In search of old orchards


Intrepid times: I’ve become a volunteer surveyor for the Orchards East project, and undertaken my first site visit.  I did my homework, looking at the old orchard sites marked up for the project on modern maps, and reading the health and safety rules that came with my surveyor’s pack. When did going for a walk and snooping over fences get so complicated? I must tell a ‘responsible person’ where I’m going, take a fully charged mobile phone, avoid dogs and bulls, and be sure to tuck my trousers into my boots for fear of insects. I played safe and took a companion with me.

The first site is behind a remote house at the end of a track through an old hospital.  Turning off the busy road took us into an alternative universe, deserted and slightly sinister. We drove along an avenue of savagely pollarded old limes, waiting out the winter with their cropped heads and bare trunks.  Behind them were blank hoardings, screening off a building site. There was no sign of life around the buildings though some are still in use.

After the avenue, the paved track ran past a pair of derelict, boarded-up cottages. It turned into grass and muddy ruts, as our venerable car bumped and scraped its way up the hill.   Our destination was an old farmhouse. As we got nearer we could see it was abandoned, with rubbish piled by the gate, and boarded-up windows. The tiles on the gable hung drunkenly adrift.  All around were fields and silence. A green woodpecker called somewhere nearby, and a red kite, forked tail clear against the sky, wheeled over our heads.

‘Moat’, said the map, in the olde worlde writing that indicates a historic feature. There’s still a big pond in about the right place.  The area that was a sizeable orchard at the end of the nineteenth century is now a bare flat place of rough grass and wild flowers to the side of a barn with a caved-in roof. There are just two twisty old trees coming into bloom, last remnants of the once productive orchard.

I noted on my survey form what I could see, and we edged the car back down the track. A solitary man stood holding a sweaty horse by a loose rein as it cropped the grass.   He stared at us – we waved and smiled matily but he looked unimpressed, even suspicious. Had he called the cops? A police car was cruising slowly up from the road. Did that useful health and safety pack say anything about getting arrested?

The orchards project covers six counties in the east of England. It’s directed by the University of East Anglia, with National Lottery funding. The aim is to discover and understand the past, present and future of orchards in Eastern England.


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