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A present rooted in the past

18 September 2015

Inspired by an 18th-century parson, Derek Law set out to recreate his famous parish orchard. Paul Wilkinson meets him

Paul Wilkinson

Fruitful: bridge over Town Beck to the orchard

Fruitful: bridge over Town Beck to the orchard

A BAD-TEMPERED bull and an ancient book in the British Library were the unlikely genesis of a project to recreate the orchard of an 18th-century clergy-man and naturalist.

The bull had been brought in by the Rector of St Peter’s in the West Yorkshire village of Addingham, to eat down an acre of overgrown land beside his medieval church. The book, a personal diary by the celebrated observer of nature the Revd Gilbert White — best-remembered today as the author of The Natural History of Selborne — had been unearthed by Derek Law, an antiquarian book expert and regular worshipper at St Peter’s, whose home abutted the bull’s domain.

The two converged one day in the early 1980s, soon after an elderly parishioner decided that the bull looked a little peaky on its diet of nettles and brambles. She brought it a pail of water and some jam sandwiches. Unfortunately, the bull was not interested in this unlikely bovine provender, and simply barged over his would-be benefactor. She was rescued, relatively unscathed, by Mr Law; but he and the then Rector of Addingham, the Revd Dennis Shaw, decided that “something must be done” about this jungle of untamed church land.

Coincidentally, Mr Law — whose day job involves travelling the country, advising bibliophiles what their libraries might fetch at auction — had just come across another book by White, gathering dust on the shelves of the British Library.

White’s reputation as a pioneer in the study of the environment had been secured with the publication in 1789 of Natural History. The book, which is still in print today, chronicled his observations of the flora and fauna around his Hampshire village near Alton.

But Mr Law’s find was White’s Garden Kalender, an earlier and lesser-known, hand-written record of the work and produce, between 1751 and 1768, from his rectory orchard, which was run to help feed his poor and malnourished parishioners.

Mr Law wondered whether a similar fruit garden at St Peter’s would be a better use for the bull’s patch and, with the Rector’s agreement, set out to produce a modern homage to White’s Selborne creation. Today, after more than 20 years of trials, disasters, learning, and, ultimately, successes, he has a thriving, mature orchard, which this year should produce up to eight tons of apples and pears, and scores of pounds of other soft fruit.

“At first I had no idea what to do. I am no gardener,” he says. “But I used to go fishing with Geoffrey Smith, the gardening author and TV presenter, so I asked him how I should go about it. He gave me just two pieces of advice: the first was to dig a hole to see what the soil was like — it’s no good putting a £30 tree into a hole in rubble. But a farmer had kept animals on it for some time, so the ground was in good condition. The second thing he said was: ‘The plant has a green end and a brown end — put the brown end in the ground.’”

Over the years, Mr Law’s skills as a horticulturist have grown. Today, he can quote chapter and verse on varieties, pruning regimes, harvesting and storing, what works in a harsh northern climate, and what will not.

 

THE site is not perfect. It is made up of a steep, inhospitable, north-facing bank, which leads down to a flat area beside the Town Beck where cold air settles on winter nights when the sky is clear.

For years, the locals had regarded the area as a dump for every kind of waste, from building rubble to household rubbish, and it was shoulder-deep in grass and weeds.

Mr Law began by removing 170 barrowloads of old tarmac, which had been dumped over the stone boundary wall by contractors re-surfacing the main road outside. It took six months just to clear the ground; along the way, he had to placate at least one irate resident who accused him of a clandestine plot to annexe church land for his own garden.

“For the first three years it was a nightmare,” he says. “It was a matter of trial and error: I’d stick something in, and sometimes it thrived and other times it wouldn’t. I didn’t want to copy exactly the old varieties that White had planted — he had deliberately chosen the latest varieties of his time, and used the newest techniques to improve his harvest — but I did want it to be a traditional English orchard.”

Consequently, you will find the 200-year-old cooking apple Keswick Codlin standing close to a modern eater, Norfolk Royal. Back then, White’s parishioners preferred a softer apple to today’s crisp varieties — not least because their teeth were too poor to bite the firm flesh prized by modern apple-eaters.

Today, Mr Law has 32 varieties of apples, ten pears, 14 plums and damsons, and four hazelnuts; plus quinces, medlars, apricots, figs, and sweet chestnuts. There are also strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, tayberries, blueberries, rhubarb, and black and red currants.

 

WHITE’s orchard was not unique in its day. Many clergy turned their vicarage gardens over to fruit production, and several kept diaries of what and how they grew; but White’s Kalender is the only one known to have survived.

The clergy’s efforts were a response first to a mini Ice Age, which overtook Britain in the 18th century, sucking in extreme cold air from Eastern Europe. Mr Law explains: “Winters came early and suddenly, and were frigid, with long periods of intense frost and heavy snowfall. Spring came late and was brief, before a hot, dry summer took over.

“Secondly, a revolution in agriculture meant that farmers were abandoning fruit production to concentrate on more profitable dairy cattle and cereals. While the wealthy could still enjoy fruit from their own walled gardens, or imported from Europe, the majority of ordinary folk lost their fruit harvest, and people in country areas suffered most.

“Fruit was a very important part of what was still a poor diet, and, although they had no knowledge of why fruit was good for them, they felt much better when it was in their diet.

