Amongst the dramatic chalk downland of the Kent Downs where ancient villages and settlements nestle in hidden dry valleys Kent’s heritage stands dominant; the orchard. The farmland is surrounded by a network of hedgerows where wooded hilltops intermingled with traditional orchards are now a vital part of our heritage and biodiversity.
The Kent Downs is characterised by its geological soil type where the chalk on the scarp is more evident yet covered with good brick earth on the dip slope. On this side of the Kent Downs, both traditional and commercial orchards dominate the landscape, an area known for its fruit production. In the distant past, this area was once a thriving industry, where Kentish cherries were first mentioned growing in Kent orchards during the 12th century under the auspices of the monasteries and church. During the 16th century, Henry VIII’s head fruiterer Richard Harris established a mother orchard in the area of Teynham close to the Kent Downs. Cuttings were taken from this orchard to produce fruit trees which were planted in the surrounding area. Today, there are remnants of old traditional orchards, similar to those which would have been planted; most of these have been superseded with modern dwarfing trees.
Throughout the calendar year the seasons capture the stature of these old trees, often sad and forlorn with limbs left to succumb to the rigours of the harsh weathers of the long dark wintry days. Yet, the old traditional cherry and apple orchards tall and spreading stand majestic, their limbs bursting forth with buds in spring. Their boughs laden with a profusion of white and pink blush flowers but be quick before the delicate petals fall like drifts of snow amongst the sheep grazing beneath the trees. Summer brings the celebration of fruit, the cherries hanging laden and lush, the apples colouring for those seasons of mists to ripen and adorn everybody’s fruit bowl. With finally the colours of those cherry leaves splashed with the glint of the maturing sun before nightfall and the closing of another year.
Traditional orchards are a haven for wildlife: a little owl, a bee orchid and butterflies galore. Many are community orchards in the Kent Downs; look out for events in Lynsted, a beautiful cherry orchard or cherry Downs at Lenham a new community orchard of Morello cherries with a cobnut platt. This site on the scarp of the Downs is a picnic site with the most wonderful views and during summer a meadow with a myriad of wildflowers.
To find out a little more about community orchards, The Mid Kent Downs ran ‘Orchards for Everyone’ a holistic project which addressed heritage, celebration and the horticultural aspect of managing a community orchard. A new Heritage Lottery Funded project icalled Kent Orchards for Everyone is due to commence in early 2014. You can find more information and a timetable of planned events here. If you are interested in Orchard heritage visit the National Fruit Collections at Faversham.