A revival of the cherry orchard
Robert Bullard watches a traditional crop make a welcome return to centre stage
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