Quantock Hills Blog

The Great Quantock Orchard Hunt

- Our Guest Blogger Dr. Marianna Dudley, historian at Bristol University writes about our new orchard project.

Katy Coate

Posted by Katy Coate on 25 June 2013

The Great Quantock Orchard Hunt On an early summer morning, a motley crew of hunters gathered at Fyne Court, headquarters of the Quantock Hills AONB Service.  We had no dogs, guns or horses. Instead we carried cameras, maps, and picnics.  We covered a huge area of the Quantock Hills that day, in search of our quarry.  It was not running from us, however, just hiding in quiet places, sometimes forgotten, a little run down.  We were hunting for orchards.

The hunters were a group of academics from Bristol University’s Department of Historical Studies who have been exploring the orchard history of the Quantock Hills.  We were joined by Shannon Smith, who is involved in a community orchard in Bristol and knows a lot about growing apples; Rachel Kelly, an event organiser and Quantock local who is helping us organize and promote our Apple Day event that is taking place at Fyne Court on 19 October, 2013; and Tim Russell, AONB Ranger and our field guide for the day.  With support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), we have been mapping past and present orchards in the Quantock Hills, using aerial maps from the Second World War and 2007; parish tithe maps from the 19th Century; and historical records held at the Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton.  Our maps are available to see upon request at the Quantock Hills AONB office, Fyne Court.

 The Quantock Hills are not usually included in definitions of Somerset’s ‘Cider Country’.  When people think of orchards, it tends to be of the low-lying farmland rather than the windswept heaths and wooded valleys of the Quantocks.  But our research has shown that orchards have been an important part of the landscape and culture of the Quantocks, as they have in other parts of Somerset. In 1840, there were 1,401 orchards in Quantock parishes.  Of these, only 11 existed in the same sites in 2007.  Our hunt was to find some of the sites we have mapped, and see what orchards that have disappeared, or are disappearing, look like on the ground.  We also met some people who are replanting orchards, caring for old orchards, and establishing orchards in new places. 

 Our hunting was successful: we found a whole range of orchard evidence.  Some orchards had gone, but were remembered in names like Orchard Place and Apple Drive. We also found many ‘remnant orchards’, where a few old trees survive but are no longer managed.  Old apple trees are beautiful, their heavy gnarled branches testifying to years of apple production, harvests, and the eating and cider-making that follow.   But if they are not tended, they fall under their own weight, and are damaged by livestock.  The ones we saw were clinging to hillsides or waiting to be ‘scrubbed up’ (removed to make way for other land uses). It is a reminder that orchards need tending like other crops and that the relationship between humans and apple trees is long and involved. We found traces of orchards that had been at the heart of communities, like the one behind the church at Bicknoller, and the trees opposite the primary school in Crowcombe. Here, picking, eating and processing apples into juice and cider would have been important annual events that brought people together.  We were pleased to find some healthy, thriving orchards that were being looked after by enthusiastic people.  And we visited one orchard whose days were numbered, the farmer waiting until autumn to cut the trees down.  This brought home the fact that orchards are continuing to disappear, and the Quantock landscape is always changing.

 We are continuing to work on orchard history, thanks to funding from the AHRC.Some of it will be on display at the Apple Day event at Fyne Court.  If you are interested in knowing more about the orchard history of the Quantock Hills, come along!  We will be have information on identifying apple trees you might have growing in your garden, historic local apple varieties, and maps showing where old orchards used to be.  There will be poetry readings, apple juice pressing and other apple-related activities! We hope that finding out about the rich orchard history of the area might inspire communities and individuals to plant new orchards.  We can make a strong connection between the historic landscape and culture of the Quantock Hills, and their future. 

Guest blogger:  Dr Marianna Dudley , historian at Bristol University. Find out more about her work here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/history/staff/dudley.html

and via her blog here: http://environmentalhistorian.tumblr.com

For more information or to get involved with Apple Day at Fyne Court, contact Rachel Kelly:  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)



Image: From left to right, Nick Nourse, Prof. Peter Coates, Dr. Marianna Dudley, Shannon Smith and Rachel Kelly

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