They are so short, these winter days. Cold, bleak, grim, stark, dreary, grey – however you describe them, there is not much love given to them. Especially from us gardeners. And then suddenly, there is half an inch of snow and everything changes. The snow asks us to look at the world differently. It simplifies outlines, and draws our eyes towards the smallest of details; a single gold-brown leaf, the one patch of green grass left visible. It resets our eyes, our thoughts, our state of mind. It makes me think of fairy tales – when I was little there was a wonderful version of Snow White on the television. It was made in Eastern Europe and it was set in a forest of the tallest, straightest trees I had ever seen. And the snow was so deep, and so real. Something of that survives in my heart even when I am trudging through the city slush. Which is all a way of saying – look, look how lovely the orchard is at the moment.
It looks like none of us are going out much this winter, so once you’ve watched all the box sets that you ever wanted to see, remember there are these things called books. They have the power to lift you off your sofa and out into the natural world, if only in your imagination. Or maybe they will send you into your kitchen. Whichever, here are my personal reading recommendations for the long winter evenings.
Monty Don My Garden World Published last month, this latest book from Monty is more of a personal memoir than a gardening handbook. That’s a good thing, as far as I am concerned. Monty’s role seems to be as chief encourager of gardeners and would-be gardeners, rather than giving us the exact instructions. (If I want exact instructions I turn to Geoff Hamilton’s books) Monty gives his observations on the natural world going through the year, and on the wildlife and wild flora that come into his garden, from Barn Owls to Goshawks to foxgloves and wild apple trees. And of course, dear old Nigel, his ever-present best friend. I won’t say anymore on that except make sure you have your handkerchief ready when you reach the epilogue. The book is enhanced with Monty’s own photographs, and it is nicely made although on very cheap paper. Definitely one you can give to anyone who loves gardening and nature in a warm, fluffier sort of way.
Raymond Blanc The Lost Orchard: stories and recipes by Raymond Blanc Raymond Blanc has set out to revive and restore the fortunes of many old varieties of apple, planting a massive orchard of 2,500 trees at Le Manoir, his world-famous restaurant and garden in Oxfordshire, and another one in France. Raymond says he is ‘a chef who loves art, gardens, music, design and food’, and these interests show in this book, which is gorgeous, with a section of photos, gold lettering on the cover and beautiful woodcuts for each section. The majority of the book describes the results of his ‘great apple tasting’ of over 100 varieties, which took place over two weeks in October 2018. And there is the issue with the book. I wish he had taken longer to write it, because the originality of it comes from the tasting notes, and it is very frustrating to read about several varieties that the apple was not ready, so could not be tasted, or even that he had lost the notes. If Raymond had waited one more year he could have learned, and given to us, so much more. The book also covers pears, quince, fig, medlar and stone fruit trees. There are useful lists, such as ‘best fruit for growing in a garden’ and a delightful section of recipes. It is a very enjoyable book, oozing with the undeniable charm of Raymond Blanc, but I hope that he carries on growing, testing and tasting and publishes a revised edition in the future.
Naomi Slade An Orchard Odyssey This is a cheerful book, stuffed full of high quality, evocative photos and also lots of practical advice for starting your own orchard, even in the most urban of locations. Naomi is big on community action, from orchards to smaller growing schemes, and she shows clearly how every little bit of green benefits the whole habitat, including the humans who live there. Her enthusiasm shines through this book, giving us no excuse for not getting out there and getting involved. I would recommend giving this book to anyone who wears their eco status with pride, and to anyone thinking about starting any kind of community green project, not just an orchard. Although the more community orchards there are, the better, of course.
Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates Orchard: a year in England’s Eden. This is an evocative, poetic book about an ancient orchard from January to December. Beginning with a brief history of the apple, the book then describes the rich life of the orchard, each writer taking a month each. Both have an eye for the details, and both appreciate every creature that is drawn to make a home in the orchard. There are some wonderful photographs too. The orchard is a magical place, full of atmosphere and history. This book reminds us how precious and how endangered such places are, and how much could be lost.
Gill Meller root stem leaf flower It’s been a good year for cookery books, and I think this is the best and most original of the lot. Gill has been chef at River Cottage for eleven years, and it shows in the quality but simplicity of these recipes. Every dish is seasonal, and vegetarian, or ‘veg-centric’, which, as he says means that seasonal ingredients ‘become special, like a friend you rarely see, or a song you’d forgotten you loved.’ Apples feature in some of the recipes, together with other orchard fruits – who can resist a recipe for ‘Quince Fumble?’ So put together Gill’s thoughtful introduction on the importance of eating vegetables and fruit, together with delicious recipes, interesting photos and even some poems, and you have the perfect book to read all around the house, not just in the kitchen.
If you choose to buy one of these titles, there are many options, both online and on foot. However, if you choose to buy through Amazon Smile, you can select the East of England Apples and Orchards Project as your designated charity against all your purchases.
Well here we are in the second lockdown of the year, and because of the restrictions there have been very few apple day events across the region. Such a shame when the apples were looking lovely this year. Still, my interest in apples and orchards has been able to continue in the virtual world, so I thought I would give the links to a few sites that I have found interesting while I have not been able to get out and about. For those of you who prefer a good old fashioned book to read, I will discuss my favourites next week.
First, I am happy to say that the East of England Apples and Orchards Project has had a full make-over of its website. Have a look at the wealth of information on their website. If you are looking for a sustainable Christmas present for an orchard fan, membership of EEAOP is only £15 per year, or you can sponsor a tree in their heritage orchard.
Our friends The Orchard Project have been doing amazing work setting up urban orchards and other fruit projects all across the country. At the moment you can meet Mervyn Mouse, and listen to a free bedtime story about him read by Alys Fowler, which is perfect for getting your children interested in apples. If you are a little too old for Mervyn, I learned a lot from the Project’s interview with apple expert Joan Morgan, on the importance of heritage varieties.
