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The story of an orchard dreamer

I can’t remember the date, or even how many years ago it was. But, I remember every other detail like it was yesterday. 

We were in my best friend’s back garden. Five fruit trees. The smallest possible orchard. A single quincunx. The plum and cherry were by now completely bare. The pear tree was completely outsized for the small garden, meaning that every year it was threatened with removal. In late spring its mass of pretty blossom gave it a further year of aquitance, before failing to give up any autumnal bounty, and the threats resumed. 

But we were here for the apples. And this year there were masses. Two trees. Flourescent green and burnt red. All over the lawn, amongst the roses, decorating the compost bins, and many had made a run down to the wood shed. So many that every step was fraught with a soft crunching jeopardy. 

We can deduce that it was early to mid November. There was a crispness to the air. That chill where you purse you lips, forcing a slight breath, and enjoying the sight of the air as it clouds in front of you. I was short sleeved, but double gilleted. A strange combination, but one that triggers these vivid memories, whenever I find myself zipping up the outer layer. A two hands around the coffee cup situation, as we surveyed the morning’s work. 

This was my favourite day of the whole year. Later on we would be joined by the apple bashing crew, the glory hunters, but for now, it was just the two of us. Bags and tubs at the ready. 

My mate had his Ipod, a further clue to the date, and every so often I could hear him mumble along to the tune. But I liked the silence. Legs braced and wide, bent over, bag between my legs, I felt like a rugby player at a breakdown. I wasn’t scholarly, and needed to be outside and physical. But I was definitely not sporty. So my work path had taken me somewhere I would never have chosen. But today, unlike my job, there was no pressure, and with each bag another sense of accomplishment. 

And then the moment happened. The sun had risen above the terraced roofline, into the unblemished blue above, and as rucked into its path, I was filled with the deepest and most natural warmth. I stood. I felt a rare, but moving tingle down the spine. And I knew then that I was going to plant my own orchard. Rows after rows, quincunx upon quincunx. 

This is the story of an orchard dreamer, and how dreams can come true. 

That afternoon was filled with laughter, family and friends brought together by the humble apple. Gentle teasing, stories from the past year, as we bashed and pressed our way through the apples. The taste of the freshest juice from the little nine litre press. Most of the liquid gold diverted into demijohns. At then towards the end, as was custom, my friend’s dad brought out some bottles from the previous year. In hindsight and with a more refined palette now, it would struggle to even make the scrumpy category, but then as the sun set, nothing had ever tasted better. 

Despite this joy going on around me, I was elsewhere. My mind had already started to first sketch, and then ink in, the rolling green and qualitative simplicity of the Shire (another clue to the year perhaps). But smallholdings were big money. Even Mr Frodo, would have baulked at the sheer absurdity of it. To borrow Boromir briefly “One does not simply buy land and plant an orchard”. Fingers to thumb for maximum effect. If the magic number to become an expert is ten thousand hours, then this was not too far short of the number of overtime hours I calculated I needed to even get to the start line. 

And there was another problem. I lacked even a basic understanding of horticulture. I knew nothing, or maybe even less than that, about trees. It would not have been an exaggeration to say that I did not know my ash from my elbow. But, I had just found my beautiful partner, Claire, and she was a grower. Planting seeds, watching them develop, then harvesting veggies from her tiny little roof terrace, magicking them into delicious meals. 

And many of my family were growers too. My mum, who had sadly recently passed, even knew the latin names for things. I always thought that made her an expert. I think she had tried to get me interested – I still have a nice picture of the two of us, me about the age of 4 or 5,  in oversize wellies holding a large watering can. I assume it was empty, as otherwise I was very immeasurably strong back then.  And memories of interrupting her during Gardener’s world, when we joke about spikyii leafus, and greenus grassacea. So, maybe, I did have the genes for it, or maybe I could learn?

This dream had arrived from nowhere, and was not founded by any sort of reality. But maybe the best dreams aren’t? There is a word for the warmth of the sun in winter – apricity.  And I had felt it in my soul. It was time to get to work. 

