Once-upon-a-time the countryside from Dorset to Herefordshire would have been filled with traditional orchards. The west country was at the heart of England’s status as an apple superpower. Orchards would have formed an important part of the fabric of rural life. And yet within a couple of generations orchards have almost disappeared from the countryside – statistics show that up to 90% of orchards have disappeared since the 1950s.
Stumbling across an orchard is a little bit like finding a treasure chest. They’re places whose riches keep on giving whether with the arrival of spring and the blooming of the trees with the fragile flowers or the harvesting of the fruits in the golden glow of a warm autumnal day. These often small patches of land with knarled old trees are important havens for nature too – butterflies, bees, bats, birds see them as important food sources and wild flowers will carpet the orchard floors.
Orchards matter because of this rich cultural and natural heritage. There is an orchard near where I live, on the route up towards the summit of Solsbury Hill. It feels like a place untouched by the pace of modern life and I get a real sense of connection to the people that have loved and cherished this special place before me. The fruit trees come in all shapes and sizes and there is a slight wildness to the orchard, with its light-touch management. Wandering through this orchard always feels like a magical experience.
That is why the news that the National Trust has been given the national cider apple collection is so important. Over time 300 varieties of cider apple including Slack-ma-Girdle, Netherton Late Blower and Billy Down Pippin will be planted at eight places across the west country. It’s thanks to the vision and passion of Henry May that this collection exists at all and now the plan is to secure the future of these beautiful varieties and hopefully see them used by local cider-makers.
A countryside without orchards is unthinkable and the rise of community orchards, the work of organisations such as the Trust and People’s Trust for Endangered Species and growth of craft ciders, provides a hope that these fragile and wonderful places can survive.