A re­vival of the cherry or­chard

Robert Bullard watches a tra­di­tional crop make a wel­come re­turn to cen­tre stage

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Country -

When a few trees died in the cen­tre of Philip Neaves’ cherry or­chard, he might have been tempted to fill in the gaps or even, like his neigh­bour­ing farm­ers, to grub up the whole lot and re­place them with a fruit crop that is eas­ier to man­age. But his parish coun­cil ap­proached him with an­other idea, which has seen his or­chard take on a new and dif­fer­ent role.

Neaves has been farm­ing cher­ries in Kent all his life. His fa­ther bought a cherry farm here in 1946, and he and his two brothers were brought up help­ing out. Their hey­day was the 1960s and ’70s. “We used to send one or two lor­ries to Lon­don ev­ery day,” says Neaves. “We had our own driv­ers and gangs of pick­ers and our fa­ther flit­ted from pil­lar to post, sort­ing ev­ery­thing out.”

All three are still in the fruit busi­ness, but while his brothers have di­ver­si­fied into ap­ples and pears and new, more lu­cra­tive cher­ries, Philip has been loyal to his roots. His six-acre or­chard in Lyn­sted, with its tra­di­tional 25ft-30ft cherry trees, is one of the last of its kind.

“Peo­ple are glad to see the old cherry trees, and chil­dren wouldn’t know what they looked like if we didn’t keep them go­ing,” he says. “When they are in blos­som, the mass of white is re­ally beau­ti­ful.”

There has been a slight re­vival of cherry grow­ing in Kent re­cently but the num­ber of tra­di­tional trees has fallen by 80 per cent since the 1970s. The rea­sons are sim­ple. Im­ported cher­ries from Turkey and the US are larger and sweeter, and quicker to catch the eye. They are also grown on dwarf plants, which are eas­ier to pro­tect against birds and bad weather. But Neaves’s loy­alty has born fruit af­ter he al­lowed the gap in his trees to be used by the vil­lage’s com­mu­nity or­chard project, to cel­e­brate the tra­di­tional Ken­tish cherry. To­day, the clear­ing pro­vides a fo­cal point, “a sort of am­phithe­atre for our fes­tiv­i­ties”, say the vil­lagers.

“We have a Blos­som Day, when peo­ple pic­nic there, with a wind ensem­ble and may­pole danc­ing,” says Bob Bax­ter, the project’s in­sti­ga­tor. “And on Cherry Day there is a guided tour of the or­chard, a pick­y­our-own stall and Mor­ris Dancers. We also have a Hal­lowe’en Party, with bon­fires, sto­ry­telling and carved pump­kins.”

One year, television chef Michael Barry judged the cherry recipe com­pe­ti­tion. En­tries in­cluded cherry soup and cherry omelette, and the best went into a cook­book.

“Peo­ple did not re­alise how at­trac­tive or­chards could be,” says Bax­ter. “Last year, on a balmy sum­mer day, we had an evening of op­er­atic arias. Ev­ery­one re­ally en­joyed it and now the singers want to come back.”

Within a few years, the or­chard’s ac­tiv­i­ties have be­come an es­tab­lished part of the vil­lage cal­en­dar. And by in­volv­ing chil­dren, the or­chard has at­tracted adults as well. In ad­di­tion to the com­mu­nity events, it pro­vides a place for the vil­lage school to ex­plore wildlife, while in­ter­views with cherry pick­ers pro­vide ma­te­rial for lo­cal-his­tory classes.

“The project is hugely im­por­tant,” says Clare Ste­wart, sec­re­tary of Lyn­sted and Nor­ton Pri­mary School. “A lot of our chil­dren come from Teyn­ham, which is a sort of ur­ban vil­lage. They don’t have much ac­cess to the coun­try­side. Bring­ing them to the or­chard ex­poses them to wildlife and to the or­chard’s his­tory.”

In­deed, the project, which is funded by the Lo­cal Her­itage Ini­tia­tive, has been so suc­cess­ful that it is be­ing repli­cated in three other tra­di­tional or­chards in Kent. Here, the com­mu­nity will have an even greater in­put; in re­turn for help­ing to re­store and look af­ter the trees, they will be given free ac­cess for a num­ber of days.

“I didn’t know if the project was go­ing to work,” ad­mits Neaves. “But my fa­ther would have been pleased. It in­volves the whole vil­lage and is keep­ing alive the old cherry trees and tra­di­tions of Kent. Hope­fully it will carry on.”

This year’s Blos­som Day in Lyn­sted takes place to­mor­row, and Cherry Day is on July 22 (www.lyn­sted-or­chard.org.uk and www. kent­downs.org.uk).

Blos­som farm: Philip Neaves (be­low) uses his or­chard for lo­cal events

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