The orchards that provided our fruit in years gone by

Gawthorpe Hall is one of the local houses that had a large walled garden in which apples, pears etc were grown
Gawthorpe Hall is one of the local houses that had a large walled garden in which apples, pears etc were grown

The information that Apple Day, initiated by that excellent group Common Ground, is 25 years old this year got me thinking. But, before I start, let me tell you that Apple Day is on October 21st, and you can find out much more about it online.

I have had a look and there is not much going on locally but there are a surprising number of events in the North West.

So what was I thinking about? You might not believe it but Lancashire was once very well known for its apples and fruit growing. The village of Eccleston, near Chorley, was once known as “the Evesham of the North” and, for those of you who do not know, Evesham, Worcestershire, probably remains the pre-eminent fruit growing centre in England. The nearby town of Pershore was once famous for its plums, its name meaning “a thicket, or small wood, of wild plums”.

It should be added that some may claim Kent is the most important fruit growing area. After all, they might say, it is the “garden of England”. This, however, is a mistranslation of the phrase “guardroom of England”, a title given to the county when England had to be prepared for invasion from France.

However, getting back to Lancashire, Eccleston was not the only fruit growing area in the county. The nearby village of Heskin was just as well known and the two places had as many as 40 orchards as late as 1893. They can be identified on the OS map of that year and, in recent years, the sites of these orchards have been examined to see if any old trees have survived. Until the 1950s Eccleston and Heskin supplied Wigan market with a wide variety of apples.

Other places, which produced apples in large quantities, included the area to the north and east of Morecambe. Particularly significant were Arnside and Silverdale. A little further north, the Furness and Cartmel peninsulas, which were part of Lancashire until some idiot in Whitehall, in 1972, decided otherwise, were also well known for their orchards several of which were attached to some of the great houses in the area. Holker Hall was one of them.

Not exactly in Lancashire, but as near historically as makes no difference, is the Lyth valley, to the west of Kendal. This area is still justly famed for its wonderful harvest of damsons. The valley supplied the Kendal market with the fruit for decades and a number of its orchards are still very productive. My mother’s family coming from the famous “old grey town”, I usually travel up to the valley and buy damsons for myself and my sisters. I have not been too well this year but still hope to pick up the last of the damsons before the season has ended.

In the west of Lancashire, there were a number of centres of fruit growing. I have mentioned the area to the north of Morecambe but, south of the Bay and towards Lancaster, there were a number of places which had quite extensive orchards. Many of these were attached to great houses and it is pleasing to be able to report that, over recent years, apple growing has, to some extent, taken off in the area.

Much of the growing these days is in private gardens but what makes what is going on in north Lancashire interesting is that apple varieties that have Lancashire origins are being grown. A group, funded partly by LCC, is also rescuing what had previously thought were “lost” varieties. This is also happening in the Eccleston and Heskin area where another local group has been surveying sites that had formerly been orchards. The group has had some success.

Lancashire had quite a number of local apple varieties. Some were originally raised outside the county but they were adopted by growers in Lancashire as they suited local conditions. One apple, a cooking variety, “Scotch Bridget”, probably originated in Scotland but, by the 19th Century, it was one of the most important apples grown in the county. There was a related apple called the “Lancashire Scotch Bridget” which was first mentioned in Preston in 1893. It was a late variety which had some advantages in Lancashire.

Another apple, also a cooker, is known by a name which is derived from the Westmorland town of Keswick. However, it was first identified at Gleaston, near Ulverston, which, of course, was in Lancashire until the Act of 1972 was made law two years later. The “Keswick Codlin” is described as “a distinctly angular and rather ugly apple found growing behind a wall at Gleaston Castle ... before 1793”. The association with Keswick is because the nurserymen who introduced it to the market was John Sandler, who came from that town.

Most of the Lancashire varieties were cookers but there were a few dessert apples grown here. Perhaps the best known of them is an apple the name of which does not immediately have any associations with the county. The apple was known as the “Duke of Devonshire”, a variety which was much prized in the past because, being very late, it extended the season almost to winter. However, the Dukes of Devonshire owned the Holker estate in the Cartmel area and it was raised, not at the Duke’s great estate in Derbyshire, but at Holker, by the Duke’s gardener, a Mr Wilson.

