A couple of weeks ago orchards were in the news. Research by the National Trust found that 80% of small orchards in England and Wales have been lost since 1900. By timely coincidence I had also recently received an article from Natalie Warner on urban orchards (focussing primarily on London, where Natalie is based). As well as the recognisable and readily acknowledged loss to wildlife and biodiversity from the disappearance of these traditional orchards, orchard sites and their decline also speaks to issues of human health and wellbeing, food justice and land justice too. It turned out to be a large and wide-ranging subject and one that was something of a challenge to edit down into a short article. Natalie has included a reading/resource list at the end of the article for anyone wanting to delve into the subject further.
Urban orchards, by Natalie Warner
Every spring I look forward to the abundance of blossom in my local streets. I have never been able to distinguish between apple and pear blossom, but the cherry blossom is noted for its delicate pink petals. These trees are what remains of local orchards; a theory substantiated by the area’s farming history. Apart from the scattered fruit trees, I remember a dairy; my mother, born in the area, recalls a neighbour who regularly gave apples to my family and others. Like many of the fruit trees, her childhood story is from a past when access to land and its resources, however limited, was shared and enjoyed.
The social pressures caused by inequitable land allocation and distribution have had a little-mentioned, but undeniably large impact on the constitution of city residents’ diet as well as proximity to green space. Once upon a time, green space was reserved for food growing as well as leisure, and the history of urban orchards tells us something about the politicisation of public health. Interestingly, the arguments for orchard restoration and preservation devote ample space to biodiversity. This is indisputably important, but it is accompanied by an eerie silence about the potential for nourishing the general public.
In 2019, it was reported that two new orchards will be developed on National Trust land, but there was no mention of what will happen to the fruit produced and whether it will feed hungry people in need of nutritious food. It is ironic that the National Trust – and English Heritage – are more concerned with holding stately homes, buildings and gardens in trust for the nation instead of community spaces. Heritage should also be about preserving the lives and livelihoods of communities, without whom there would be no tourist attractions or private gardens. Also conspicuously absent is the presence of local and national government support for orchards, which is vital for feeding large populations in cities such as London.
Government support for orchards was also absent when the appropriative, status-driven, Victorian way of cultivating plants from other countries extended to naturalised fruit trees. Originally introduced to the UK by the Romans as a food source from their native Kazakhstan, apples became a nineteenth-century example of food fashions amongst the elite. Growing fruit trees was something to do, and their purpose of feeding people was at best a tertiary consideration. Crumbs on the Table, a blog by food writer Laura Donohue, recounts a “fruit crusade” mounted by the wealthy to “beat the Yankes” at growing apples; this jingoism was strong enough to overcome decades of neglecting existing orchards, gatekeeping, elitism, and access to knowledge. New fruit growers emerged, and – conveniently – there was a population only too willing, not to mention hungry, to eat the new surfeit of English apples produced.
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries market gardens were largely responsible for feeding Londoners. Although London’s market garden system was successful, there was no guarantee that the food produced reached all hungry residents: the East End Review blog notes that there are frequent records of poor people stealing food in local government records. Some were lucky and let off with a caution; others, at the mercy of a short-sighted judge, were sent to prison. Theft is a crime – but food is a necessity and equally heinous is a city’s failure to meet the basic needs of its population. Space was available, but inaccessible to the public, who could not benefit from access to London’s green space nor the food produced within it.
Pressure on land use – and access – spelt the end for London’s market gardens. Torn between the need to house and feed citizens, civic authorities chose to house them – and barely a scrap of land was reserved for food production. Nor were trees and orchards spared in light of feeding the growing population. Today, tree protection orders are the main option, but are rarely used to protect orchards. A My London article from 2014, ‘Unearthing the Lost History of Market Gardens’, calls on west London residents to share their local histories and photograph mature fruit trees on their property for a National Lottery-funded project. Apart from common land and urban parks, no historical market garden has been held in trust for community food production. Pressure on allotments is immense – waiting lists are notoriously long – and there is evidence of unsuitable land being used for food growing.
On the A23, next to St Matthew’s Church and across the road from Lambeth Town Hall, lies Brixton Orchard. Food should not be grown next to one of the major motorway routes, air rife with fuel emissions. It raises serious questions about the quality of the soil and future fruit. This should be considered alongside individual efforts to grow herbs on high-rise balconies, and to squeeze as many vegetable beds into small urban gardens, as symptomatic of inequities and inequalities that typify contemporary gardens, availability of fresh fruit and vegetables (food deserts), and land access.
