I’m always deeply fascinated by the stories of old orchards and, of course, of the fruit trees that were grown within them. I have to admit though that I’m usually so focused on the trees and their fruit that I probably don’t pay anywhere near as much attention as I should to the wider, human story that orchards tell. These stories speak of the role of orchards in the lives of the people who planted, worked and harvested from them, and the lasting effects and influences of orchards on the character and geography of the places in which they have been planted.
In English Orchards, a Landscape History the latter subject is explored in compelling manner by Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson, two landscape historians from the University of East Anglia, who are co-authors of a number of books to-date, including The Orchards of Eastern England: History, Ecology and Place (2021).
In the first part of this, their most recent work, they discuss the development of two broad classes of orchards – farmhouse and commercial, or garden and institution; categorised according to scale and function – within the English landscape. They also point out how difficult it is to distinguish between these classes, for instance: there’s no simple set size at which a farmhouse orchard is considered large enough to be commercial in scope; each orchard therefore needs to be considered within the wider agricultural character and economic activity of the area or region in which it’s located, at the time at which it was in active production.
The middle section of the book examines the fluctuating importance of orchard planting to the agricultural economy of the fruit-growing regions of England, as well as particular districts that became strongly associated with orchards. These areas of the country include the western and south-western counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Devon; the south-eastern ‘garden of England’ in Kent, and the East Anglian counties and fenlands.
Each area has been strongly associated with different classes of orchard and different methods of planting and maintaining them. The authors explore them in turn, highlighting the key characteristics of scope, purpose and fruit preference that gives each region its own fruitful flavour, and reveal how localised approaches to orchard growing have changed over time. The general picture they paint is one of small beginnings, rapid expansion fuelled by industrial growth and then almost inevitable post-WWII decline. A clear pattern emerges that is repeated, with regional variations, in almost all the main fruit-growing areas.
The available historical records show that, from the sixteenth to mid nineteenth centuries, orchards tended to be associated with individual farms or country estates, with anywhere from half a dozen to a few hundred trees providing fruit for food, cider production and wood for fuel. Around this period there was a larger concentration of orchard planting in the west country and one rather interesting reason the authors give for this is that the region’s relative lack of suitable land for growing malting barley to brew beer. This resulted in a preference for cider production, hence the requirement for more orchards to supply the apple mills.
The period 1850 – 1950 has been dubbed by the authors the “orchard century”; characterised by a rapid expansion in orchard planting fuelled by two main driving factors. The first is the periodic waves of agricultural depression, when the price of staple crops such as wheat and barley was driven down by cheaper imports from the British colonies. This encouraged, or in some cases necessitated farmers to diversify their crops, often leading to the establishment of fruit plantations. Almost inevitably though, investment in orchards would often cease entirely, or even lead to their removal and the return of the land to arable use, once prices recovered.
The second factor, and perhaps the more significant over the long term, was the rapid and widespread development of the railway network. This vast improvement in transport links allowed growers to supply not only their local market, or nearest large city – as per the fruit farmers of Kent and London – but a much wider catchment area; sending fresh fruit from the West country to the industrial metropolises of Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield or Leeds was now a simple matter of daily logistics. The expansion of fruit growing led to the expansion of fruit processing, with jam-making and canning factories opening initially in the urban centres, and later moving to the fruit-growing areas themselves, but always within easy reach of a branch line.
Eventually though, the growth and development of orchards tipped into mass-decline and retreat, as post-WWII farming methods and the pursuit of ever greater economies of scale demanded the grubbing up of high-maintenance, unprofitable orchards and the tearing out of thousands of miles of hedgerows to allow the land to be made suitable for the ever-larger, machine-managed arable farms1Although I don’t think it was mentioned in this book, I’ve read elsewhere that a massive part of the national psyche at the time was shaped by the determination to avoid the near-starvation that the nation experienced in the early War years, at all costs. A great many orchards stood in the way of that quest for food security and surplus, and paid the inevitable price.. A simple graph (fig. 38, p. 123) of the total area of orchards over 1 acre in size demonstrates the catastrophic decline that took place between the mid-50s and the mid-80s, beginning well before Britain’s entry to the Common Market, and only continuing, albeit at a slower pace and with a few fluctuations, to the present day.
The next a section of the book gives practical advice for those seeking to study and assess old orchards, taking into account their original purpose and subsequent phases of development. Here was revealed a profound truth about the essential character of ‘old’ orchards: what we think of as ‘vintage’ orchards, full of ‘heritage’ trees, are unlikely to be quite as venerable as we might imagine.
On the basis that apple trees usually live for around 125 years at the most before succumbing to the forces of time and decay – pear trees a little longer, plum trees rather less so – it is therefore highly unlikely that a ‘veteran’ orchard is going to be a survivor of anything other than the 1850-1950 Orchard Century. The drive towards the mass-planting of a limited number of ‘improved’ cultivars considered suitable for supplying urban markets, or making into jam, means that the majority of ‘veteran’ orchard trees are highly likely to be one of only a small range of varieties.
Compared to the limited range of cultivars available in today’s supermarket, an orchard of trees whose names we don’t recognise from our shopping trips may seem exotically ancient. But those varieties are far more likely to be cultivars that were bred in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries for their customer-friendly appearance, storage potential, or disease resistance – much the same criteria used in breeding programmes today – than older, truly ancient varieties of fruit.