“The damage being done to the rural communities by the absence of fruit was first noticed by the clergy in country parishes. They saw at first hand the decline in the health of their folk, and the increasing numbers of early deaths. They set about trying to improve the situation by planting orchards in their large rectory gardens.

They used their own money to purchase fruit stocks, and spent much time trying to improve the quality and cropping by developing new varieties. They were diligent in their efforts, and there is no doubt that they made a substantial contribution to fruit-growing.”

 

THE tradition of experimenting to improve produce continued among the clergy into modern times. At least three of the varieties grown by Mr Law are named after priests. Tom Putt is a cooking apple, still popular for cider-making, that was introduced by the 18th-century Rector of Trent in Somerset. The Revd W. Wilks, also a cooker, was named after a Victorian Vicar of Shirley, in south London, who became a president of the Royal Horticultural Society. Ellison’s Orange was an early 20th-century variant of the dessert apple Cox’s Orange Pippin, bred by the Lincolnshire vicar C. C. Ellison.

“These rectory orchards were grown for the benefit of the whole community served by the parish church,” Mr Law says. “Once they came into production, and the fruit was distributed, there was a noticeable improvement in the health of the parishioners. Fruit provided a relief from constipation and coughs; apples contain powerful anti-oxidants which help keep arteries clean; most fruit is rich in vitamin C, and “top” fruit [fruit grown on trees rather than on the ground] is an excellent source of fibre.

“White grew sufficient fruit from a piece of land very similar in size to this orchard to provide 100 souls with a steady supply from midsummer until the onset of winter.”

He even used cold frames, heated by composting manure, to harvest cucumbers in early May and melons in June — which would still be an achievement by today’s standards. “Just imagine the joy and marvel of simple country people when they tasted the sweet juicy flesh of ripe melon,” Mr Law suggests.

 

LIKE White’s, the Addingham orchard is organic, but not because Mr Law wanted to copy slavishly the 18th-century methods, which pre-dated pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

“It is pure economics,” he says. “When I started, I set myself a budget of £250 a year. You could spend that, spraying chemicals on just one tree.” He admits to a significantly higher budget these days, but still relies on natural techniques to control his orchard.

In spring, as the fruit blossom bursts, a carpet of bulbs lures in predatory and pollinating insects, and wild roses continue the theme into summer, while an enticing perimeter planting of flowering trees and shrubs encourages them to stay.

Birds will sometimes plunder the fruit, but Mr Law is not as protective as White, who, one August day, recorded in his Kalender shooting 32 blackbirds that had savaged his gooseberry crop. “I can’t imagine a garden today with that many blackbirds in it anyway!” Mr Law says.

A strict hygiene regime and a scrupulously clean orchard floor help ensure diseases are kept to a minimum without having to resort to chemical sprays.

 

SADLY, Mr Law finds it hard to dispose of his produce. He insists on giving it away, and on most Sundays in the harvest season he takes boxes of fruit over to the parish hall beside St Peter’s for the congregation to help themselves. But a generation brought up on apples and pears cloned to identical perfection for Tesco or Sainsbury’s doesn’t necessarily appreciate his often misshapen and sometimes blemished crop.

This year’s quirky summer of alternately hot, wet, and cold weather has led to a reduced crop of often smaller fruit. Worse, in July, Addingham was hit by a freak storm with hailstones the size of eggs that battered the ripening apples and pears for more than half an hour. As a consequence, many of the fruits bear savage brown scars on their skins. “No one will want those,” Mr Law says resignedly. “They’d rather have something perfectly formed and tasteless from a supermarket. Peel mine and the blemish disappears, and you have a delicious fruit — and they would probably be cooking them anyway.”

He recently offered plums and apples to a local youth group to cook pies for an event. “I was told ‘No thanks — fruit pies come from Marks & Spencer’!”

A lot of fruit, however, is taken by Outside the Box, a community café in nearby Ilkley, where it is pressed to make juice. Some also goes to the volunteers who help Mr Law in the garden.

 

LIKE White, Mr Law has kept a diary of events in his orchard, hand-written in a beautiful script, and enhanced with photographs of the work. But now, at the age of 76, he is worried that, once he has gone, his book will follow so many of those 18th-century clerics’ records into oblivion, and there will be no successor to maintain the orchard.

I have no family to pass it on to, and there is no obvious desire to carry it on,” he says. “I expect my diary will just be thrown in the bin like all those others were, 200 years ago.

“People approach me and say they want to set up a similar scheme where they are. They have been promised a piece of land, have formed a committee, and arranged meetings on the first of the month. But I tell them it won’t work like that. It takes a lot of hard work. It is difficult to run it by committee — it needs someone to take hold of it; and first of all, before they set up a committee and appoint officials and schedule meetings, they need to dig a hole in that piece of land and see what the soil is like. If it’s being given away for nothing, ten to one they’ll hit rubble just below the surface, and it will all be a waste of time.”

Forthcoming Events

14 September 2020
Festival of Pilgrimage
From Christ Church Oxford: a chance to reflect theologically on pilgrimage and come away with practical ideas for your parish.   Book tickets

29 September 2020
Festival of Preaching
A one-day online version of our popular preaching festival. With Mark Oakley, Sam Wells and Anna Carter Florence.   Book tickets

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