As community orchards begin to shoot up across Surrey, Viv Micklefield travels to Dorking to meet the growers sharing the fruits of their labours this autumn
We’ve got the Romans to thank for introducing apples to these shores and, amazingly, there are now over 1000 native varieties perfect for eating, cooking or cider making. Yet, until recently, the days of the traditional orchard looked numbered.
Reports suggested the amount of land used for English fruit gardening had dropped by more than 60 per cent since the 1950s. Would tales of childhood scrumping expeditions be consigned to the history books? It seemed likely, if some developers had their way. Thankfully, there’s been a growing movement to reignite our passion for local produce. And with several hundred budding enterprises established, up and down the country during the past decade, the Surrey Hills now boasts its own legion of hard core enthusiasts.
“There are varieties of fruit here that you simply wouldn’t experience if you relied on buying your fruit from Chile!” says Nick Wright, chairman of Dorking Community Orchard. Started as an environmental project through the Transition Towns scheme, and supported by grants and contributions, 2013 marks a major milestone for Nick and the orchard’s growing army of volunteers.
The British weather might remain typically unpredictable. But the sight of spring blossom wafting like confetti and summer rains refreshing thirsty trees, has raised hopes, that their first harvest will be bountiful. As Nick explains, “We’ve got apples here that will become ripe over a fairly long period. Our earliest varieties will probably be ready at the beginning to mid September; others may go through until mid October.”
Although most of Dorking’s orchard is just three old, because it occupies the site of the town’s former Millennium Arboretum, some of the trees have been around for over a decade. In fact, it’s not just apples you’ll find growing on the two acre site. There are plums, cherries, pears and the oddly named medlar fruit. This, I’m told, dates from medieval times and left on the branch until almost rotten, makes surprising tasty jellies. Space has also been found to preserve an ancient mulberry tree, rescued from the digger’s clutches, during the construction of a local car park.
This year though, it’s all about the apple crop. And, as I climb the orchard’s gentle south-facing slopes, it’s hard to imagine that less than five years ago, this was a grassy wilderness. The waist-high weeds, once trimmed, revealed the chalk downland’s exquisite carpet of wild flowers and plants. An important natural habitat for insects and reptiles now carefully protected, on the advice of the Surrey Wildlife Trust.
Plant specialists at RHS Wisley have assisted the amateur horticulturalists in searching for heritage and local apple varieties, such as Falstaff, that are disease resistant. As Nick says, “It’s been educational for us. We’ve all learnt a huge amount about fruit trees and their management.” Skills the team has also put into practice at two orchards on the Polesden Lacey estate.
Looking at Dorking’s planting plan, this makes impressive viewing. “We’re in it for the long-term. It’s not instant,” Nick confirms. “It’s going to take between five and eight years before you’ve got something recognisable as a fruit producing entity here.” The 50 trees planted in March 2010 will be amongst the first to bear apples, a regular maintenance and propagation programme ensuring another 50 are productive next season. Provided, that is, there’s not a repeat of the orchard’s ‘great rabbit disaster’ of 2012. This saw dozens of new apple rootstocks decimated overnight. Clearly, patience and fortitude is the name of the game.
Jane Freimiller, who’s also been actively involved here since the beginning, has uncovered some interesting facts about the area’s hidden history. Whilst Kent, Worcestershire and Somerset are well-known for their orchards, in bygone times she tells me, “Fruit growing was a part of this local economy, and this local community.”
And, the new orchard, it seems, has already become something of a personal obsession. “I really love coming up here at any time of year, it’s a beautiful spot and is very calming and life-affirming in a way that I wasn’t expecting,” Jane says. “One of the nice things has been on our planting days we’ve had entire families come up. It’s very much a family place to be.”
Resurrecting local interest about where food comes from, by sharing the orchard with the whole community, is all part of the plan to, eventually, become self-sustainable, through produce sales. Acknowledging the challenge faced, Nick adds, “The hope is that as we balance giving people access, with protecting the land that it will become a more, and more, attractive place to visit.”
Next stop for this year’s precious harvest is Dorking’s weekly Food Float. And who knows? With Guildford’s community orchard also establishing roots, our towns and villages could soon echo again to the sound of wassailing, as a fruit growing tradition is welcomed back to life.
Dorking Community Orchard can be found north of Ranmore Allotments, near Dorking West Station. To become a Friend of the Orchard, and for the latest news visit: dorkingcommunityorchard.wordpress.com