge fan of gages myself, so planting six varieties – ‘Jefferson’ and ‘Denniston’s Superb’ are both described by Taylor as being gage-like in appearance and flavour – sounds eminently sensible.
Of course, I now have another list, this time of questions – many of which I don’t think are answerable, sadly – such as: were the trees intended for a new orchard, an orchard extension, or to fill in a few gaps in an existing orchard? Why no apple trees? Was there already an established apple orchard at Snitterton Hall? Did Mr Board prefer to order his apple trees from elsewhere? What was the plan for the extremely vigorous, extremely thorny ‘Himalayan Giant blackberry’?8And does Stewart Waine know about that one? Wait, what am I saying, it’s still available, from Chris Bowers, so 50p says Stewart has one already and has crossed it with at least three other cultivars by now…
But the most important question of all has to be: does the orchard still exist? A quick look at Snitterton Hall on Google Maps and a quick browse of the photos on the Bench architects website reveals formal-looking gardens, a veg plot with glasshouse and cold frames set within a walled garden – were the fruit tress ordered in 1952 originally grown on those walls? – and, to the northern edge of the gardens, a section of mature-looking trees. That close to the house, and within what appears to be a walled-off area, they could be fruit trees? If so then they could quite possibly be some of trees that were bought from Crompton’s in the 1950s; 70 years is within a reasonable life-span for a plum tree, and is barely middle aged for pears after all.
There’s also a moated area to the north-east of the main house, a scheduled monument according to Heritage England. Details are sparse, but this could be the site of the original hall or dwelling that pre-dated the construction of the current house in the seventeenth century? Or, could it maybe be the site of an older orchard? It wasn’t unheard of for valuable fruit crops to be protected by moats to keep out cattle, sheep and fruit-stealing scrumpers. And, yes, a quick look at the National Library of Scotland’s OS map collection reveals that this may indeed have been the case, at least at some time between 1892 and 1914, when this particular survey series was carried out:
Those neat rows of tree symbols usually indicate an orchard, which suggests that the site of the current walled garden was given over to fruit trees, as was the moated area and quite a bit of the space to its immediate south. But the area to the north of the house appears to have included a lake or large pond, so I suspect it’s more likely that the surrounding wooded area would have contained woodland trees rather than fruit trees – and you can spot the difference in the OS map symbols – and so it’s presumably those trees, or their descendants, which survive there today. So, probably not an orchard, but that still leaves the walled garden and the moated area – Snitterton Hall must have been blessed with quite a lot of fruit trees, back in the day.
Of course, a lot could and no doubt would have changed between 1892 and 1952, but it’s tempting to think that the plum and pear trees that Mr Broad ordered from Clifford Proctor Nurseries Ltd. were intended to complement, or perhaps replace, some of the originals that were indicated by the symbols on the OS map, either in the walled garden or out by the moat. And it’s also tempting to think that some, or even just one of those trees might have survived to this day, perhaps tucked away in a corner of the walled garden, quietly producing a crop of ‘Doyenné du Comice’ or ‘Denniston’s Superb’ year on year.
I don’t think Snitterton Hall is open to the public at the moment. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of promotional website, or an entry on the National Garden Scheme website, so I’m assuming it’s still in private hands. Which means that, unless the present owners happen to read this piece and wouldn’t mind leaving a comment below to let me know if they still have any fruit trees, then I guess I won’t be able to find out any time soon. Never mind. Its been interesting to explore and speculate from afar.
How about you? What’s your favourite bit of fruit-bookish ephemera? How did you come by it? What sort of back-story does it hint at or reveal? Do please let me know, via the comments.
- 1Thankfully, Jo is almost as bookish as me, in the best possible way, and although she’s not quite the helpless collector that I am, she does love a good book.
- 2Okay, mostly my…
- 3A Japanese word which, as I understand it, means something like “much more than a hobby, but not quite an all-consuming obsession”.
- 4According to the Mirriam Webster dictionary: “paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles”.
- 5And can sometimes lead to an unexpected session of historical orchard detective work.
- 6I’m sure one source suggested around £3 million, but I can’t seem to find it again via my browser history.
- 7I’m pretty sure I passed the place numerous times as I travelled by train from Manchester to Nottingham for work a few years back.