The Fairfield Orchards
There are two ancient orchards on Fairfield and of course the main feature of interest in any orchard is clearly the trees. Our orchards have a wide variety of fruit, nut and other tree species, with the obvious prevalence of apple trees.
The orchards were planted sometime between 1860 and 1872. Their purpose was to provide work and activity for the inmates in the Three Counties Hospital (TCH) and, of course, their food.
It was common for mental asylums to have orchards and farms making the asylum largely self-sufficient. Many of the trees are believed to be up to 150 years old in the East Orchard while most in the West Orchard are approaching 100 years old.
From late in the 20th century as the TCH was closing down no maintenance or care was taken of the trees, and the orchards became neglected.
As the new village of Fairfield began to grow in the grounds of the now refurbished Hospital, the dire state of the orchards became apparent and many residents were determined to restore them. It is evident that veteran orchards are well worth saving; they have high biodiversity, cultural, heritage and genetic value.
A group of interested residents, supported by the newly-formed Parish Council, began the rehabilitation of the orchards. Known as The Friends of the Fairfield Orchards, they are working on a maintenance plan that will include conservation of the grassed areas as well as the trees; a re-planting programme is in progress. Every effort is made to protect the ecology of these amazing sites to help maintain and promote wildlife.
Expert tree specialists were contracted to assess the state of the trees and advise how best to rehabilitate and care for them. Workshops on pruning and orchard care were held. The orchards are annually assessed by a renowned arborist to aid and instruct the work of the volunteers.
The work in the orchards is both by professionals using ladders and other specialist equipment, and by volunteers under supervision using hand tools.
In 2014 all the trees were number tagged so as to aid identification. All of the apple tree varieties have been identified and include Bramley Seedling, Crimson Bramley Seedling (mainly found in the East Orchard), Keswick Codlin, Ellison’s Orange, Monarch and Lady Sudeley as examples. One tree has recently been identified using its DNA profile and was found to be a Gibbon’s Russet, an Irish variety that was first recorded in 1897. It can be used as an eating apple, or as a cider apple. The benches in the orchards have plates in the slates which help to identify most of the trees. A full list of all the apples is available on request.
The key aims for restoration are to: reduce the height of the tree, reduce the weight load on the scaffold branches, re-open the canopy for light and air penetration, remove diseased and some dead material.
Not all dead wood is removed from the canopy; standing deadwood (as opposed to dead wood on the ground) is a valuable habitat for a range of organisms. Small diameter wood (branches, twigs) is taken out, but larger diameter dead wood that is obviously safe, in the sense that it won’t fall onto someone, is left as habitat.
Veteran trees may be shocked by the removal of too much wood, so only 20% of the canopy is removed in any one year. The whole restoration is being carried out over a period of years. The first year focused on priority cuts, like rubbing or diseased material, and taking the weight off major structural branches.
Then in subsequent years, the canopy was further opened out. Gradually, ‘fine tuning’ is being carried out; thinning out the smaller, ‘crabby’ branches where growth has stagnated due to lack of light and reducing the number of fruit buds.
Orchard care is now moving into a more maintenance phase, and there has been some new planting of not only apple trees, but also pear, plum and cherry trees.
Whilst providing the residents of Fairfield with a glorious open space and wonderful natural environment, the apple trees do also produce apples! As well as the trees being neglected, the apples were being abandoned and left to rot on the ground.
And so the idea of holding an Apple Day was born. Apple Days are run throughout the UK now and these events attract many visitors interested in the national heritage of fruit. Fairfield was not interested in raising money, but wanted to share and make use of the abundant apple crop with the village.
In 2015 the first, of what became an annual Apple Day was held. Food stalls, apple related activities, cider tasting and the all important apple pressing made up a successful and fun-filled day. The Apple Days have grown slowly over the years, but always a free event for residents and a celebration of the natural harvest. Apple juice that is not consumed by eager participants on the day is collected and made into cider to distribute (freely) to the community during the year.
There have been several attempts over the years by developers to obtain planning permission to build more houses on the orchard sites. These have always been strongly opposed by residents. In 2010 the orchards were recognised as County Wildlife Sites (CWS) which is a valuable weapon to withstand developers’ schemes.
Unfortunately, neither orchard was handed over by the developers to the community. However, in 2017 FPC agreed that the developers would hand over an area of the West Orchard, which is now owned by the parish. The rest of the West Orchard and the whole of the East Orchard remain with separate freeholders.
The council has reached agreement with these freeholders to carry out the restorative and maintenance work. While it remains an aspiration of the council to obtain the long term ownership of the whole of the Orchards, to secure this asset for the enjoyment and recreation of the whole of Fairfield.
Memorial Trees may be planted in part of the West Orchard. For more information, please click here.