Photographs: Charles Francis
August 2017: Back in January, dozens of people braved the midwinter cold to gather at St Ives Community Orchard and toast the health of its resident trees with mulled cider. The traditional wassail ceremony also featured exuberant singing and banging of pots and pans, to wake the trees from their slumber. “We think the wassail must have worked!” says Elise Langley, co-ordinator of the orchard project. “We’ve never had blossom like we had this spring.” She and her team are now confident of a record crop of apples.
It is four years ago that the first 150 trees were planted at two acres of disused land on the fringes of the town. “The bracken and brambles were higher than the trees when we first came here,” Elise remembers. “It was a hard slog cutting them down.” But the site was also an inspiring place to work: high above the bustle of St Ives, yet sheltered from the prevailing wind, with panoramic sea views to the front and a dramatic moorland backdrop. It is part of 32 acres of land bequeathed to the people of St Ives in 1927 as a public open space by distinguished doctor and army major Palemon Best, who was born in the town. Over the last 20 years, a playground and skate park have been built on land bordering what is now the orchard.
The project secured initial funding from St Ives Town Council and St Ives Community Trust. Its primary aim was to create an orchard with a variety of fruit trees, as well as enhancing biodiversity and providing wildlife habitats. “This year, we have planted 40 trees, and we plan to carry on planting. We now have apples, pears, cherries, plums and fruiting bushes. We try not to go with the popular varieties, as we like to keep unusual ones going,” says Elise.
“We’re also going to have a wildflower area, as it’s good for the bees to have flowers through the year.” A beehive has now been established on the site, and there are plans for workshops to show local residents how easy it is to keep bees. “If you put old combs into a hive, the honey smell attracts the bees. We want to leave the honey we’ll have here mainly for the bees, as they work so hard.”
Elise grew up on a cucumber farm in South Africa, and later worked on a farm in Spain. “I always dreamed of having an orchard,” she says. She and her husband Duwayne and their three children were among the project’s first volunteers. “We now have about 20 volunteers, and we have work parties every Thursday from 4pm and 6pm, so that kids can come in after school and adults after work. We have a tea break and chat in between. And when you’ve volunteered for 20 hours, you get your own tree to look after.”
Noah Hall’s background is in organic vegetable growing, and he has just completed an environmental degree at Cornwall College. “The hardest part was setting up the site,” he says. “Gradually, the work has got easier, and eventually the orchard will become self-regulating. It’s a lovely place to work. The people are so friendly, and it’s nice to do something not just for yourself, but for the community. This could be a prototype for local communities to come together to grow their own food.”
Fellow volunteer Jay Dunstan adds: “It makes you feel good to be out in the fresh air. In January, when you’d normally be sat at home in front of the telly, we were out here for the wassail. It keeps you fit and helps to bind the community. You get different age groups here, and people with different levels of experience. People are very helpful about sharing their knowledge. There is a role for everyone.”
Local people are welcome to visit the orchard at any time to help themselves to fruit. “Kids are surprised you can just walk up here and pick an apple on a tree,” says Duwayne. “We hope eventually to have herbs, and things like kale and spinach. A lot of dog walkers come through here, so it’s well used. It’s good that the local community is getting to know what we’re doing. We had 150 people here for Apple Day and it was also incredible how many people turned up for the blessing of the trees at wassail. We also had an Easter egg hunt which was so much fun — the local Co-op gave us 160 eggs, which we hid all round the site.”
The project has also received a grant from the Tesco Bags of Help community fund, some of which is being usedto for a toolshed, which Duwayne is building this summer. “Some of our tools were passed on to us, and some we’ve bought,” says Elise. “Last summer, we used our two old-fashioned Poldark-style scythes!”
The battle against brambles and bracken goes on, she adds — but it is a battle which is being won. “We use hoes to dig the brambles out, and there are also mini hoes which the kids can use. The bracken grows very fast: you chop it down and it comes up again. But at the bottom of the orchard it’s mainly grass now.”
Looking ahead she says: “Our aim is to get the area above the orchard recognised as a nature reserve. And we’re going to use some of our funding to improve access, and make the site more wheelchair-friendly. We also have plans to upgrade the skate park next to the orchard, because it’s very old-fashioned.”
The orchard’s next big event will be Apple Day in October, and hopes are high that it will be even more successful than last year’s event. St Ives Cider has offered to bring a hand-held juicer, and visitors are welcome to bring their own apples to juice. Six-year-old Lewis Christine, one of the project’s youngest volunteers, is certainly looking forward to it. “I found a big Easter egg at the Easter egg hunt, and I went to Apple Day and Wassail Day,” he says. “And I loved them all!”
Elise describes the orchard as “a hidden gem in St Ives”. “We’re creating something amazing for future generations to enjoy — but with the fruit we’re picking this summer, we are also reaping the benefits right now.”