There are a few exceptions, of course: farm or estate orchards that might grow and preserve rarer, hyper-local varieties. But again, it’s much more likely that these trees were planted by a landowning enthusiast, or a conservation-minded organisation such as the National Trust, within the last 100 or so years, rather than be ancient survivors of a pre-industrial era2Hence the vital importance of DNA-bank and ‘library’ orchards, such as that at the National Fruit Collection in Brogdale, where older types are kept alive and presumably maintained through onward grafting of failing trees to new rootstocks..
Finally, Barnes and Williamson finish with a look to the future, talking about the ecological, cultural, historical and social importance of orchards. They examine the role of old orchards in promoting biodiversity, but sound a note of pragmatic caution, when they point out that, according to research, orchards aren’t all that different to mature woodland in terms of the number and range of species they support, aside from some fairly orchard-specific insects3For an alternative view of the ecological value and biodiversity of orchard spaces, see Orchard, A Year in England’s Eden by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates (2020) which describes a much richer eco-sysyem based on their year-long observation of a particular old orchard in Wales..
They also sound a note of warning: orchards are, by their very nature, managed landscapes which, without constant intervention, are relatively quickly subsumed by the stronger plants and trees of scrub and copse. This element of intervention and management means they have no place in the rewilding agenda that’s currently gaining popularity and momentum. Without a requirement for the food they provide, it may be difficult to make an economic or ecological argument for their preservation and future expansion, except on grounds of maintaining the genetic diversity of apple stocks against the possibility of future disaster and the ongoing and potentially accelerating challenges of climate change.
However, Barnes and Williamson do also argue – and very successfully so to my mind – that the wider, deeper value of orchards is immense: as places that provide a link between our present-day lives and the cultural, historical and psychological influences that have shaped our personal and social development over the past few centuries. The true value in preserving an old orchard, or in planting new orchards that in time will develop the character of an old orchard4As opposed to a commercial apple, pear or plum plantation geared solely towards supplying the rapacious demands of the supermarket supply chain. does partly lie in creating a habitat for however so many creatures will naturally make it their home. But perhaps even more importantly it thereby brings an element of the natural world into the accessible reach of many, less economically advantaged, members of society for whom a leisurely car journey and a Sunday afternoon yomp around the hills and fells might not be an option, or even a notion. Or, as the authors put it:
“In these crowded, long-settled islands, nature is not something that can usefully be regarded as separate and divorced from us, something to be curated, observed and visited on discreet reserves. Human management – and then a measure of neglect – has created in old orchards an important habitat for a variety of rare organisms. But perhaps more importantly, orchards are places where a wide range of less obscure wildlife can be sustained close to the human world, rather than isolated from it. Whether we are thinking of orchards located beside farmhouses; old ‘institutional’ examples; or new ones created in villages, suburbs or cities, orchards more than any other habitat have a close association with the places where people live.”5G. Barnes and T, Williamson, English Orchards, a Landscape History, p. 199
Orchards and, as many before me have suggested, particularly community orchards, offer a sense of purpose, of belonging to a place and an associated tribe, that is of enormous benefit in terms of the physical, mental and social health of their participants and supporters; far more so than any park or play-area, or any distant, often out-of-reach, AONB or SSSI.
I was absolutely fascinated by English Orchards, a Landscape History and found myself flying through it. Barnes and Williamson successfully strike a balance between academic rigour and scholarly erudition on one hand, and an accessible, compelling narrative tone on the other, resulting in a book that is both readable and enjoyable whilst remaining above all hugely informative. I came away from the book with a new appreciation of the wider, human story of orchards and fruit-growing in general; a legacy of hard work and innovation, success and failure, rapid growth and even more rapid decline, that has shaped and influenced the rural and urban societies of this nation for centuries.
I highly recommend English Orchards, a Landscape History to anyone with an interest in the deeper back-story of orchards in England, the future preservation and expansion of orchards, and the essential value of orchard trees to the wellbeing and health of the people and societies of our green and pleasant land.
English Orchards, a Landscape History by Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson is published by Windgather Press, an imprint of Oxbow Books, (r.r.p. £34.99). You can order a copy direct from the publisher, via Amazon.co.uk6If you buy a copy of the book via this affiliate link, I’ll earn a small referral fee, which I promise to put towards buying more orchard-related books. and it should also be available from a number of independent high street and/or online booksellers.
- 1Although I don’t think it was mentioned in this book, I’ve read elsewhere that a massive part of the national psyche at the time was shaped by the determination to avoid the near-starvation that the nation experienced in the early War years, at all costs. A great many orchards stood in the way of that quest for food security and surplus, and paid the inevitable price.
- 2Hence the vital importance of DNA-bank and ‘library’ orchards, such as that at the National Fruit Collection in Brogdale, where older types are kept alive and presumably maintained through onward grafting of failing trees to new rootstocks.
- 3For an alternative view of the ecological value and biodiversity of orchard spaces, see Orchard, A Year in England’s Eden by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates (2020) which describes a much richer eco-sysyem based on their year-long observation of a particular old orchard in Wales.
- 4As opposed to a commercial apple, pear or plum plantation geared solely towards supplying the rapacious demands of the supermarket supply chain.
- 5G. Barnes and T, Williamson, English Orchards, a Landscape History, p. 199
- 6If you buy a copy of the book via this affiliate link, I’ll earn a small referral fee, which I promise to put towards buying more orchard-related books.