Bearing fruit

As the British apple and pear season gets underway, gardening editor Alice Whitehead discovers how the burgeoning community orchard movement is offering a fruitful lifeline to heritage varieties, wildlife and local communities.

Bearing fruit

As the British apple and pear season gets underway, gardening editor Alice Whitehead discovers how the burgeoning community orchard movement is offering a fruitful lifeline to heritage varieties, wildlife and local communities.

It's not the dawn chorus or even the refuse collection that causes Bridport residents to stir in the early hours. Just as the sun hits the town hall clock tower, earlier risers can be greeted with the spectacle of half a dozen men walking towards Priory Lane holding long-handled scythes.
But it's not some ghoulish Night of the Living Dead reenactment that takes place in this Dorset market town – it's a reaping of a different kind. At 6.30am on a given day in late summer, around eight volunteers from the Bridport Community Orchard Group convene at their one-acre plot for the 'Breakfast Scythe'. Saved from its fate as a car park in the 1990s, they mow the orchard grass in the traditional way, before departing for their 'real day's work' at 9.30am.

Orchard revival
Far from being an unusual practice, however, it seems this thrill of orchard life – the sunrise scythe, the first pint from the apple press, the grafting and pruning – has taken root in Britain, with the development of community orchards at an all time high. From Norfolk to the North, communities are shunning the slim pickings of the supermarket shelves in favour of homegrown fruit – reinstating regional varieties and saving strips of urban sprawl and parcels of pasture for communities and wildlife to grow.
Of course, it's all in our blood. Ever since Henry VIII established the first large-scale orchards in Kent, Britain has had a hugely rich fruit heritage from perry and puddings to scrumping and cider and, up until recently, fruit trees were at the heart of every farm, country house garden or urban allotment.
While pressure on land for new houses and roads – and homogenous fruit imports in the 1960s – saw at least two-thirds of Britain's commercial orchards (and countless historic varieties) disappear, it seems our appetite for native fruits such as the Doyenné du Comice pear, Early Rivers cherry and Cox's Orange Pippin apple has returned.
'The demand for community orchards is quite literally growing and growing,' says Clare Stimson, a director at the East of England Apples and Orchards Project (EEAOP), which began propagating regional fruit trees in 2003 and over 12 years has made more than 25,000 heritage varieties available to the public, as well as running orchard maintenance courses. 'Community orchards are unique community projects because they offer hands-on skills, access to local food, conservation and socialisation, but at a level that's not too demanding.'

History in the making
As well as offering a lifeline to hundreds of heritage varieties that might otherwise be lost, community orchards are also reinstating ancient traditions and skills. Long before bare-chested Aidan Turner in BBC's Poldark brought scything to our attention, this was the main form of mowing in meadows and orchards. 'It's a wonderful, gentle activity,' says Bridport scyther Paul Arthur, who splits his time between his day job as a meteorologist and project managing the orchard. 'And it's also about encouraging wild flowers to grow.'
In January, Paul also joins other volunteers in an ancient wassail ceremony – keeping out the cold with hot cider, dancing and singing – while the wassail 'princess' pours cider on to the tree roots to ensure a good harvest. It's the same at Chorleywood Community Orchard in Hertfordshire, created in 2009 on the 170-acre estate of the 200-year-old manor house where the original ancient orchard grew. Here among the 140 apples, plums and cherries (28 of which are Hertfordshire varieties) they run moth and lichen events and blossom walks, and the orchard is a haven for people and wildlife.
'Children can see how apples grow and press their own juice, we've organised Burns Night haggis and cider tastings, created our own cider club and run Apple Days,' says Michael Hyde, treasurer for Chorleywood Orchard. 'It's brought us togetherness, a breathing space in the town and that "field to fork" appreciation. Above all, it's added fruitful variety to people's lives.'
Clare Stimson at the EEAOP says community orchards offer something deeply fundamental. 'Orchard fruit is embedded in our psyche: it has played a massive part in our cultural heritage – back to the Garden of Eden,' she says. 'Community orchards are powerful bonding projects that bring meaning to people from all walks of life.'

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