There were certainly times over the next few years that the dream faded, drifting out of view, hiding itself behind a more urgent issue, a fire still smouldering, a mirage just over the horizon. But it had mass, a gravitational type pull, and as storms passed the orchard oasis would reappear. And each year as we went on harvest, it became front and central again. Over the years we visited a number of different orchards, small back garden ones, larger grazed and nearly forgotten ones, impressive National Trust ones. And at different times of the year. What was better? Trees glowing under blossom, or vibrant with fruit. Maybe even the late winter with their haunting skeletalness. Our cider making improved. We made jams and chutneys.  And as our lives became completely intertwined we knew that one day, we would plant one of our own.  

Then a few years ago a stonewall sign. A type of now or never incident, that gives you belief, a reinforcement of the central core (to reference my previous life). And of all places – the scrabble board. Those little tiles of fate looking up at me. Come on Mike, are you going to do this or not?

Letters Q and U, that I had held from the nearly the start. An X. And I knew it was on when I plucked a C and a blank from the bag. Two go’s later – the opportunity – an N on the outer row leaving a double triple with seven letter Bingo bonus. Massive points. Maybe thousands. I couldn’t do the maths. 

But it was Claires go. I looked at other places on the board in case she saw me eyeing up the space. I moved tiles around, and made slight disappointing purses with my lips, to make it seem like I had nothing. And then she started to place tiles down where I was going to go. I felt my face contort. 

“I will give you 10 points not to go there”

“No”

“Ok, 20 points. I got a good word”

“Tough luck”

Quincunx never made it onto the scrabble board. I think I ended up placing Quince for a solid 25-30. We use the word now when things are going really well, just before they go wrong. And end of level boss, if you like. A sunny walk in the Lakes, but with rain at the top. Just a mile from home, when you come to a stop. An Alanis Morrisette, just not quite as catchy. Isnt it Quincunxy. 

 But it did one thing brilliantly. It fueled the fire. The smouldering embers roared back into life. 

None of the orchards we visited during those years were modern alley cropping type. Trees packed in tight for maximum yield. Rows and rows of the same variety. ‘Our’ orchards (the ones we visited for a few hours once a year) were traditional. Mixed species, with the layout going back thousands of years. 4 circles forming a square, with one in the middle to fill the space. Five trees  – the Quincunx. Each tree having its own space, to fulfil its own DNA, and when fully grown branches just touching. Hangy Down liked to do just that. Camelot stood tall and powerful. 

And this planting technique resulted in beautiful sight lines, horizontals and diagonals, straight lines, the Romans way. But within this there were the apple tree curves too, trees growing the way they wanted. Natures way. Orchards would not exist in the wild, but it is one of very few situations where humans and nature have created something better. I can only think of two others. Meadows, and hedgerows. Properly ‘managed’ it is possible to create something better for nature than it can do itself. Rare. But an orchard could be all three combined. And orchards give back to humans too. Perfect symbiosis. 

The crazy thing about apples is that they have twice the genomes of humans. Twice as much variety. And each variety having its own personality.  Its story really taking shape around a hundred thousand years ago. In the middle of the last ice age, as glaciers advanced and retreated, the lowlands of Kazakstan and Kyrgistan escaping its glacial grip. Here there were forests, but not of oak or beech like we know now. Forests of wild fruits, apples and pears. 

Wolves, wild horses and bears roamed freely, picking and choosing the largest and sweetest fruits. As the saying goes, the bears did their business in the woods, with seeds bringing about the next generation of fruits. Tens of thousands of years of what we would now call a breeding programme. 

And then the silk road, passing by these forests, and with the technique of grafting, fruit trees brought into Europe, into walled gardens, and orchards. And when the Romans came across the channel so did these incredible fruits. What have the Romans ever done for us? (Sorry Mum – botanical nomenclature obviously excepted!) 

Somewhere between a decade and a generation since the dream has passed now. Feels like a long time, although in the great scheme of things, just a mere blink. We had both worked hard and saved some money, but this also meant we were locked into the cycle. I was paid well, because I got it done. But could I give it all up. Cancel the subscriptions,  not renew the contracts, reduce what was needed. A leap into the unknown, from the security of the quantitative ledge. I now call it the qualitative shift. 

