By the end of February 2015 I had cleared enough of the brambles, nettles and ivy down the side of the field, as well as the bottles, plastic bags and rusting bedsprings, to think about extending the fence that we had started at the top the previous year. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, and as this was the bit of the site most visible to neighbours, and to passers-by as well, I wanted to show a brave face to the world.
Tibbiwell, the lane that runs past the orchard, is a steep climb, and most people walking up it are happy for almost any excuse to stop for a chat or just a look around. Working there over the winter I’d had lots of conversations with people passing by. It was clear that there was interest in what we were doing, but also some suspicion. Were we about to start building works? A new block of flats perhaps, or something even worse? Putting in a fence would first of all establish that the site was actually owned by someone, and no longer a communal dumping area. But putting in one that looked more rural than suburban, seemed almost like a gesture of good faith to the local community.
So in early March, Nick and Rich came back to help me extend the fence – or let’s be more accurate, came back to extend the fence, since my contribution was pretty much limited to clearing things out of their way and fetching cups of tea. As it happened, their arrival pretty well coincided with the arrival of the builders, booked almost a year earlier to work on channelling water down to the site, so suddenly it was as if the cavalry had arrived.
Rather less happily, their arrival also coincided with a section of retaining wall on the bank collapsing into the road. It wasn’t very clear whether this had happened because of the natural effects of weather, water and frost, or because digging up roots had loosened the soil, or perhaps because it had been hit by a vehicle. Lorries that are far too big for the road often try to go up or down Tibbiwell and the wall on the other side gets hit regularly, as evidenced by multiple paint marks on the stones. On our side there’s a gully that makes it much more difficult to hit the wall, but there did seem to be some signs of paint on the stones in the road. Maybe it was a combination of factors, but whatever the cause, the wall was not looking good and there was a real prospect that more of it could collapse.
Rather reluctantly, we decided that the best solution was to pull out the remains of the hedge, pull back the top of the bank to reduce the gradient and then build the retaining wall back up again. We had to bring in the Chairman of the Parish Council to look at it, and clear it with the District Council as well, but in the end no official permission was required. And with the builders just arrived on site, we had the right men for the job. Don likes nothing better than reshaping a piece of ground with a digger and there’s not much about Cotswold stone walls that Andy and Simon don’t know.
On the other hand the arrival of a digger on site could only increase any fears that neighbours had about our intentions, not helped by the habit of the builders to respond to any questions by passing on the confidential information that the site had been identified for the reprocessing of chemical or nuclear waste. I’m sure no-one took them seriously … but anyway, I wrote a short piece for the local village magazine explaining what we were doing.
But by the time the builders and the fencers left, we had a reshaped bank, a beautifully rebuilt retaining wall, a pretty sturdy fence running all the way down the edge of the field and another gate at the bottom. We also had a lot less hedge than before and an orchard that had lost even more of the privacy and seclusion that had been its principal attraction.
We also had a much better source of running water arriving at the top of the site, but that’s a story for another time.
This is the sixth post in a series about the restoration of an old orchard. You can see the earlier posts at the links below:
With the coming of Autumn, the weeds finally ceased their previously unremitting march across the orchard and it was possible to think again about making some progress. The idea of re-clearing the bit I’d cleared the previous winter was just too depressing, so I started instead on a new bit, trying to push on down by the side of the hedge and re-establish access to the bottom of the site. Until we could walk around it a bit and get a better idea of the lie of the land, it was hard to get any kind of plan for how it could be laid out. The vague idea in my head was to break through some of the bramble thickets and clear paths around and across the site.
Progress was painfully slow. I worked at it with secateurs, cutting away small sections and piling them up ready to be burned. Trying to take out too long a section of bramble usually meant it clung to your clothes and tangled up as you pulled it out. So it had to be done bit by bit. And then after cutting back down to ground level, the roots had to be dug out, which was hard, physical work. After several hours work the thicket hardly seemed to have receded, although progress could at least be seen in the mounting pile of the bonfire. I kept at it, day after day, until finally I could break through and walk down the whole length of the field.
