Michael Clarke’s report 2009
At the time of the report, Michale Clarke, was the Vice Chair of Hertfordshire Orchard Initiative, and Past Chair of Friends of Brogdale Trust, the National Fruit Collection, Kent and an acknowldegd expert in the field of Orchards.
He made his report after two visits to the site following the application to build houses on the historic site.
“The two orchards on Fairfield Park form beautiful and interesting green areas for walking and relaxing and according to a respected tree experts the fruit trees in the Orchards include rare and even unique species.
A second visit was made on 17 August 2009, to see the trees and try to help with identification and evaluation of the sites for the residents who are concerned about the future of the trees.
The first visit was in May to see the orchards for the first time and assess the blossom. Three plantings can be discerned from the age of the trees: The oldest is behind the walled garden, which may be 80 years or more with some veteran, but still productive trees amongst weaker specimens, and there are gaps where trees have clearly been lost.
A striking feature is the line of Kentish Cob (also known as ‘Lambert’s Filbert’) nuts which are very productive and do not appear to suffer squirrel damage here. They are a larger, commercial variety of hazel nuts and should be harvested in September when still a little green. The trees are also used as screening to protect fruit orchards because they create dense windbreaks that also provide a crop.
A specimen standard Bramley Seedling is the best tree in the line along by the road. Identification of all the trees will probably produce some rare types, possibly even the Hitchin Pippin, and this may be the unusual red sport of the Bramley, which is of even greater interest. An ideal site for in-filling with new trees to add to the productive trees still present. Codlin, Ellison’s Orange, Monarch were all found in this area, with some old pear and plum trees.
The adjoining trees, following the ‘L’ shape round the walled garden appears to be a 1940s or 1950s planting with productive Laxton’s Superb and other more seldom seen Laxton types of dessert apples in good general order for their age. Blossom was striking here in the spring and a very attractive amenity feature in itself for the Hall inhabitants.
The Laxton Nursery in Bedford was one of the three most famous fruit nurseries in the UK in the last and previous centuries: Rivers at Sawbridgeworth, Laxton’s of Bedford and Bunyard’s of Kent dominated the markets and their legacy can be found throughout the world. This is of special local importance due to the proximity of Bedford.
The Bramley Seedling orchard to the rear of the cricket ground is both productive and a beautiful feature of the Hall’s attractive grounds. The trees are about 80 years old and in good general condition, although rabbits have ring-barked a number of trees and killed them. Protective fine wire surrounds are needed. (The original Bramley from 1809 is still growing in Nottinghamshire and the famous cooking apple’s 200th anniversary is being celebrated throughout this year).
There are Ellison’s Orange and other Laxton trees here, but the most spectacular dessert apple in this orchard is a Lady Sudeley, which is heavily in fruit this August despite its age. Older trees tend to crop bi-annually.
There is now a very professional juicing service established for the area based at Shenley and voluntary collection of the fruit from many orchards now results in commercial bottled juice that is labelled and sold for its local character. This brings in valuable income to sites such as nature reserves and heritage orchards that were once part of the gardens of old estates and their houses. There is clearly enough interest amongst residents to put this into effect at Fairfield, too.
It is also a rare opportunity to harvest crops of the cobnuts. In fact, all these crops are being organically grown and could in future be managed partly from income from their sales. Old trees need very little pruning apart from removal of dead wood, and insect life benefits from dead stumps left in place. Apple Days are run throughout the UK now and these events attract many visitors interested in our national heritage of fruit. They also give a sales opportunity to raise money for the work and expenses of volunteers who have harvested the valuable local food source.
New plantings of local varieties of fruit trees in all the sites would develop the orchards into increasingly productive and attractive features: cordons could screen areas and the walled garden is ideal for walled-trained fruit which can be the most productive due to the warmth and shelter of the brickwork.
The area is clearly rich in wildlife: during today’s visit a Sparrow-hawk flew past, numerous small birds were seen, including pied wagtails around the houses, a green woodpecker was calling and Badger droppings indicated that they were not only visiting the orchards, but enjoying the blackberries. (The bramble bushes are being well managed in the Bramley orchard to provide a source of fruit in the gaps between the trees as well as very good nesting sites for bird life).
The badger is a protected wild mammal with an omnivorous diet of insects, earthworms and fruit, in the main. It is possible in the future that residents will come to enjoy watching the species at night in illuminated areas if the Badgers are able to continue to feed in this attractive rural setting.
Studies have shown that orchards are one of the most important habitats for diversity of species.
Michael Clark tewinorchard.co.uk
(Vice Chair of Hertfordshire Orchard Initiative, Past Chair of Friends of Brogdale Trust, the National Fruit Collection, Kent, author of Apples – A Field Guide and other titles, BA (Hons), PGCE, FZS, Queen’s Award for Art).