The Core Of The Community

14th March 2009

Do you know your Brownlees Russet from your Gascoyne's Scarlet? Your Bushey Grove from your Lane's Prince Albert? Nothing gets to the core of our rural heritage more directly than an apple – yet many of our distinctive varieties are being lost. Supermarkets, largely, aren’t interested. Jill Glenn finds out more about Community Orchards, a countrywide ‘grass roots’ project to retain traditional fruit growing at the heart of English life.

The village of Chorleywood, on the border of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, was once the home of hundreds of apple and cherry orchards… but throughout the twentieth century they steadily declined. Many were neglected and eventually lost to the wild. The pattern was, sadly, repeated all over the country.

Now, though, there is a growing movement (literally growing) to rediscover the pleasure of local varieties of fruit and the orchards in which they grew. Organisations such as Common Ground are promoting the re-establishment of abandoned orchards and the planting of new throughout England, and report that there are already more than 300 Community Orchards run by and for local people.

Chorleywood was not to be left out. Late last year, a small band of fruit enthusiasts launched a local project to create a Community Orchard, situated in the idyllic grounds of Chorleywood House Estate, close to the Lawn Cemetery. The project has been supported by both Three Rivers District Council (as landowner) and the Countryside Management Service (acting as environmental advisers), but it’s very much a grassroots venture, with the idea having occurred to a dog-walking apple enthusiast about a year ago. The Friends of Chorleywood House Estate were quick to see the attraction of the proposal, and members of the Chorleywood Horticultural Society have provided much of the expertise.

Community involvement will, of course, be key to the long-term success of the Orchard. Anyone can visit it or volunteer to help maintain the trees as they grow; local schools will be invited to take part in events and Apple Day will be celebrated each year, starting this Autumn on 17 October.

Eventually the Orchard – a natural place to relax, play, work and learn, surrounded by beautiful fruit trees and wildlife – will comprise over one hundred apple, pear, plum and cherry trees, chosen because of their local connections or rarity (and of course, their delicious taste).

Those names in the introduction? We should all know them; we should all have grown up eating them. The Brownlees Russet, for example, was introduced by William Brownlees, a Hemel Hempstead nurseryman, in 1848. Crisp and juicy with a rich flavour, it has a greenish-gold fruit, sometimes flushed orange-red, with fine russetting, and attractive deep pink blossom. The Bushey Grove and the Lane’s Prince Albert are both cooking apples: the former, raised in Bushey in 1897, has beautiful yellow fruit, flushed red, and a sharp, acidic taste; the latter originated in Berkhamsted in the garden of Thomas Squire, who transplanted the tree to his front garden on the day Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the town to change horses at the King’s Arms. John Lane, a grower in the town, introduced it commercially as Lane’s Prince Albert in 1857. It has large, shiny fruit, green flecked with red, that purée well – and in March it becomes a dessert apple. Doubly delicious.

Volunteers digging in the first trees on 28 February

hese, and other varieties with equally mouth-watering names and years of heritage behind them, were among the 24 trees planted in Chorleywood’s new orchard on the official launch date, Saturday 28 February. Over 30 volunteers, ranging in age from 3 to 77, turned up in what is currently no more than a field to plant the young trees and stake a claim in both the past and the future.

All the trees are either old Hertfordshire varieties or are known to thrive locally. You may never even have heard of them, still less encountered them in the supermarkets, but they are delicious and distinctive. In subsequent years, more varieties will be added; the next planting takes place next Autumn/Winter. A request for local people to sponsor the trees resulted in the first 75 being snapped up in less than 3 weeks. Many of the sponsored trees are dedicated to loved ones who have died or have been purchased as an original gift for a friend or relative.

The aims of the Community Orchard are simple and refreshing – to plant and cultivate local and unusual varieties of fruit; to be open and free for the public to enjoy; to encourage wildlife to inhabit the area; to be used as an educational resource for local schools; to be used as a meeting place for local events such as Apple Days; to raise awareness of orchard projects; to promote the health benefits of eating fruit; and to encourage people to plant fruit trees in their own gardens.

for more information, including directions.

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