From the autumn of 2014 through to February 2015 I was down in the field most days for at least an hour or two, sometimes much longer. I tried a few times to burn the accumulated piles of bramble, with some success, but it was always hard work, gradually getting a fire going with the drier bits then not piling the rest of it on too fast to avoid putting it out. In the end it seemed easier to leave the piles for drier weather.
By the time winter was starting to recede, I could see real progress. Still perhaps half the site was almost completely inaccessible, but over the rest of it, including all of the side down along the road, enough had been cleared to be able to walk around it. For the first time we could start to get an idea of the scale of the site and what was there.
As well as opening it up to us though, I had opened the field up to everybody else. The hedge along the roadside had turned out to be little more than a row of largely self-seeded trees interspersed with weeds. Cutting back the brambles and particularly the ivy that had climbed over everything, left little more than a few fairly unattractive trees and some relatively bare areas of died back nettles and other weeds, often strewn with litter. The great joy of the site had been how thoroughly secluded it was. Although barely a couple of hundred metres from the centre of the village, you could stand in the centre of it and imagine yourself in the middle of nowhere. That was no longer true. From the centre now, you could see the world – and the world could see you.
This is the fifth post in a series about the restoration of an old orchard. You can see the earlier posts at the links below:
I worked through the summer of 2014 without really making much progress. I had limited time to spend outdoors and when I did get out the garden was calling me louder than the field. We had a big party in the garden in midsummer and it was looking wonderful, but if it was hard work already keeping the garden under control, what kind of maintenance nightmare was I creating down in the field.
A few of the guests wandered down towards the field, but even if they were interested, or aware enough of what we were doing, it was hardly possible to get in to it in party clothes. You still needed protection against the nettles and brambles, which were getting worse rather than better. In the winter there’s an illusion of progress, because the nettles die back and the brambles at least pause in their endless reaching out and re-rooting. But in summer they were merciless, re-covering every square inch of cleared ground. I had spent hours in the winter digging out bramble roots, but where one had gone, there suddenly seemed to be five new ones, springing up from the bits of root left unexcavated.
And there was a whole range of new types of weed taking over. Nature abhors a vacuum and weeds will rush in to any cleared space. Sticky willy (gallium aparine) seemed particularly aggressive, but it was far from the only invader. All the usual garden and hedgerow weeds rushed in and many others that were less familiar to me. By July there was little sign that I’d done any clearing at all. The jungle had re-established itself.
Even the rediscovered steps out onto the road were disappearing again. That was a blow too far to my pride in the progress I’d made earlier in the year. At least in that corner of the field I fought back, cleared the weeds, put in a board to edge the steps and in the autumn re-seeded with grass, mixed in with wildflower seed. I wasn’t sure that I could really distinguish wild flowers (good) from weeds (bad), but this was a hedgerow bank, not a lawn, so there had to be some tolerance of nature’s disorder.
I kept cutting back and cutting back elsewhere, but in reality I was just waiting for the autumn to call a halt to rampant growth. Only then could we take the next step forward.
This is the fourth post in a series about the restoration of an old orchard. You can see the earlier posts at the links below:
Cutting down a tree is a big decision. If you get it wrong, it might take 50 years or more to put it right again. And anyway there’s a nobility and permanence about a mature tree, that can somehow make it feel a bit of a crime to cut it down.
When I was young, we had a children’s record – I think it was the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, where the woodcutter had a song that I can still remember:
Every little oak has a heart.
You gotta know the place to start.
I’d leave them standing if I could.
But things being how they are, we need the wood.
But I had to leave those romantic ideas behind when I was later involved in the decision to cut down a row of magnificent Horse Chestnut Trees lining the Promenade in Cheltenham. They’d been planted in 1818 and become part of the character of the town. There was of course a storm of protest when it was suggested they should be cut down because of the risk of falling branches, but as a member of the Council I voted for them to go, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Apart from the safety aspects, it brought light into a street that had become rather gloomy, and allowed the smaller trees between them some space and some light to grow, so that 30 years on, those younger trees are now quite venerable themselves. One day someone else will be faced with the decision on when to cut them down.
