ASK anyone to pick out the historically important fruit-growing areas of England and they will almost certainly say Kent and/or Vale of Evesham and the surrounding areas of Worcestershire and Herefordshire. So, I was delighted when asked to review a book on the history, ecology and geography of fruit orchards in Eastern England, a region of the country much underrated for its orchards and fruit-growing down the ages.

Having been born and bred within this region of England I can testify to the numerous orchards planted in Victorian, Georgian and perhaps even earlier periods and that were still standing and yielding fruit in the 1950s and 1960s. Veteran and even ancient apple and pear trees can be found today, often on local authority land, where offices, libraries and other facilities, now firmly established in the suburbs, were built in the grounds of old country houses, mansions and estates.

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Authors of this book entitled, The Orchards of Eastern England – History, Ecology and Place are Gerry Barnes, formerly head of environment at Norfolk County Council, and now an honorary fellow of the School of History at UEA (University of East Anglia), and Tom Williamson, professor of landscape history at UEA. Research for the book was undertaken as part of a much larger project entitled ‘Orchards East’, which ran for a period of four years from early 2017. The resources for research and publication of the book by University of Hertfordshire Press came from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Geographically, ‘The Orchards of Eastern England’ cover Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Suffolk, Bedfordshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, and all lying north of the River Thames. Missing – surprisingly so – is the ‘old’ county of Middlesex, entirely north of the River Thames and draped across the northern and western boundaries of the City of London. Middlesex was the undisputed fruit basket of London before the county was urbanised in the 18th and 19th centuries and eventually became part of Greater London.

I recall reading a book on the history of Middlesex, which described how the owners of brand new houses, built in the late 19th century in Hammersmith and Fulham, down by the River Thames, moved in to find mature apple, pear, plum and cherry trees in the garden where the houses had been built on commercial fruit farms. Villages like Sipson, Longford and Harmondsworth, previously of Middlesex but now within the London Borough of Hillingdon, and under threat from possible runway developments at Heathrow Airport, were big fruit-growing areas. Indeed Harmondsworth still has one of the highest concentrations of very old common walnut trees in the country.

Be that as it may, this supremely well-written and intriguing text covers the cultivation of top fruit (apples and pears), stone fruit (plums and cherries) and nuts (filberts (hazel) and walnuts) across the counties listed. A key reason given by the authors for researching and writing this book is the perceived dearth of information out there on the history of orchards. Even the most iconic of texts, whether covering cultural history (such as Village and Farmstead – A History of Rural Settlement in England [1983] by C. Taylor) or historical ecology (e.g. History of the Countryside [London, 1986] by Oliver Rackham), have studiously and specifically omitted orchards from their discourse.

This book comprises eight chapters, which are highly illustrated with old maps, black and white photographs and full colour pictures and with a useful concluding chapter at the end. Chapter 1 introduces the concept of orchards and the origin of fruit trees; the development of grafting, pruning, pollination and fruit set as well as a lengthy section on ‘Mapping orchards of Eastern England’. Chapter 2 covers farmhouse and commercial orchards pre-1850, including their design, layout and management, as well as production of fruit for commercial sale at market.

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Chapter 3 deals with the so-called ‘Orchard Century’, spanning the period 1850–1960 with the chapter divided into sections. They are ‘pre-1914’, the Inter-War Developments, Management of Orchards and ‘the Peak of Expansion’, which covers the 1940s and 1950s. Chapter 4 is Garden and Institutional Orchards, which covers: orchards and country houses pre-1760; fruit trees in country-house grounds post-1760; Victorian and Edwardian fruit-growing; orchards in the suburbs and institutional orchards.

This last section on ‘institutional orchards’, which includes orchards established by psychiatric hospital authorities, caught my eye for very personal reasons and brought back powerful memories. During the 1930s a string of large psychiatric hospitals was established in Hertfordshire as a ring of facilities around north London. One of the largest, if not the largest, was Shenley Hospital, with its own self-supporting farm in the hamlet of Shenleybury and complete with a large orchard. During the 1950s and 1960s I spent a considerable part of my childhood and youth on the farm where my uncle was head dairyman. I remember the orchard well, which has been preserved for posterity and public viewing and enjoyment by the local authority.

Chapter 5 covers the post-harvest processes and products of fruit tree culture – cider, jam and fruit canning and showing clearly how cider-making was not confined to Devon, Dorset, Herefordshire and Somerset. Chapter 6 describes the recent history of orchards, which probably peaked in the East of England during the 1950s. Sadly much of this chapter is devoted to the decline of orchards although there is an uplifting section on ‘The Rise of Heritage Orchards’. Chapter 7 deals with fruit varieties and the nursery industry while chapter 8 discusses the significance of orchards.

Forestry Journal: Co-author Tom Williamson Co-author Tom Williamson

One interesting and meaningful comment by authors in their concluding chapter is: “Orchards were planted for the most part for good economic and practical reasons, although, as we have seen, they were from an early date frequently used as a part of ornamental landscapes.” In this can be found the reasons why this particular book should be on the purchase list of essentialARB readers. Many tree officers working for local authorities have responsibility for the care and management of fruit trees, often in heritage orchards. Likewise, the arb companies which are tendering for and contracted to do the tree work for these local authorities are often tasked with providing the tender loving care required by these invariably old top fruit, stone fruit and nut trees.

The Orchards of Eastern England – History, Ecology and Place is available to purchase (£16.99) at