On our theme this year of looking at biodiversity, environmental protection and sustainability issues within the English planning system, Jane Fowles and Georgina Harvey of Novell Tullett Landscape Architects shared their thoughts with us about the beauty, history and fragility of Old Orchards. Their take on these unique landscape features completely encapsulates why we should uphold landscape policy designations and ensure they are properly respected within developments. We hope you are equally inspired….

This time of year the structure and form of trees is readily apparent and none more so than the gnarled skeletons of old orchard trees. These fabulous old specimens have a character and texture which is unique within the pattern of the British landscape.  Remnant orchards still  exist  in  unlikely  places,  close  to  urban  centres  and  amongst  gardens  on  the  village fringe,  they  provide  places  for  contemplation,  a  refuge  for  wildlife  and  form  part  of  the history of our countryside and the English lexicon.

Orchards were once widespread in Britain with a plethora of apple varieties, many special to  individual  parishes,  the  trees  dispersed  between  cottage  gardens,  farms  and  manor houses.    Local  apples  were  commonplace  but  the advent  of  cheap  imported  fruit  and pressure  on  land  to  provide  housing  meant  that  orchards  were  seen  as  redundant  and grubbed  out  to  make  way  for  development.    Commercial  orchards  declined  from  the 1970s onwards and, by 1997, 64% of all British orchards had been lost.

The satisfying glimpse of a densely planted, twiggy orchard grid is now a rarity except in discrete areas still important for commercial fruit production.  Though much reduced, there are still perry orchards in Hereford and Worcestershire; cider apples are grown in Somerset and Devon; Cambridgeshire, Essex and Kent still grow cooking and eating apples, pears, plums, cherries and cobnuts.  What is particularly sad about the loss of so many orchards is that  the  UK  has  such  a  great  climate  for  growing  fruit.   English apple  types  are  more diverse in variety, their flesh sweeter than European or Antipodean counterparts and they thrive  in  our  damp  loamy  soil.   With the  loss  of  the  fruit  goes  the  rituals  and  skills  of  fruit husbandry; the ways of netting cherry trees; picking delicate, plump, short season plums or planting to cross pollinate gages.   And the transient beauty of a grid of trees drifted in blossom is no longer a common scene in our landscape.

Does the loss of the trees also mean we have lost the casual gift of fruit which our parents knew?  The neighbourly camaraderie of bartering fruit; the glut of greengages exchanged for Victoria plums, a surfeit of cookers, wrapped in  newspaper  and stored in cardboard boxes, the scrumped apples, stolen cherries hanging from a local tree or plums dripping over  the  garden  wall;  the  pip  spitting  contests  of  youth.    We used  to  scour  the  autumn hedgerows for blue blushed damsons, food for free along with the blackberries and sloes to  seep  in  gin.  Old hedgerows fat with  bullace  and  damson,  the  rootstock  of  our cultivated plums. 

Community Orchards

The charity Common Ground campaigns to raise awareness of local distinctiveness and  wants  Britain  to  be  a  prominent  fruit  growing  country  once  again  for  environmental, aesthetic, social, cultural and economic reasons, and believes that Community Orchards can help spearhead a revival [reminder that if you are interested in establishing your own orchard, fruit growing constitutes an agricultural use which does not require specific planning permission under Section 55 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. However if you are looking to run an orchard for educational purposes/public events, this is not likely not to be classed as agricultural, and therefore planning permission to change to this use from another would generally be required]. 

Orchards Path  Common Ground

At the 5 Islands School in St Marys, Isles of Scilly, in response to the islanders’ desire for horticultural heritage to be part of the school’s design and use, Novell Tullett planted a small orchard  of  fruit  trees.  Within the  orchard  are  Scilly  Pearls,  apple  species  which  are particular to the islands.  The school has won a Civic Trust Award 2013.

Five Islands Academy

Novell Tullett believe in the transformative power of exceptional landscape and design. If you want to learn more about their exquisite work, check out Novell Tullett or contact Jane Fowles at jfowles@novelltullett.co.uk.