Golden oldies still good to grow

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

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

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