On a sunny day in October, a peaceful old orchard becomes a hive of activity. It is time to harvest the apples and pears weighing down the branches of the fruit trees at Hambrook House on the edge of the Cotswold Hills.
This four-acre walled garden produces a bumper crop of fruit every year, including many rare varieties. But some 20 years ago, it was a very different story, with the 300-year-old orchard overgrown and neglected.
“It was a wilderness of brambles, nettles and rubble, with a derelict hut and a roofless barn,” says Scott Carleton. He is the owner of the land, with Graeme Alexander. They bought the 17th century farmhouse 30 years ago. Then they discovered that the property had owned a neighbouring orchard for 200 years, until it was sold off after the Second World War.
Perched on a hillock in the orchard was a strange addition, a 30ft-high (9.1m) church steeple, sitting on top of a grassy mound. This had been erected by a previous owner of the house, the Rev John Pring, 150 years ago. It came from St Michael’s Church at nearby Winterbourne, where it was deemed unsafe after being struck by lightning. The Rev Pring had it dismantled and rebuilt in his orchard.
“There was no church to go with it,” says Scott. “Instead, a flight of steps in the mound led down to a door and a mysterious stone-walled chamber with the word Gerizim carved above it.” For many years this was generally thought to be a Georgian ice house. It is now believed to have been built as an apple store.
Graeme and Scott determined to buy the orchard back and return it to productivity. “We wanted to restore the house and its land as they had once been, as part of the history of the area,” says Scott. But two centuries of neglect were not easy to eradicate.
“Four or five cows which wandered round the orchard had made a path between clumps of bramble and coarse vegetation, such as thistles, dock and ragwort,” says Scott. “One of the bramble clumps concealed a car. Most of the others concealed agricultural equipment, including an old harrow and parts of carts, including huge wheels. On the positive side, it was a haven for wildlife.”
It was hard to tell that the approximately 50 remaining trees were even there, as there was considerable dead wood. Many were almost strangled by a crippling intrusion of ivy. “In some cases, there was only a few feet of growth at the very apex of the trees.
A disease called fire blight had ravaged them too,” recalls Scott.
The two men were keen to preserve as much wildlife as possible, while returning the land to being a thriving orchard. “We wanted to only gradually change an environment which clearly supported birds, bats, snakes and hedgehogs,” he says. “We were concerned about how much we would be affecting the food chain, so we decided to ask for help.”
Advice on planting and upkeep came from both South Gloucestershire County Council and specialists from the former Long Ashton research station (LARS). This agricultural and horticultural government research centre was created in 1903 to study and improve the West Country cider industry. It later expanded its work into fruit research, but closed in 2003.
Scott and Graeme consequently drew up a 10-year plan. “We commissioned two surveys from LARS, a year apart,” says Scott. “The first one was in September 1996, before we started work. A number of samples of fruit and leaves were taken to the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley in Surrey for identification. Most of the trees proved to be very tall pears, possibly dating back to 1853. There were some apple trees, but they tend not to live for more than 100 years, whereas pears can live up to 300 years.”
The couple were told they had a ‘Beurre Diel’ and nine
‘Dr Jules Guyot’ pears, and some possible ‘Wellington’ apple trees, also known as Dumelow’s Seedlings. “It’s actually not easy to identify fruit trees as there are variations even within a variety,” says Scott. “We had one expert telling us our pears were for perry-making and another who said they were culinary.”
The report advised against removing the dead wood wholesale. Insects feed on the dead wood and, in turn, provide food for birds. “It did say we should chop down any sizeable rotting branches in case they fell on anyone,” says Scott.
Clearing the land
It was suggested they begin by cutting paths with a mower to the individual trees and then a circle round them.
“The mowing was to be without a box so the grass cuttings could be left to feed the trees,” says Scott. “It was recommended that we gradually cleared all the existing overgrown material. The intervening areas between the trees should be allowed to grow annually to encourage wild flowers. It would then be cleared in the late summer or early autumn.”
They were advised to spread a good scattering of well-rotted farmyard manure evenly on the cleared area, at three ounces per square yard. If they did not have that, they could use a balanced fertiliser which is high in nitrogen and potash.
“We mowed where the five cows had meandered. Gradually over a decade, with some help, we cut down the coarse vegetation. The cuttings were left on site to rot down and become a habitat for creepy crawlies,” says Scott.
Once the trees could be accessed, the next step was to prune them. The dead and some of the living branches were removed to let in light and air.
Sadly, many of the trees were beyond saving and had to be taken out. However, they managed to keep 60 of both apple and pear. “We had a lovely time choosing our 40 or so new trees. These were mainly eating apples, because we were concerned new pear trees would get fire blight. We went for a combination of taste, historical association, disease-resistance and their names,” says Scott. “Who could resist such wonderful old-fashioned names like ‘Chorister Boy’, ‘Christmas Pearmain’ and ‘Gillyflower of Gloucester’? Then there is the ‘Leathercoat Russet’ mentioned by Shakespeare, the ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ dating back to around 1700 and the ‘Court Pendu Plat’. The latter was possibly grown by the Romans, who are said to have brought apples into Britain originally.
