There are two main geographical areas of Cambridgeshire where commercial orchards have been important landscape features for more than a hundred years. These are in the villages situated immediately north and north west of Cambridge towards Ely and towards Huntingdon and in the villages surrounding Wisbech in the north of the county.
The first large scale orchards were planted around Wisbech towards the end of the nineteenth century during a time of agricultural depression. They were planted on land reclaimed from the sea many centuries before. One of the first apple varieties grown commercially here was the Irish cooker Ecklinville Seedling but, very quickly, numerous locally developed apple coltivars were also introduced, such as Hunter’s Majestic, Cockett’s Red and Emneth Early. However, by the end of the twentieth century this growing region was dominated by Bramley and Conference pear orchards. In contrast plum orchards remain moist commonly found in the villages east of Huntingdon.
Top fruit growing once employed thousands of local people in Cambridgeshire. The workforce included migrant seasonal labourers, many if them women, cultivating and harvesting fruit and processing and transporting the produce to markets. Some of the fruit was canned in local factories and then exported by ship through the town docks in Wisbech.
However, most fruit left by road and rail destined for jam manufacturers and produce markets in the North and the Midlands.
In 1873 John Chivers opened a jam-making factory near Histon in south Cambridgeshire to use the produce from his own extensive orchards. At nearby Dry Drayton in the 1900s the Chivers family planted plum orchards. Apple, pear and plum orchards were also developed around Willingham and Cottenham.
The Chivers family even developed a number of apples for their own use, including Chivers Delight, Histon Favourite and the ‘lost’ variety Histon Cropper.
Traditional orchards are also a feature of the landscape to the south of Cambridge, particularly in the villages around Melbourn and Sawston.
The type of orcharding in this area is similar to the smallholding tradition seen in neighbouring Hertfordshire, with some of the orchards being grazed with poultry and other livestock in the past.
The area of orchards in the county is now around 20% of what it was in 1950 and the surviving orchards are still being lost by development for housing or paddocks, by neglect or by conversion to arable land. As native woodland cover is only around 2% in the county the loss of orchards has had a drastic effect on the appearance of the landscape as well as a detrimental effect on biodiversity.
Trumpington Community Orchard, as a member of the East of England Apples and Orchards Project, aims to encourage the conservation of Cambridgeshire’s local orchard fruit varieties and promote a greater awareness and understanding of their importance.
East Anglian orchards have attracted attention recently, so for more information have a look at these books:
Fruit Farming in the Cam Valley. Available from the author, Jonathan Spain.
Orchard Recipes from Eastern England: landscape, fruit and heritage, by Monica Askay and Tom Williamson.
The Orchards of Eastern England by Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson