I am coming to the end of a month of writing, talking, thinking about orchards, and how they grew up along the A2, the road that I live on. I go for a walk, a favourite, circular walk, which I always take in an anti-clockwise direction.
Crossing the A2, I walk up Cellar Hill, and take a left alongside the field where miniature horses are stabled. It leads to arable land, and I follow the tracks left by a tractor, cutting a swathe through a growing crop – green stalks with yellow flowers – out and along by a house and garden with a sign on the gate: ‘Free range children and animals. Please drive carefully.’
There are apple orchards either side of the path that I follow: the ‘stupid trees’ that Pam Talbot, one of my interviewees, talked about (listen to audio below). They are short in stature, in rows. I remember her telling me about lying on a cloth beneath the apple trees, gazing up at the blossom. You would struggle to fit beneath these trees. They are not trees for dreaming beneath, for romantic assignations.
Wooden boxes are stacked at one end of the orchard, stencilled with Paynes Sittingbourne and various numbers: 78, 84. Apples will be piled into them at harvest time, delivered to shops and markets, taken into storage. The boxes mark one thing that has not changed; they are still used to store and transport apples. They are sturdy, built of wooden slats to let the air circulate. I see them, in April, packed with apples, stacked on trailers pulled by tractors, on the flat beds of trucks, passing my house along the A2.
Apples keep – unlike cherries, whose season is short and unpredictable. If they survive the weather and the birds, they are eaten soon after picking, or preserved in jam or alcohol. At the turning into Nouds Lane, I look back for a moment, and notice, for the first time, a sign on the orchard fence: Cherry Gardens, and this on an apple orchard. So these would have been cherry orchards once. I think about the direction I have been taking, and the backwards-looking nature of some of my research, my writing. Is this an elegy for a disappearing Kent, a hark back to the land of H.E. Bates and The Darling Buds of May? These ‘stupid trees’ are earning a farmer a living; the pickers no longer have to climb ladders and haul heavy baskets of fruit down from the tall trees. Is the direction of my walk the same as my writing, my thinking – anti-clockwise, wanting to turn back time?
As I carry on down Nouds Lane, there is a field to my right with metal arches leaning towards the hedgerow, ready to be spaced out to form a skeleton over which the polythene skin, stretched out over the ground in the neighbouring field, will be pulled to protect the strawberries that will grow beneath them.
I’ve learned that cherries are now grown in such polytunnels, with irrigation hoses running along their roots. I noticed frames going up over stunted trees along the A2 on my way to Faversham a few days ago. Other cherry farmers use nets to deter the birds, which nevertheless find a way in, becoming trapped. Pam Talbot told me that the villagers of Boughton-under-Blean cut the nets to set the birds free.
The old cherry orchards will die off eventually, or in the words of Joni Mitchell, will be put ‘in a tree museum’, places like the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale. The sight of orchard ladders in tall trees dripping with fruit will disappear from the Kent countryside. The orchards that Pam Talbot picked from in the 1960s have already gone. ‘I remember,’ she told me, ‘right at the top, you could see the cathedral.’ A clear view to Canterbury, seen from the top of a cherry tree.
Some are preserving the old ways, even reviving them. Rob Malcolm has taken on the cherry orchards that his grandfather began, farming ‘cherries and chickens’ in the 1920s. Rob’s father took them over in the 1950s. He grows twenty types of cherry, some varieties that are dying out. One kind only crops every five years, a bumper crop, then nothing in between. Yet he doesn’t want to lose this orchard, and neither does his father. Rob supplements his income working for another farmer, sometimes pruning, sometimes selling produce at farmers’ markets. When I met Rob, he was standing behind a stall selling jams, chutneys and beautiful, handmade wooden nutcrackers (listen to audio below).
At another market, I spoke to the owner of Perry Farms, who makes jams, chutneys and sauces from hedgerow fruit and fruit from wild orchards, which she picks herself. She diversified from beekeeping and selling honey. The Best of Faversham market is packed with stallholders returning to the old ways.
Marcus and Serena Henderson of Kent Cider Company are regulars at Best of Faversham market, and have made a success of serving cider at festivals around Kent. They are based in Teynham, on land not far from where Richard Harrys planted fruit trees for Henry VIII. They took over an orchard when a farmer retired, and so began their award-winning artisan cider-making business. Old ways revived alongside new business practices.
The owners of Kent Cider Company do not look like stereotypical rosy-cheeked farmers. Serena has a shock of bright pink hair. Marcus is a canvas for the tattoo artist from the Extreme Voltage tattoo parlour in Teynham. It was she who told me that Marcus and Serena live in the village.
Serena told me that she and Marcus picked from their own orchard in Graveney the first year they took it over, from tall, standard trees. The work was back-breaking. So while they keep up many of the old ways – they wassail the ‘King Tree’ in January, use artisan production methods – they now buy in fruit from other, commercial orchards as well as their own.
Car on a country footpath
Twig fingers probe where windows
no longer wind down. Russet windfalls
tumble in the foot well, rot on skeletons of
once-upholstered seats. Long-since scavenged
of mirrors, tyres, headlights, a bramble-clamped car
on a country footpath, though human-placed, is not out of place.
As much a part of the landscape now as the lines of planted poplars.
Maria C. McCarthy © 2015
Blackberries shrivel on Cellar Hill
though a few late blooms defy the new order:
bletted plums usurped by ripening pears.
A kestrel hovers over the orchard,
the gate staked by an estate agent’s board.
Cobnuts lie scattered like popcorn on the turning
to Lynsted Lane, by the houses that first broke
through the earth in the spring, now de-scaffolded,
exhaling steam through plastic heating vents.
And strange fruits hang in the hedgerow,
Stella cans, a Co-operative bakery wrapper
with orange sticker, reduced to 40p.
Maria C. McCarthy © 2015
I’m on the last leg of my walk, back on the A2, from the direction of Faversham, and into Teynham village. The cars whizz past. A swallow flies over. I see the enclosure for pygmy goats at the back of Orchard Thatch, the first house in the village. When I moved here, six and a half years ago, that piece of land was a wild orchard next to the footpath where I saw the abandoned car that inspired my poem ‘Car on a country footpath’. Both car and trees have been removed in favour of animals kept for pleasure. Another former orchard, which features in my poem ‘Strange fruits’, “its gate staked by an estate agent’s board”, now houses a gaggle of geese, two donkeys and three alpacas.
Yet at Osiers Farm, not far from Teynham Railway Station, sheep graze in an orchard of big, old trees, on land where Richard Harrys planted his first fruit trees for King Henry VIII, over 500 years ago.
Maria C. McCarthy © April 2015