The beginning of things – a kind of prologue
Once upon a time I lived hard against a railway line.
My garden was a handkerchief of paving slabs,
filled in fine weather with flapping sheets and shirts.
The quarter hours chimed with stolen light.
But now, a cottage, sandwiched between orchard
and A2. It’s true, the road the Romans built
is not a peaceful neighbour; and out back the birds,
the wind … but, oh, this picnic cloth of land!
This woman’s place is in her shed,
a voyeur with a window on the wildlife,
a notebook, a desk, a sign: Writer at Work,
entry forbidden to persons from Porlock.
Maria C. McCarthy © 2015
When writing ‘Kubla Khan’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge received an unwelcome visitor: a person from Porlock. The poem was never completed.
I have lived near the A2 ever since I left home, in 1978, starting off in South East London: the halls of residence at Avery Hill, then Plumstead, Woolwich, and Eltham. I learned to drive on the busy roads of Shooter’s Hill, the roundabouts at Well Hall, the Yorkshire Grey and World of Leather, drove to Woolwich and Abbey Wood for work in a Renault 11 with steering that pulled to the left. I spent a lot of time in traffic.
I moved to Strood with my young family in 1988. Stuck in traffic on the Rochester Bridge when house-hunting, the A2 gridlocked, we opted for the Strood side of the River Medway, a quicker escape for the commute to work back in south east London. The A2 was all about traffic, nothing moving fast.
I moved to jobs in Rochester, Twydall, Chatham, jobs where I travelled up and down the A2 to see clients, have meetings, often losing concentration on the long, straight road that the Romans built. Have I been through Newington? I often thought, on autopilot, hoping I’d have noticed a red light, a crossing child, realising as I coasted down Keycol Hill that I could remember nothing since Rainham. Familiarity and all that – it stops you seeing things; it stops you noticing.
When I lived in Strood and found myself without a car for a few years, I took the bus, often burying my head in a book or writing in one of the notebooks I always carry with me: again, not really noticing, not really seeing.
Then, in 2008, I moved to Teynham, just twelve miles away. Suddenly, my bus rides along the A2 – to Faversham in one direction; to Sittingbourne in the other – were a new experience. Fields and orchards, sheep grazing in orchards. I have not read a book or written in a notebook on a local bus journey since.
More than this, my new home, which sits on the A2 – in one of the many London Roads along the route the Romans built – has an outhouse: an oversized shed, which is my writing room. It overlooks a mature orchard, growing pears, apples, plums and greengages, with hedgerows dripping with blackberries at the end of the summer. The fruit is no longer picked, or rarely. Windfalls provide fodder for the wildlife, plums shrivel on the branch like (as I have written in my poem ‘The Orchard Ladder’) “Christmas lights left out after Twelfth Night.”
The land is marked on the Swale Borough Council Local Plan, Bearing Fruits, as ‘Land East of Station Road’; this does not begin to describe its beauty. Ironically, Bearing Fruits has marked the orchard as land suitable for housing development, and while they say that they would preserve some of the trees within a housing estate, it seems likely that there will be precious few trees bearing fruit if they do so.
Meanwhile, the cherry orchard a short way down the A2, just outside of Teynham village, the scene of sheep grazing beneath the trees as I passed on many a bus ride, has been grubbed up. The trees are spent – they last for 50 years – and even if new trees are planted, they will be of the short variety: easy to pick from and to protect from the birds; they will not grow into the majestic cathedral of trees for future generations to enjoy.
Fruit trees growing along the sides of the A2 goes back to Roman times, when legions of marching soldiers spat out cherry stones along the length of the road – on a procession of Watling Streets and London Roads – and trees sprang up on what would later be given the more prosaic name: the A2.
Many of these fruit trees were lost during Anglo Saxon times, though a few cherry trees were cultivated in the monasteries, and there were some native cherries grown in Norfolk.
A key name in the history of fruit growing is Richard Harrys. Born in Conyer, a hamlet of Teynham, he became fruiterer to King Henry VIII. Richard Harrys gave Teynham its big moment in history when he heard of the king’s fondness for cherries and apples, which Henry had tasted in France. Harrys, a businessman, ‘fetched out of France a great store of graftes, especially pippins,’ and out of ‘Lowe countries, cherrie grafts and Pear grafts of diverse sorts.’ He came back with trees to plant on land at Teynham. King Henry gave Richard Harrys this land, stretching to 105 acres, at Oziers Farm and Newgardens, and by the end of the century, Teynham housed England’s first large fruit collection, which became ‘the chief mother of all other orchards in England’. (Source of quotations: www.Teynham.org ).
Newgardens, Richard Harrys’s orchard, is now Honeyball Walk, on a housing estate, which also has a road named New Gardens. Two plaques in Station Road commemorate royal visits to New Gardens in the 20th century; there is none in the village commemorating Richard Harrys. The only memorial to this great fruiterer is Harrys Close, on the same housing estate. I wonder how many people who live there know why their road was so named.
A booklet tells me that the Faversham Fruit Belt grew along the A2, from Rochester to Canterbury. I don’t recall seeing any orchards on my bus rides along the A2 from Strood as far as Rainham. Except for a lone unpicked apple tree on the Strood footings of Rochester Bridge, deep below in the gap between the road and the railway line on a tiny patch of grass. But from Rainham to Faversham, orchards still line the roads. As I begin my writing, being already familiar with the orchards near to my home in Teynham, I intend to make a journey along the A2 within Medway and Swale to see how many orchards are left.
It’s a fitting legacy to Richard Harrys that the area once again holds the largest fruit collection in England: Brogdale National Fruit Collection in Faversham, just off the A2.
Maria C. McCarthy © March 2015