The London Orchard Project is dedicated to keeping records of the capital’s orchard-growing heritage and restoring neglected, derelict or forgotten orchards. There are several in south London and on the outskirts of north, east and west London; some clues to historical fruit-growing and cultivation lie in place names such as Perivale, Plumstead, Strawberry Hill, and the names of major roads such as Perry Hill and Perry Rise in Catford. In my locality, the abundance of blossom trees, many of which are too far away from pollination partners, tells the story of farms remembered by street names. Tellingly, the London Orchard Project uses a loose definition of “orchard” and a deliberate use of the word “potential”; the geography indicates that there is a lot to be said about the history of London’s orchards. Again, this points to both the lack of responsibility and investment from municipal authorities and the pressure on available land.
Many of the capital’s best-kept green spaces and orchards lie on private land; monasteries, convents, asylums, private gardens and surplus from large houses. Some of London’s best-preserved orchards lie in the grounds of former hospitals; former convents in my part of town – many are now schools, but one is a gated private estate, only accessible on Open House Weekend. The dissolution of the monasteries had a negative impact on many British orchards, but those surviving tell stories of gated, self-sufficient communities, resources not for sharing, and most poignant today, the politicisation of green space for physical and mental health and wellbeing. Today, monasteries, convents, and asylums converted into flats afford residents the privilege of peace and quiet; well-maintained leafy surroundings are covered in the service charge, including the upkeep of any orchards on the property.
We all need the benefits of green space and access to land, whether spiritual refreshment or food on the table, but the injustice of land access means that people need to be able to afford good health and wellbeing. Those who can are well protected not only by financial means, but also historical geography and architecture. Private grounds were an important food source for London’s population, and comprised a network of market gardens and orchards surrounding the city - the very ones that the London Orchard Project is working to restore. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people in cities experienced the pleasure of eating locally grown fresh fruit, knowing that they were investing in their community by doing so?
References and further reading:
UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan: https://data.jncc.gov.uk/data/2829ce47-1ca5-41e7-bc1a-871c1cc0b3ae/UKBAP-BAPHabitats-56-TraditionalOrchards.pdf and https://jncc.gov.uk/our-work/uk-bap-priority-habitats/
https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/uk-news/2019/04/10/victorian-orchard-brought-back-to-life-to-explore-history-of-fruit/ ‘Victorian Orchard Brought Back to Life to Explore History of Fruit’, Shropshire Star, 11th April 2019
https://www.crumbsonthetable.co.uk/the-british-apple-and-its-orchard-heritage/ Laura Donohue, ‘The British Apple and Its Orchard Heritage’, Crumbs on the Table, 5th October 2019
https://www.theorchardproject.org.uk/blog/finding-londons-hidden-orchards-2/ The London Orchard Project
https://guildhalllibrarynewsletter.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/neat-houses-and-battersea-bundles-market-gardening-in-london/ Jeanie Smith, ‘Neat Houses and Battersea Bundles: Market Gardening in London’, Guildhall Library Newsletter, 29th March 2016
https://www.mylondon.news/news/local-news/unearthing-lost-history-market-gardens-6732994 Robert Cumber, ‘Unearthing the Lost History of Market Gardens’, My London, 21st February 2014
https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/vmhistory/general/vm_hs_p07.asp The History of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – Virtual Museum
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-environs/vol4/pp573-576 Daniel Lysons, 'Market gardens in London', in The Environs of London: Volume 4, Counties of Herts, Essex and Kent(London, 1796), pp. 573-576. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-environs/vol4/pp573-576 [accessed 11 March 2022].
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol12/pp150-155 'Economic history: Farm-gardening and market gardening', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 12, Chelsea, ed. Patricia E C Croot (London, 2004), pp. 150-155. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol12/pp150-155 [accessed 11 March 2022].
http://www.eastendreview.co.uk/2016/05/24/market-gardens-horticultural-history/ Gillian Riley, ‘Market Gardens: The “ugly sisters” of horticultural history’, East End Review, 24th May 2016
Natalie Warner is a knitwear designer and fashion lecturer specialising in garment construction and pattern cutting. Through her writing, she explores how local and personal spaces can be sources of emotional nourishment and wellbeing; how the clothes we wear and spaces we inhabit support and root us. Natalie posts updates from her garden on Instagram on her dedicated account, @_nataliebynature, and you can keep up with her knitwear designs @natalieinstitches. You can also find her website natalieinstitches.com here.
Natalie has been paid for this article.
Photo credit: Sui Searle
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