“We planted many of them in a traditional quincunx pattern of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its centre,” he says. This pattern of planting allows each tree to receive equal amounts of light. It also allows easier access for mowing, weed control and fruit collection.
“They came with mistletoe implanted in them. We have two pairs of mistle thrushes who nest here and dine lavishly on the mistle berries.”
Among the new trees are rarer varieties. These include one called ‘Berkeley Pippin’, which was thought to be extinct and is now on the critical list, and one ‘Golden Knob’.
“The reason some apples are rare is that they fell out of favour,” says Scott. “Either the flavour wasn’t as good as new varieties, or they were disease-prone, or didn’t crop well, bruised easily or looked ugly. We love the taste of ‘Berkeley Pippin’, which is a dessert apple, and our ‘Golden Knob’, but its apples are tiny and not good-looking. The tree is small and doesn’t crop every year, so it isn’t practical for commercial growers.”
The new apple trees were one-year-old maidens, and looked like twigs. However, these maidens establish better than large trees. “It felt a long wait but, at the end of the 10-year plan, we have a productive orchard,” says Scott.
The orchard is now mown four times a year to help the wildflowers, such as buttercups, dandelions, bugle and lady smocks, which already grew there. “We also planted yellow rattle, but it doesn’t appear to be growing,” says Scott. “The
soil is so good that coarse vegetation grows quickly and overwhelms the wildflowers.”
As the site was improved, more trees were planted, including cherries, plums, quinces, hazels, a sweet chestnut, and a mulberry. The orchard is now snowy with blossom each spring and heavy with fruit in the autumn.
“An orchard is always one of the most beautiful and tranquil places to be,” says Scott. “It looks its best in the autumn when the fruit is glowing in the trees. We often find fungi like waxcaps, puffballs, field mushrooms and bracket fungus on the orchard floor or on the trunks.”
Bottling the juice
“Most of the apples are sent off for juicing. A proportion of the crop goes to a couple of Bristol restaurants who want unusual local varieties, especially from an orchard run on organic lines,” he says. “We don’t produce many pears, as the old trees are past production and we have only a few young ones. What we have also goes for juicing.
“Our reward is a number of bottles of apple juice from the farmer. These we label ourselves and use on festive occasions. A lot of it goes as Christmas presents.”
Windfalls are left on the ground for birds to devour, such as the redwings and the fieldfares, as well as bats, mammals and insects.
Over their two decades of labour Scott and Graeme have taken great joy in their orchard. “It was very satisfying to see the orchard gradually shape up and get back to how it must have looked in its heyday.”
Chamber of mystery
At first, Scott and Graeme accepted the consensus of opinion that the bee-hive shaped stone chamber beneath the steeple was an ice house. “An 1870s OS map described it as such,” says Scott. “And not far away was a long, stone-faced ditch which could have been a small canal, useful as a source of ice.”
This had seemed to convince writers Sylvia P Beamon and Susan Roaf, who included it in their book The Ice-houses of Britain (pub 1990). However, they did add that a surveyor who visited the orchard in 1977 thought the chamber was an apple store.
“This would explain the word Gerizim,” says Scott. “It’s a Biblical reference meaning fruitful mountain. It would fit in with it being the creation of the Rev Pring whom CHB Elliott, in his book Winterbourne, Gloucestershire (pub 1936), describes as a very keen gardener. It explains why there is neither drainage nor an insulated passageway normally found in an ice house. It also accounts for the iron mesh door and vents in the mound as ice houses would never need ventilation. Any gaps would have been stuffed with straw and hay.”
As for the steeple, it emerged that it had been struck by lightening at least twice before it was finally moved. Once was in 1583 when it was described as “piteously wrecked” and
again 10 years later. However, on the third occasion, in 1827, it had virtually expired.
The chamber has been restored and is now Grade II listed. An 18th century weather vane was regilded and placed on top of the spire during the year Scott’s parents celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. “And now we have put a memorial to my mother in the entrance,” he says.
Scott makes one last tantalising suggestion. “Gerizim was one of a pair of Old Testament mountains, so its twin, Ebal, may also still be around. Does anyone know?”
Seventy-five per cent of Gloucestershire’s orchards have been lost in the past 50 years. Changes in farming include the introduction of chemicals and intensive growing for high output. Many small, mixed family farms with sheep and cattle grazing in the orchards have gone. Grants were given to grub out the old orchards, to increase the amount of land for food production.
On top of this is a lack of demand for the type of apples grown. Supermarkets sell imported apples all year round, leaving many people unaware of the seasonality of fruit. It is no longer the practice to buy apples to store in sheds or a cold room.
The early 1990s saw a revival in the county’s orchards, when it was realised that those left were under threat of disappearing. In many cases, only one tree remained of some local varieties. In 1992, a Restoring Our Landscape grant was introduced by Gloucestershire County Council. This lasted for approximately five years and successfully resulted in more than 3,000 orchard trees being planted. The Gloucestershire Orchard Trust was set up, and now has 150 members. Its aim is both to conserve threatened species and revitalise the fruit growing industry. Over the last decade, a special effort has been made to locate and identify local varieties. These are grafted or budded on to other trees, to save them.
Words: Victoria Jenkins Photography: Will Goddard
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