Photographs: Charles Francis
February 2014: The lone cherry tree which stands in the centre of Strawberry Hill Orchard was planted just a few months ago — but it is a living reminder of the days when the sunny slopes of the Tamar Valley were filled with flourishing market gardens.
In its heyday, the industry provided work for around 10,000 people, but by the late 20th century, it had all but vanished, and many of the unique varieties which once grew in abundance in the valley were in danger of disappearing forever. The newly-planted cherry is among the fruits of a project which aims to re-establish these traditional trees at Strawberry Hill.
The ten-acre site, part of the Pentillie estate, is run by St Dominick Community Orchard Group, which has already planted 80 apple trees, all of which are Tamar heritage varieties.
With the support of the Silvanus Trust, the group has now secured funding from Western Power Distribution to plant nine cherry varieties which once grew in the area.
The first of these, planted in November, came from a single tree discovered growing in a hedge in the village of Botus Fleming. It was identified by a local market gardener as a Halton Black, suggesting it originated from the area around the orchard: Halton Quay and the hamlet of Halton Barton are both nearby.
Group co-ordinator Joe Kolinsky explains why the valley was always considered such a perfect site for fruit growing: “The tidal river helped reduce the risk of frost, while the steep, south-facing valley slopes provided shelter from the prevailing south-west wind, and warmed rapidly in the spring.
“But during the Second World War, many orchards were taken to grow staple crops, and an awful lot were ripped out in the 60s, when farms were receiving subsidies to grub them up. One of the reasons Strawberry Hill survived was because it was so steep and wasn’t suitable for mechanisation.”
On the orchard floor, there are remnants of “dock dung”, an early 20th century manure — a pungent mixture of horse dung, fish waste, butchers’ offal and night soil — which was shipped up by barge from Devonport every day. It often contained pieces of china, which are still being found at Strawberry Hill.
It is due to the efforts of Mary Martin and James Evans that many Tamar apple and cherry varieties were saved, and they were delighted to accept the community orchard group’s invitation to plant the Halton Black. Their interest in the trees began when James, who has a passion for old machinery, was restoring an old cider press and Mary, an artist, was finding inspiration for her paintings in local orchards. “They were dying and derelict – but no one seemed interested in doing anything about it,” she recalls. “It was very sad.”
She and James realised that they needed to gather information from elderly, long-retired market gardeners before all their knowledge was lost. “No one knows how the different Tamar Valley varieties were bred,” says James. “If we’d been able to start this project 50 years earlier we could have talked to the old boys who knew all about them. We went to see one man who had had an orchard, and we were met by a woman who told us: ‘You should have been here earlier. Granddad died in his chair an hour ago.”
St Dominick Community Orchard Group now plans to stage school and community open days to highlight the horticultural heritage of the area, and outline the ecological value of traditional orchards. “Orchards are wonderful sites for biodiversity, and an important aspect of our work is maintaining the sward of native grasses,” says Joe. “We want to have a mosaic of grasses, in order to provide different habitats for wildlife: some lightly planted, and others more dense to create overwintering areas insects and small mammals.
“The sward is grazed by sheep twice a year: in the spring, so the grass doesn’t get too high and wild flowers have a chance to get through; and in the autumn, when the sheep trample seeds into the ground, so they’ll germinate next year. There are also 30 different varieties of daffodils here, and we now have an apiary. In this warm microclimate, the bees can get out even in winter – and the cherry blossom will be wonderful for them in the spring.”
Joe describes Strawberry Hill as “a wildlife oasis that’s been caught in a time warp”. “When you walk through here in the summer, crickets tumble at your feet, and there are lots of baby frogs and toads, bumblebees, butterflies and moths. Each visit reinforces the specialness of the site as a habitat, and the need to conserve it.”