I have looked to see if any varieties originated in Burnley but I am afraid I can’t find one that was commercially successful. In some respects, Middleton, near Manchester, is not unlike Burnley and it was there, in 1836, that Thomas Thorpe, a hand loom weaver (another connection with our town) produced a cooker known as “Lord Suffield”. The apple was a codlin type, cooking to a sharp, white froth. It was very popular in Victorian times, grown widely in gardens and early market gardens. “Lord Suffield” received more votes than any other cooker at the 1883 Congress. Part of its popularity may have been because the tree was suited to small gardens where it produced a profusion of pale pink blossom.

The fact I have not been able to find a Burnley a variety does not really worry me, though it would have been nice to discover one. What is more interesting, to me, is that the more I look for local historic orchards, the more I have been able to find.

There are a number of different varieties of orchard. I have found few commercial apple orchards in North-east Lancashire but, surprisingly, I have located a number of “orchards” which produced fruits other than apples. One of these was in Briercliffe, at Battyhole, which produced, for the jam making industry, soft fruits – gooseberries, rhubarb etc - in the latter part of the 19th Century. I suppose the Battyhole establishment should be called a fruit farm and, if you are wondering where the jam was made, the North of England Fruit Preserve Co., which at that time owned the farm, had a factory in Brierfield.

In fact, Brierfield was once something of a centre for the making of jam as there was another jam makers, Pratt’s, at Hollinbank. It is clear that a number of small nearby landowners, and growers, produced fruit for both firms. There are accounts of locals making themselves, for a small consideration, perhaps, available for picking days. This was also the case at Church, near Accrington, where John Yeadon and Co. were substantial fruit preservers. In 1872 they made 17 different jams, 11 jellies and three marmalades for sale across Lancashire.

Another type of orchard is the one attached to a great estate. Towneley, in Burnley, had an orchard, as did Gawthorpe, where a number of apple and pear varieties were grown. In this latter case, we know some of the varieties because, when some years ago work was carried out to the walled garden, a number of leaden plant-name plates were found where there had been espalier apples. These name plates can still be read and they revealed the names of the fruits grown.

It is worth saying that some country houses had both orchards and walled gardens. The orchards were mainly for fruit trees grown in the traditional free-standing way, but, in the walled garden, fruits were grown attached to the warmer south and west facing walls. This gave fruit trees some protection from late frosts which could wipe out a potentially good crop. Fruit trees grown along walls are known as espaliers and, though they required some maintenance, the practice was very productive.

I remember the walled garden at Broughton Hall, near Skipton, when hints of the apple and pear varieties grown there could still be identified. To some extent they were a feature of a garden centre which operated at Broughton for a number of years but now the walled garden, though it still exists, is not used for that purpose.

You might think I have not made a case for substantial fruit growing in our part of the world. I have, however, left the best to last. When researching for my book on the history of Briercliffe, I found no less than 77 orchards in Briercliffe and Extwistle where almost every farm had a small piece of land given over to fruit growing.

Unfortunately, I can’t be precise about what was grown as the sources of information do not indicate this, but I do know, from other material, that these orchards produced apples, pears and plums and also gooseberries, blackcurrants (not blackberries) and some strawberries. Later, rhubarb was planted but it appears the farmers’ wives, who did much of the fruit growing, did not generally produce their produce for sale.

It has often been said farmers make poor gardeners. To some extent this is true, especially with hill farmers, but fruit trees and even soft fruit require little attention and if a crop was only for family use, it was well worth planting a small area, near the house, up.

A few Briercliffe houses had walled gardens – Cockden, Broadbank, Burwains and Foulds are among them – and it is known they had fruit trees, some of which I remember when I was a boy. This was the case across Burnley, and had we been able to go back in time, I could have taken you on a tour of Burnley’s orchards as they were in, say, the 1830s. You would have been surprised by just how many there were!

Lastly, it was not only Eccleston which was well known as a fruit growing centre. We had our equivalents not so far away from Burnley. Rimington was one, famed for is plums. Grindleton was another. Both of these places benefited from peculiar local climatic circumstances which made fruit production more reliable.

Today, I am surprised by how little fruit we grow in the Burnley area. Perhaps something should be done about it. Mind you my little orchard – it consists of two trees which produce four varieties of apple - came to the attention of a thief the other day, but I should not complain as I have picked 15 pounds, enjoyed several apple pies and there are still a few crumbles in the fridge!