That episode convinced me that not cutting down a tree can be just as bad a decision as cutting one down. And if we wanted to do anything other than create an unmanaged wood in our field, some of the trees had to go. It wasn’t so much little oaks with hearts that were the problem, so much as a ruddy great Christmas tree. I’ve called it a lost orchard, but in reality most of the trees there, including some of the largest and most prominent ones, were not fruit trees. The field was rather dominated by an enormous conifer that looked as if it had been replanted after Christmas and then forgotten about. Alongside it were two large ash trees, there were other mature trees around the edges, and scattered over most of the rest of the site were a lot of self-seeded saplings, many of them elder or ash.
As you might guess, we made saving the fruit trees a priority. It clearly had been an orchard at some stage and although the trees were overgrown and smothered in brambles and weeds, they still seemed to be producing fruit. We might end up having to replace them, but we’d give them every chance to redeem themselves first.
The next decision though was that the Christmas tree really had to go. Despite a certain grandeur, it looked totally out of place and was overshadowing the fruit trees, not to mention blocking the view of the neighbours. The larger ash trees were reprieved, at least until we had a better vision of how we wanted the site to look, but several of the smaller trees needed clearing.
I’ve done a bit of chain sawing before, but enough to convince myself that in the interests of keeping all my limbs intact, it’s probably a job best left to someone else. I’ve also put up a fair bit of fencing in my time, without ever quite cracking the best way of doing it. So for a couple of days in the spring of 2014, I brought in Nick and Rich, two guys with much more youthful energy than me, much more skill with a chainsaw, and much better knowledge of how to put up a decent fence and gate.
They got the Christmas tree down, which made quite a striking difference, and helped me to clear some of the bigger brushwood and obstacles at the top of the site. Whatever the dangers and the drawbacks of a chainsaw, it’s certainly a lot quicker at some jobs than a handsaw and a pair of secateurs. Between us we cleared enough room to get in a gate at the top of the steps up from the road and a first section of fencing running down from it. It was only a first small stage, but for the first time in many years, it started to look as if someone might actually own the site and be interested in it.
This is the third post in a series about the restoration of an old orchard. You can see the earlier posts at the links below:
If you’re starting work on a gardening project that’s going to involve a huge amount of work and realistically take many years to complete, you face many physical problems, but the even bigger ones are psychological. How do you maintain motivation when progress seems so slow and the work ahead so enormous?
Part of the answer is simply to ignore all the work to be done on the rest of the site and just focus on the little bit of land you’re working on at the time. That way you can see some progress without having to consider how little it is in comparison to the overall task. You don’t always need a sense of proportion. Douglas Adams imagined the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’, based on the idea that if we actually understood the scale of the universe and how tiny we were in relation to it, it would drive us mad. Sometimes the only way to stay sane is to ignore the bigger picture and focus on our immediate surroundings.
I started trying to clear the undergrowth in the old orchard in early 2014, armed with not much more than a spade and a pair of secateurs. This was roughly the equivalent of trying to cut the lawn with a pair of scissors, but that wasn’t going to deter me for a while. It was a very wet winter and difficult even to get into the site past all the water that was pouring in at the top corner. Digging a trench seemed like the best way to establish some control over it and I found that once I’d channelled much of the water down the top bank, it just disappeared naturally into the soil.
That felt like a first small victory, but there was a bigger one to come when I tackled the other end of the top of the field. I knew there was an existing pedestrian access there, and there was some evidence that there might once have been steps up the bank, but it wasn’t until I started to clear the area that I realised there was actually a full set of quite wide stone steps underneath the thistles and brambles.
So now I had some steps and it felt like there should be a gate at the top of them. There are times when all the cod psychology in the world just doesn’t work. For a moment I looked up and caught a glimpse of the enormity of the project – and decided I would have to bring in some help!
I didn’t take any pictures before starting work. It really wasn’t very photogenic. But I wish now that I had done, just to see the difference we’ve made.
