As we move into Autumn the trees around us are weighed down by an abundance of fruit; a seasonal bounty treasured through time. I’ve had many discussions with local residents about the history of the orchards that were once common in the area - something that many of us would like to see make a return!
Southern Buckinghamshire has strong historical connections with orchards, particularly in the areas surrounding High Wycombe, Beaconsfield and Aylesbury. Cherries were a speciality of the region – with the jet-back fruits known as ‘chuggies’. There were notable orchards at Holmer Green, Prestwood and Flackwell Heath, and I’m told that fruit from the latter area was particularly well-favoured and sold by grocers in Wycombe Marsh - many older residents I’ve talked with remember the trees in blossom and seasonal fruit picking.
Much of this heritage has been lost with a few orphaned trees being the remains of a once treasured local tradition -
“Changes in agriculture have (also) meant that orchards of cherry, plum and apple which were once common south of Aylesbury were reduced by over 90% between 1938 and 1994 and are continuing to disappear. The County Council’s ‘Survey of Orchards in Southern Buckinghamshire’ revealed a 39% loss in orchards between 1975 and 1995 in one of the areas previously most important for fruit production. The condition of those remaining orchards is generally poor.”
(The Landscape Plan for Buckinghamshire, part 1: Landscape Character Assessment.)
The names of well-known local varieties of cherry run almost like a poem – Nimble Dick, Kingshill Black; Black Eagle, Goblin, Yellow Bigarreau, Cassia, Circassian, Ronalds’ Heart, Prestwood Black.
Buckinghamshire plum, damson and apple varieties are equally evocative: Missenden Abbey, Langley Bullace, Aylesbury Prune and Long Runnit, Cat Apple, Black Prince, Sheep’s Nose…
Traditional orchards were hugely beneficial to wildlife, the low density of planting allowed for the flourishing of species-rich unimproved grassland, often grazed by sheep or cattle. Different varieties were often planted in a single orchard leading to a lengthened period of flowering and fruiting, benefiting both pollinating insects and the birds and mammals that feed on the fruit. In recognition of both their decline and benefit, traditional orchards were designated as a Priority Habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) in 2007.
Orchards also have social and cultural importance, to quote the charity Common Ground “In orchards we and nature have created an exuberant and a secret landscape – a treasury of genetic diversity and a repository of culture.” If we lose the trees we lose the traditions customs and knowledge as well as the biodiversity.
As well as the larger commercial orchards, there is anecdotal evidence that a great many fruit trees - cherries, apples and plums - were planted in the Marsh and Micklefield area, either in dedicated spaces or in people’s gardens and relict trees are still found in hedgerows, field edges and woodland boundaries.
An orchard is simply an intentional planting of trees or bushes maintained for the production of fruit. It often challenges norms and perceptions to know that they are not necessarily large – the minimum number of trees needed to create an orchard is five.
It is not just about fruit trees but about the meaning of localism. We need to think about the distinctiveness of our area and community and the idea of particularism. Orchards, large or small (or even single fruit trees) in the right place and cared for can help to link people with the place in which they live and the history of that place.
It’s crazy that we have eradicated most of our orchards and now import over 70% of our apples from all over the world. Planting more fruit trees cuts food miles, helps soak up CO2, benefits wildlife and would help save traditional varieties. Every tree helps!
In the words of Kath Rosen from the Urban Orchard Project “Orchards are a great way to bring people together. Everybody can play their part… A community orchard isn’t just a collection of fruit trees, it’s a community of people working together to make the local area a better place to live, work and enjoy.”