Today (21st October 2020) is the 30th anniversary of Apple Day and I thought I’d mark the occasion by telling you about two urban orchards close to where I live in North London – one around one hundred years old, the other just ten.
Apple Day was founded by Common Ground in 1990 as an annual autumn celebration of the humble apple tree (Malus domestica) in our culture and landscapes. There are thousands of apple varieties in the UK but many have been ‘lost’ as our orchards have disappeared and we have grown used to the few varieties on offer at supermarkets.
Apple Day is not just about apples and apple trees. The apple serves as a symbol for everything that we are in danger of losing: the biodiversity of our land and our connection with it, and our traditions of growing and eating local, sustainably sourced food.
Orchards were once widespread throughout Britain, in both rural and urban areas. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, traditional orchards with their mix of fruit trees, grassland, scrub and hedgerows, are havens for a huge array of wildlife, including some that have high conservation priority. Thankfully, nowadays there is a growing movement to conserve our existing orchards and create new ones.
There is a peculiar sort of orchard about a mile from our house – it is in the grounds of St Ann’s Hospital in Haringey. Various fruit trees, including some very rare ones, were planted in the hospital grounds during the 1920s by a gardener from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The hospital’s mental health patients once cared for the trees, picked the fruit and made jams, juices and preserves, as part of their care.
The hospital is currently being redeveloped for housing. A local initiative called stART is campaigning to ensure that a large percentage of the housing is affordable, and that the site’s assets, including its trees, are maintained for the benefit of the whole community.
A few years ago stART invited me to carry out a guided walk around the grounds through my involvement with Tottenham Trees. Fortunately, I had a pamphlet, written by David Bevan, former Haringey Conservation Officer, and Russell Miller from the Hackney Tree Musketeers, to help me identify the trees. Without it I might have known the apple, cherry, plum and crab apple trees, as well as the gnarled, majestic Black Mulberry (Morus nigra) on the Picnic Lawn. But I would have been stumped by the Medlar Thorn (Crataemespilus grandiflora) and the Hungarian Thorn (Crataegus nigra) by the pharmacy.
The site is home to what is probably London’s largest collection of True Service Trees (Sorbus domestica). Naturally found in remote places, true service trees produce pear-like ‘sorbs’ in autumn, which if ‘bletted’ or left to over-ripen, can be made into a delicious preserve. The trees are very rare and extremely difficult to grow from seed, but thankfully the ones at St Ann’s are protected with Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs).
Even closer to home is Avenue Orchard. Between the front garden gates of the houses on one side of Avenue Road and a wall running alongside the pavement there was a once a strip of grassland beside a walkway. This space had become a dumping ground for rubbish and a haunt for drug dealers and users.
Around ten years ago, when Mr Rixon and I were still new to the area, we joined a group of local residents to transform the strip of land into an orchard. With the help of some funding from Haringey Council we dug up the grass, unearthing all kinds of rubbish, and planted various fruit trees and bushes. We also had some lovely wrought iron railings installed into the wall to open up the space and give a friendly feel. This August, the girls and I filled a basket of juicy raspberries from Avenue Orchard. Recently, volunteers got together to give the orchard a bit of a tidy up and harvest some delicious figs.
We are also lucky to have a lovely apple tree in our next door neighbour’s garden, whose boughs hang right over our garden fence. It produces barrel loads of sweet, crisp green apples every other autumn. In the UK we divide apples up into ‘eaters’ and ‘cookers’. However, I have successfully made several scrummy apple crumbles with these ‘eaters’ and simply add less sugar than when using traditional cooking varieties.
Each year on Apple Day events involving apple related activities, such as apple pressing, cider tasting and apple bobbing take place around the country, although this year has been scaled back rather due to the Covid-19 situation.
But the best way of all to celebrate Apple Day is with a bowl of homemade apple crumble with custard – made with apples you’ve picked yourself.
What’s your favourite apple variety? Do you have an orchard near you? And do you do anything to celebrate Apple Day?