Negative space: an orchard in Newington
A trip up the A2 in early April, in search of orchards, starting on London Road, Teynham, through Bapchild, Sittingbourne and following the Roman road to the Key Street roundabout, onwards up Keycol Hill to Newington, Hartlip Hill, towards Rainham.
The route is dotted with oast houses converted into homes, emblems of Kent’s history of hop-growing, picking, roasting and brewing. Signs of a more recent past are a former pub transformed into the Darjeeling Heights Indian Restaurant and a run of closed-down car dealerships. There’s the Tuck Inn café, a plant nursery, a farm shop, and a plantation of Christmas trees.
The reward comes on a stretch between Newington and Rainham, by a set of once-grand wrought-iron gates, flanked by brick columns, each topped with a concrete orb with flaking black paint, one of which is criss-crossed with black duct tape. Perhaps this is an attempt to stop bits of it falling onto the cars that pass through on their way to JB Training Enterprises and CPCS Test Centre. My guess is few drivers will stop to see the magical orchard either side of the driveway.
The ground is spongy with moss, and overgrown with grass and teazles. There have been attempts at landscaping – a horizontal, truncated ladder, repurposed as a bench, more decorative than practical, since anyone sitting on it would fall through the gaps between the rungs. There are clumps of daffodils, heads nodding. They are of the stinky kind, a pungency that almost cancels out their cheerful yellowness amongst the lichen greens, browns and greys.
Mostly, it is a tangle of trees, some dead yet busy with insects, bark peeling and hanging from the trunks, lying in curls on the grass beneath. Some of the tall, standard cherry trees are coming into bud – left to their own fate, planted higgledy-piggledy, no room for tractor mowers now used to keep the grass down between modern orchards’ trees.
We’d hoped for blossom, but it’s late this year. But there is something about the shapes of these gnarled branches, bare against a bright spring sky that makes the heart soar. Negative space, it’s called. The abstract space created between and around the physical, which casts shapes of its own. And this orchard is a kind of negative space: deserted, dilapidated, disused, some might say of no use.
There is, of course, the detritus of neglect – sweet wrappers, drink cans, a hubcap, a pair of underpants – perhaps dropped by other trespassers, or thrown from passing cars. A great tit ee-aws above. There’s the buzz of traffic on one side, and trains shuttling to London Victoria, St Pancras International, Faversham and Dover on the other border of the orchard.
On the opposite side of the A2 is a commercial orchard, new rootstock apple trees, short and staked in regimented rows: the past and future of fruit growing in Kent juxtaposed. These new trees are more efficient, easier to manage, but not as romantic as the old trees we have just stood amongst. It’s a haven of unregulated nature that few would notice as they sit isolated in their vehicles, distracted by music and mobile phones.
Maria C. McCarthy © April 2015