Photographs: Charles Francis
October 2015: Bordered by hundreds of houses, a busy sports centre and one of Cornwall’s largest schools, newly-planted Newquay Community Orchard is destined to become a green oasis for the town’s residents for generations to come.
More than 500 species of flora and fauna are living and thriving on the seven-acre site — yet this was an empty field only two years ago, when it was donated by the Duchy of Cornwall to community interest company Urban Biodiversity.
Eight hundred trees are now in place, including 15 heritage apple varieties sourced from different locations around Cornwall and planted using traditional orchard spacing to allow wildlife habitats to flourish.
An espalier fence curving through the centre of the site promises a spectacular display of blossom in future years.
But the first task of the Urban Biodiversity team was to create a windbreak. “This is an ideal site for an orchard — south-facing and gently sloping — but we have do have to put with the wind,” says managing director Luke Berkeley. “So we planted a willow, poplar, and hazel copse. They are fast-growing species, and will also eventually be used for biofuel on the site.”
The orchard is designed to develop as a facility for the whole community of Newquay, and will include communal growing land with areas for schools and mental health service users, plus a woodland and forest garden. “The community growing space is something I’m really excited about,” says Luke. “It’s a Victorian-style cob-walled kitchen garden of about one and a half acres, and there’s space for 150 people — more than if it was individual allotments.
“We weren’t going to grow anything this year, as it’s our first year, but some of our volunteers were keen to start propagating their own stuff.” One grower delighted fellow volunteers by serving soup made from her first crop of beetroots, carrots and onions.
Also planned is a community building with a café and indoor classrooms, where local people can learn to grow and cook organic produce; and three amphitheatres of different sizes, offering scope for a wide range of events and activities.
A den built by students from neighbouring Newquay Tretherras School using recycled garden waste will form the basis for the first amphitheatre. The teenagers have also planted trees and dug a pond.
Education was part of the project mix from the start, and so was promoting health and wellbeing. “The positive effect of green spaces on mental health is well-known,” says Luke. “We’re doing research with Exeter University and Newquay Health Centre about ‘social prescriptions’ for people with anxiety and social isolation — alternative therapies to antibiotics.”
The community orchard’s roots run deep. “It came about from a feeling of helplessness,” is how Luke describes it. When he was studying ecology at university, the message from his lecturers was that the planet and its inhabitants faced a bleak future. “What I was taught was that we are doomed. You can get depressed – or you go out and do something. The best way of doing something that I could see was by trying to change people’s opinions about how they live their day-to-day lives: getting them to be more environmentally focused and more community focused. The more people work together in harmony, the better things are going to be.”
He saw the Duchy of Cornwall land as a place where these ideas could be put into practice. “This site hasn’t been used for 30 years, apart from by dog walkers. Newquay is rapidly expanding, which highlights the importance of open space, and I could see there was an opportunity here to show how an urban site can be used to provide a multi-functional space for the community. The Duchy has been incredibly supportive. Prince Charles has been to visit the site, and he loved it.“
No doubt the prince approved the project’s emphasis on recycled materials, sustainable building methods and permaculture techniques such as hugelkultur. “You dig a trench with hard and soft wood, and layer it up with garden waste,” explains Luke. “It’s effectively a raised bed. The layers break down at different times to produce nutrients. It’s the same process that happens with Cornish hedges, only with green waste.”
Between now and next spring, another 800 trees are due to be planted in the orchard and woodland, and work will begin on the wall around the community growing space, using slate donated by Delabole Quarry. It will be finished in cob, and lime-rendered.
The greatest challenge the project faces is ongoing funding. “We have had success with Crowdfunder and some other funding bids, and we’re hoping it will get easier as our reputation grows,” Luke says. “Our board and staff have many areas of expertise, and we do a lot of outreach consultancy, so we’re not reliant on one income stream. We’re really proud of what we’ve done so far, and so much of that is down to the community. We’ve had phenomenal backing from everyone, and there have been more than 100 volunteers on site.”
This is just the start of a project which will not only be embedded in the Newquay soil, but has the potential to flourish further afield. “We’ve been approached by other organisations, interested in what we’re doing, and we do want to take on more sites in time,” says Luke. “We see Newquay Community Orchard as a blueprint.”