Here’s a site that has kept me entertained – Random Street View Which, as it says, brings up a different view of anywhere in the world. You can travel from Greece to Singapore to Sweden in three clicks. I like to see if I can guess what country, or at least what part of the world the view shows, before I peek at the little map. Sometimes you’ll see some fruit trees like these or a grove of bananas, or olive trees, but I’ve yet to see an apple orchard. If you find one let me know.
If you are on Instagram you are welcome to follow me @cambsfairy. I post mainly shots of gardens, plants, sometimes more personal pics like those of my Halloween pumpkins. I follow a few apple-related ‘grammers, (I don’t think there are many) including @pomme_queen who is taking the most beautiful portraits of American apples and @someinterestingapples who has a really unusual project going on, assessing wild and seedling apples that are found growing in hedgerows. Others whose posts I particularly I enjoy are @acambridgediary to see Cambridge and the surrounding area in all its beauty, whatever the season. @gill.meller and @dianahenryfood give me inspiration for my next meal, and @themontydon shares personal views of Long Meadow and words of wisdom. And finally I am sure that @chunk_the_groundhog will bring some joy into your day. He lives in his very own garden, where he eats apples with maximum enthusiasm, but minimal manners. Cute as he is, I am glad we don’t have groundhogs in the U.K, I don’t think the apples at Trumpington Orchard would stand a chance.
The Swift Tower at the orchard is now home to at least three nesting pairs of swifts. These marvellous birds, that weigh the same as a Creme Egg, have travelled all the way from Africa to nest here. The Swift Tower is designed to play a recording of the swift’s cries, in order to entice them in. Apparently no swift likes to be the first swift to make a nest in a particular spot, so you have to fool them that the nest tower is already popular. Whatever the swift psychology, it’s worked. And we are delighted to welcome them.
As you probably know, Trumpington Community Orchard is managed by a very small core team of volunteers, with many other supporters helping out with maintenance and other activities (when we are allowed to have any). So we are pleased to welcome Chris Thane, who has lived close to the orchard for fifteen years, and has recently brought his skills to us in renovating our noticeboard and gate, and helping with our maintenance sessions. Chris hopes to add more information about our apple varieties to engage the passers-by going to the guided busway and new houses. Thanks to Chris and all our supporters for everything you do.
We were lucky enough recently to make use of a drone, to get a really unusual view of our orchard and all its blossom. Here’s a little taste of what a drone can do. If you’ve ever wondered what the swifts see on their way from the swift tower, here it is.
In these strange lockdown times, it is the small things that matter most. The view from a window, or the things we see when we are allowed to be outside. Perhaps this daily walk will become a habit, when things return to whatever version of ‘normal’ we might like. I can’t walk in the orchard – I am with family in Norfolk, but whether I am there or not the trees will get on with being trees. The blossom will open, even if nobody sees it. (Very Zen, I know). But I hope that you can get to see the orchard, and sniff the blossom, and look at the flowers and the insects. Spring is not cancelled, it’s all out there. So here are my favourite photos from springs gone by, just to remind you.
The practical bit – the orchard is open access, but please observe the social distancing guidelines if anyone else is in the space. Do not picnic or meet in groups. Please, as always, tidy up and take your rubbish home.
On Sunday 12 January 2020, we greeted the trees with music, song and noise. We gave each tree a libation of apple juice, and we hung toast in the branches. We danced in a circle. All of these activities are traditional ways of saying ‘Wassail’ – good health – to the orchard. And Wassailing also happens to be an excellent way of keeping warm and making friends in the dark days of winter. We hope that the trees appreciate our efforts and will reward us with a good harvest this year. A massive thank you to everyone who turned up and put so much goodwill into it all, and especially to everyone who put so much into our Donations Pot.
In the olden days, rural folk and villagers across the apple-growing counties must have endured the short, cold days and long, cold nights of winter with gloom. What better way to drive that away than to create a ritual involving firelight, noise and cheery singing? And if there was cider involved so much the better. Wassailing, or giving thanks to the orchard, has a long and colourful history and we are happy to be part of its revival.
These days the wassail is less cider-centric, but even more fun. Our annual wassail will be led by Nigel Pennick and we will all follow, singing (or at least making a noise) as we go. Along the way we tie some toast dipped in apple juice in the branches of each tree. All this will protect the apple trees and encourage them to bear a bumper crop next year, so it’s essential arboriculture.
Turn up with a torch or a lantern, and enjoy some hot mulled apple juice. Wrap up warm and be prepared to sing. The event is free but donations to help the orchard and cover our costs are much appreciated. Children very welcome.
Please bear in mind there are no facilities on the orchard. Parking is on the adjacent streets – please park with consideration to our neighbours.
I love to have a relaxing Christmas, including sitting around watching terrible films, but there’s only so much of that I can enjoy before I begin to feel a bit like a Christmas pudding. If you get that feeling too come and join us on Monday 30 December 2019 for a Bramble Blitz and litter picking session. We will be starting at 10.30 am in the community orchard, and ending up with a free lunch of hearty soup and bread which will be served in the Clay Farm Community Garden building.
This event is supported with a grant from TKMaxx and Homesense.
Our orchard relies on voluteers, so we really do appreciate the efforts of everybody who turns up and helps out. In particular the Orchard team would like to say a big thank you to Anna who is volunteering for an hour every Tuesday between 8 am and 9 am. So far she has helped to rake up cuttings from the scythed meadow and dig out brambles and turns up whatever the weather with a willingness to help.
Be like Anna – Come along and see what you can do. You will leave feeling more warm and fuzzy than a Christmas jumper.