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Orchards for Everyone

Amongst the dramatic chalk downland of the Kent Downs where ancient villages nestle in hidden dry valleys and farmland is surrounded by a network of hedgerows and wooded hilltops, traditional orchards, a vital part of our heritage, stand majestic. Once a distinctive feature characterised by tall, spreading trees, with sheep grazing beneath, the often sad forlorn limbs have succumbed to the rigours of disease. Despite this, if you meander through the villages of Sheldwich, Milstead, Lenham and Stockbury you will see traditional orchards thriving as Community_Orchards

Scattered throughout Kent numerous traditional orchards stand abandonded, yet many owners are passionate to find a direction for these imposing trees. Community access is being considered, however, they need management help, vision and direction, and some are being maintained for their heritage. Yet they offer much more ‘rich habitats, they inhabitat our lives, flaunt the seasons, colour the land, hold history and geography in their gaze, haunt our memory, stir stories from our lips, nourish and quench our thirst, fuel our fortunes, offer stages for our festive moods, classrooms for our learning and tranquil corners in which to savour life.’ Sue Clifford, Common Ground

Save Our Orchards!

The high profile Mid Kent Downs Orchards Project, drawn together using Heritage Lottery Fund, LEADER+ and the Kent Downs Sustainable Development Fund, has built a sustainable future for some of these important orchards. Traditional orchards close to the village centres of Sheldwich, Milstead, Lenham and Stockbury were identified for restoration. Discussions took place with parish representatives, members of the local communities and landowners. Traditional orchard sites within the above villages have been established of which the parishes have become custodians.Traditional orchards are now recognised in the Kent Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP).  

The project focused on three main strands: horticulture, heritage and partnerships.

Horticulture covered planting, restoring and managing of these orchards using traditional varieties and techniques. Advice was given to landowners/ parishioners/volunteers through the development of restoring, planning and planting a new traditional orchard,and grafting and budding guidance notes and community workshop training. This training was  taken up with enthusiasm arming the parishioners with new skills and expertise. A new traditional orchard was planted by Lenham community to help reverse the decline of the traditional orchards.

The orchard year interpretation installations in both Stockbury and Sheldwich orchard remind the communities of the orchard management. the wildlife they may see and the opportunity to celebrate at certain times of the year.

Heritage - The advantages of having a holistic approach to the regeneration of the landscape and rural economy are already being demonstrated. The communities have celebrated their heritage and social tradition with fruit mapping events. Each village has its own distinctive fruit heritage and  history was made when the original workers who planted New House Cherry Orchard, Sheldwich in 1947 attended this event. Cherryl Fountain, a Royal Academy Schools post graduate with 23 years of exhibiting at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition painted a fruit map for Sheldwich following the Fruit mapping event. In each village a ‘Festival of Fruit’ was held with displays and tasting of local fruit products, a veritable feast was savoured by all. Recipes for each of the dishes demonstrated were handed out.

Hartlip Primary School was first to embrace the School’s ICT Project, From_Bud_to_Beaker when they celebrated their Teddy Bears Picnic .in Stockbury orchard. The orchards have been used for entertainment;  folk songs to soothe the limbs post pruning and an amphitheatre for a heritage production.  The heritage of cherries in Kent was filmed by the One Show at a Festival of Fruit with the birth of a new cheese,  Cherry Cheese. Walks through lanes and publics rights of way discovering the traditional orchards of the Mid Kent Downs can be found in a leaflet Discovering_our_Traditional_Orchards. Each village displayed a different perspective of the traditional orchard:  Sheldwich, where biodiversity mingles with cherry orchard celebrations. Milstead, a village steeped in fruit heritage, Lynsted a village with a pioneering community orchard, Stockbury, a village with an orchard at its heart and Lenham, growing the pips of the past in the present.

Lenham is proud to present its new traditional community orchard on a picnic site at Rayners Hill, Lenham. With stunning views of the landscape from the scarp of the downs a tranquil and relaxing site, it heralds a newly planted orchard and cobnut platt. Yet a site which is celebrating the heritage of Grants Morella Cherry Brandy once produced in the village from 20,000 Morello cherry trees. This sites boasts a new interpretation gate and table picture to celebrate the birth of a new orchard on the Kent Downs.

Despite these majestic traditional orchards looking sad and forlorn throughout the harsh weathers of the long dark cruel days of winter as spring arrives their limbs burst forth with blossom in the Spring. Their boughs laden with a profusion of white blush flowers, picture but be quick take a walk before the delicate petals fall like drifts of snow upon the ground around these stately trees. Follow the undulating lanes through the Mid Kent Downs visiting the villages and hamlets of Doddington, Sharsted, Newnham and Seed discovering the beauty of these traditional orchards flaunting their overskirts like ballet dancers pirouetting amongst the hills in a walk written by the Mid Kent Downs, produced by Produced in Kent,Cherry_Ripe – Life is just a bowl of cherries. Traditional orchards, a wild cherry (Prunus Avium) avenue and modern orchards can be seen as well as apple orchards and stunning views.

Poet A. E. Houseman wrote:

‘LOVELIEST of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow’

The partnerships, encompassed  the development of links between existing and developing initiatives and a fruit associated organisation register. A good practice guide for managing orchard projects was produced in collaboration with Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming - Protecting Our Orchard Heritage.

Think about your orchards! Is there an opportunity for the community to enjoy and help with the management of these orchards, for them to be the hub of the village? These locally distinctive majestic trees, are a wise way of sharing the land for now and the future.