So here instead is an aerial photo of how the site looked in 1928 from the wonderful Britain from Above website. It’s the field at the bottom right, dotted with trees in a sort of pentagonal shape. The field above it, which lies at the bottom of our garden, is more densely planted with trees, at least some of which appear to be in lines, so they’re probably fruit trees and it’s probably an orchard. That fits in with what we know of it and what remains in terms of old fruit trees. It’s less clear that the bottom field is an orchard at that time. It looks more open, probably grazed, and the trees look to be more of a mix.
At some time, presumably between then and about 1970 it was planted with fruit trees, mostly apple, but at least one plum tree, which is still there. A lot of other stuff has grown in the field as well, but most of that was not planted, and for about the last 40 years, it has been left derelict and neglected, slowly gathering in old sinks, wheelbarrows and bedsteads, and being taken over by brambles, nettles and convolvulus.
The story of how we came to own the site is complicated, but the bottom line is that, as so often, nobody seemed very interested in it until there was a proposal to build on it. Then of course it was a different matter. What had seemed to be an unwanted dumping ground was belatedly appreciated as a haven for wildlife and an oasis of tranquillity in an over-developed area. One thing led to another and almost before we knew it, and certainly before we had any plan for what we wanted to do with it, we found ourselves the owners of a small piece of semi-rural England.
That was back in 2012 and for the first couple of years, I was far too busy even to think much about what to do with it. In fact I barely set foot in the field, something which was in any case pretty difficult to do. Thick brambles covered much of it and waist high nettles almost all the rest, so any progress through it was difficult and you never knew quite what was underfoot. But from the beginning of 2014 I’ve had more time and I’ve chosen to spend a lot of it down there, hacking away at the undergrowth, clearing mountains of rubbish and gradually developing an idea of the potential of the site.
It’s a steeply sloping site, not falling away uniformly, but with a steeper bank at the top, then a flatter section before falling away again towards another steep section at the bottom. There’s a small spring on one side of the site that runs down for a few metres before disappearing again. We’re told that there used to be a pond there, although it’s not evident in the photo above.There’s also water on the other side – a trickle that became a flood in the wet winter of 2014 – and there’s the potential for more water too, but I’ll come back to that.
I didn’t take any photos, but I didn’t write about it either when I started and that too starts to feel like an omission. I’ll try to bring the story up to date in further posts over the next few weeks.
Despite being married to a garden designer, and living in a house with a garden that in effect showcases her work, I never had much time for gardening over the last 40 years of working at my own job. If there’s one thing a garden needs more than sunshine and rain, it’s time. Now, after giving up full-time work, I finally have the time to enjoy gardening, and gardens too.
Time was something Lawrence Johnston seems to have had plenty of, and money too, coming from a wealthy American family. He devoted both to creating a magnificent garden at Hidcote Manor, on the edge of the Cotswolds, in the first half of the last century, and to scouring the word for rare plants to fill it. The garden is now owned by the National Trust. Seeing it for the first time this week, it’s a constantly surprising mix of intimate areas and grand vistas. Johnston was one of the pioneers of the idea of a garden as a series of ‘rooms’, separated by hedges and walls. So you move on from one area to the next, through gaps or gates, always seeing something different, and never quite knowing what might be on the other side of the next hedge. It could be a closely hedged-in pond, or a small garden dedicated to white-flowered plants, or it could be a grand alleyway flanked by tall yew hedges.
That concept could easily make the garden fragmented, but here it’s tied together by carefully lined up views, that reveal hints of the structure of the garden, without ever giving it all away. There are no natural views out over the surrounding landscape, so Johnston instead created internal views. Views across rising land are focused on wrought-iron gates in the distance, silhouetted against the sky, like a view of the gates of heaven. He wasn’t put off either from creating a wonderful stream garden, one of my favourite bits, by the fact that the stream itself is a piddling little thing. There’s hardly enough water in it to do more than trickle down, but it still becomes the centrepiece of a long winding stretch and spreads into little pools and waterfalls. Inspiring really, as we probably have more water in the springs running through our property than Hidcote does. I may even have the time now, so all we need is the resources of a rich American – or the National Trust.