The roots of Horfield Organic Community Orchard (HOCO) run deeper, spread wider, and are probably older than you think. Enabled by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, orchard members explored the history of food and fruit growing in the Golden Hill area of Bristol during their 2013 Orchard Roots Bristol (ORB) project.
We learned how the orchard has been shaped by local geology, orchard traditions in Somerset and Gloucestershire, and organic gardening activists. Recording a wide range of stories from founding HOCO members was instructive. It’s inspiring to see how the energy and experience of more than 100 volunteer members have shaped the orchard since it began life as started an Avon Organic Group project in1998.
The geology of Horfield is mainly clay with bands of limestone. The place-name comes from two Old English words horu, for filth or dirt, and feld, meaning a ‘muddy stretch of open country’. These two facts underlie the history of land use of the area.
The HOCO allotment plots are on the lower boundary edge of plot number 58 on the 1843 Horfield parish tithe map, and follow the original elbow-shaped boundary lines. At the time of the tithe survey in 1843, Horfield parish was composed of 1272 acres. Enclosed pasture made up around 65% of the land, and 30% was arable. Only 25 acres were used as orchards and/or had orchard related names - less than 2%. The 1903 Ordnance Survey map notes this area as Allotment Gardens, which were probably set up to meet the needs of a growing urban population as Bristol city extended its boundaries in the 1890s.
Fruit trees and pasturing often co-exist in agriculture. The oldest fruiting trees in the orchard are bullace plums – a classic boundary hedgerow species. It is still possible to trace the tithe field boundaries by following the lines of feral fruit trees within the Golden Hill allotment site.
Four apples, a pear, and plum trees, were uncovered when the plot was cleared in 1998. They are not old enough to have been planted when the site was last used for pasture, more than 100 years ago. Cultivated fruit trees live for about 70 years, and longer if well cared for. The ‘inherited’ apple trees were probably planted by previous allotment holders, and not before the 1940s. Plums trees, however, have a habit of throwing up suckers, and our stands of plums look like they may have originated from older trees in this way.
Samples of ripe fruit from our mystery trees were sent to fruit experts for identification in 2013. The results were inconclusive – the plum may be ‘Heron’. We have decided to name one tree, which has the characteristics of a seedling apple, ‘Golden Hill Pippin’.
The orchard is now home to more than 100 fruiting trees, bushes and vines. Several of these have origins in traditional orchard counties that surround Bristol. These include Gloucestershire varieties - Ashmead’s Kernel, Gloucestershire Underleaf, and Shepperdine Silt, and Somerset varieties - Court of Wick and Morgan Sweet. The well-planned selection of different fruits shows that it is practical and pleasurable to eat local grown fruit all year round. This diversity has proven resilient in the face of the challenges of weather extremes of recent years - enough things will do well enough to ensure a satisfactory harvest for a non-commercial enterprise.
Less than 20% of the fruit eaten in the UK is grown here. This shocking dependence on imports could easily be reversed by a return to fruit growing in home gardens, the creation of community orchards in public spaces, and the return to market garden scale production on Bristol’s ‘Blue Finger’ and other fragments of high quality land, in and around the city.
Over the next couple of years we’ll be developing our Home Orchard Plot (HOP) project as a way to pass on the skills and habits of growing, harvesting, storing, and cooking fruit that is needed for a secure, local food future. HOP is designed to demonstrate how a small 4 x 10 metre plot can be intensively planted up to grow a variety of fruits. Part-funded by a Well Being grant from the Bishopston, Cotham and Redland Neighbourhood Partnership, the balance has been raised through sales of refreshments at Apple Day, Wassail and Summer Orchard Open Day.
Membership of the orchard is open to anyone, and new members are welcome to join us from January 2015. Harvest-share members (numbering about 30) enjoy a share of the harvest, learn specialist fruit-growing skills, and have the pleasure of working and socialising in a green oasis in this densely populated part of Bristol. HOCO is also financially supported by members who join as Friends, and by donations. The public is invited to find out more about growing fruit for themselves, see the Orchard Roots Bristol exhibition, and be inspired by progress on the Home Orchard Plot at our public events.
Wassail 2013 – with Pigsty Morris group, photos by Jamie Carstairs
All are welcome to find our more and Wassail the Orchard on Saturday 17 January 2015, 2-4pm. Pigsty Morris will perform their magic. Mulled juice, homemade cakes, and apple trees are for sale.
Contact: Shannon Smith
0117 373 1587