Golden oldies still good to grow
How the residents of Warwick won their battle with the bulldozer to ensure the survival of a fruitful plot. By Val Bourne
One of the first things you spot as you enter Hill Close Gardens in Warwick is a wild pear tree laden down with clusters of small fruits the colour of dark jade netsuke. They’re set against a backdrop of apple trees in varying stages of maturity and fruitfulness. One or two are almost 100 years old, others were planted between the two world wars, and some are very new.
They’re all historic varieties though, despite their age, spanning several centuries. The newest is a dessert apple called ‘Tydeman’s Early Worcester’ (1945) and the oldest is a culinary variety called ‘Catshead’ (named after its stubby-nosed shape). This apple was written about by Parkinson in 1629, although the true date of origin must be earlier.
What a tale these old fruit trees could tell, if they could talk, for they were rescued like sleeping beauties from an overgrown site that almost went for housing. A skirmish, between the local town council and a feisty residents’ association known as Lammas & District Residents’ Association (LADRA), led to the site once known as the Linen Street Allotments being spared. In the 19th century there were 32 detached town gardens here, neatly hedged and laid out, and mainly owned by well-off traders living in town centre premises without land. They were druggists, drapers, grocers, fruiters, butchers and corn dealers and their plots were often passed down through the generations. When they came up for sale the local council snapped them up one by one, like ducks on a firing range.
Some of these garden plots were lost to developers in the Fifties, but a block of 15 remained. Two were still being lovingly tended by their owners in 1993 when the red rag appeared in the shape of a bulldozer, which broke down the fence so that soil samples could be taken in readiness to build. The land had been earmarked for building since 1947, but after the bulldozer incident
local residents began to research the history of Hill Close Gardens, as the site is now called. English Heritage became involved as the arbiter between residents and council and archaeologists did a survey.
It soon transpired that Hill Close Gardens, in the wonderfully named Bread and Meat Close, was a rare survivor and one of only four sites left containing detached town gardens. Many had brick-built summerhouses dating from the 19th century and some had hearths, fires and ovens.
One successful bootmaker, William Sleath, often slept in his because he had 18 children. The Chadbands, who were pork butchers, kept pigs on their plot; when Charles Dickens visited Warwick he reprised the name in Bleak House, inventing the sermonising Reverend Chadband.
In the late Nineties four of the summerhouses were listed by English Heritage, making development impossible, so a restoration programme was launched and a trust was set up in 2000.
The present chairman, Rosemary Mitchell, isn’t at all impressed when I use the word “allotments” within minutes of meeting her. She explains: “Detached town gardens were a common 19th-century practice, when many town houses in congested towns and cities had little land attached to them.” Most of these detached private gardens were rented, though, rather than owned, which is why most went for housing many years ago.
Once building plans had been averted, two handsome “princes” stepped forward: the late Noreen Jardine, who died in July 2004, was a well-known horticulturalist who once kept a Plant Heritage collection of foxgloves in a local Leamington park. She famously found the doubleheaded snowdrop ‘Warwickshire Gemini’. The other was Geoff Croft, a nurseryman and fruit expert from North Warwickshire. He pruned the overgrown apple trees and freed them from the ivy.
Once they fruited again Jardine took to visiting horticultural shows across the country with a basket of fruit tucked under her arm in an attempt to name them. She also took scion wood from locally endangered trees and grafted them on to rootstocks in order to preserve them.
According to Croft, Jardine also sent plum stones to Howard Stringer, who died in 2012. He could identify 150 plums by their stones alone. ‘Warwickshire Drooper’, a golden plum that makes excellent jam, was found in a couple of gardens. By the time Jardine died, many of the varieties had been named.
Volunteers with rotovators and
Top picks: heritage apples, top; Gary Leaver, head gardener at Hill Close Gardens
Harvest: trainee gardener Alison Taylor picks ‘Cox’s Pippins’ for Apple Day