I delivered at work, but I was very rarely actually ahead of target. I always was, or felt, constantly under pressure. Except this one time, when everything was going to plan. This particular job in the centre of Tiverton, an old primary school being demolished, was just a few minutes walk into town for lunch. Just a few doors down from the sandwich shop was an Estate agents, and as I walked past, something caught my eye. A field. 8 acres. For sale, at pretty much exactly what we thought our top budget was. If we cashed that in, borrowed against that, put some money on that, and sold that, then this was the figure. Like they knew. 

And just a few miles away. Forget the sandwich. There and back in 25 minutes. 

Something felt very strange on the drive there (to be outdone about 5 hours later!). Emotionally I was all over the place. Was this it? Did I actually want it to be it? I didn’t feel ready. Nobody actually gives it all up and plants an orchard do they? At no point did I consider yield, or payback time, return on investment, or anything we are taught to think about when putting our money somewhere. I wanted to do this because….I wanted to do it. Maybe it was time to fulfil my own DNA. 

And then when I got there, it was perfect. Gently rolling south facing slopes, that famous devon red soil, a delapidated wooden cow shed, that could become the cidery. The sun shining, the birds singing. The sight lines were there too, looking out into valleys both sides. The Romans would approve. 

I couldn’t help myself. Carpe diem. I phoned the agents and offered all the money. And I had to get home and get Claire. Oh god, what happens if she didn’t like it? 

After a few hours of quite absent minded demolition (not recommended), I was en-route home. Claire was already there, out in the back garden. If the sun was shining that’s where she would be. And sometimes in the cold and rain too. I told her I think I had found a space for the orchard, but we needed to go and look at it together. Not much was said on the journey. I didn’t want to try and describe it as that would just spoil it. She just had to see it. 

The sun was setting by now, and it was getting cooler. Golden hues had started to fill the sky. She was very quiet. I assumed she didn’t like it. I would have to tell the agents to withdraw the offer. Even though it felt like this was the place. 

After what seemed like ages she spoke. 

“Its perfect”. 

“We will need the windbreak here, that north facing bit would be perfect for a small woodland copse, maybe a pond down there…”

Those quiet moments were just her inking it in for herself. Despite the chill and the encroaching darkness, I was filled with an incredible warmth. 

For anyone that has ever bought a house, will know the next few months are tense. You start to make plans, but in the knowledge that you could be completely quincunxed at any moment. Another offer could come in, the buyer could change their minds, the solicitors might actually do something. 

We had started to do our own research. Amazing historical maps and photographs are available online, and this plot we were buying used to actually be an orchard. A Rull is an old devon word for a roll, a little hillock in the countryside. And tithe map number 182 was Rull orchard – a name completely lost over the last hundred plus years as small farms got swallowed up into larger.  And as we scanned the maps we could see that this area was prime orchard territory. Every tenth field (and there were a lot more fields back then) was an orchard. I think we felt it when we there, but this was definitely orchard land. And would be again. 

Sadly the 1970’s were not a good time for orchards. As the maps scrolled forwards over time, suddenly hedgerows and orchards were gone. I try not to judge – food scarcity, food security, efficiency, the transition from rural living to more urban, probably made orchards an easy sacrifice. What will they say about us in fifty years? But even so, I do find it extremely sad. One of my missions going forward will be to make people feel like orchards are essential. It must be better to have fresh fruit available locally, rather than imported from the other side of the world. And cider made from fresh pressed apples, rather than concentrate. 

We also visited a number of times. Technically the farmer still owned it, but if he wasn’t around, we would jump the gate, and talk about where the trees would go, how many and which varieties. We were excited. 

On one visit the farmer was there by the gate. He had created a little compound filled with some other gates and roof sheets and filled it with a dozen sheep. Hi, we are your potential buyers, I say, wanting to make a good impression. Don’t appear too keen, or too towny, I told myself. He’s holding back a larger sheep, and he does make some sort of noise of recognition. I continue. Yes, I explain, we want to plant an orchard, and make juices and ciders, and jams. He cuts me off “do you know what I am doing?” he states. Not a clue, but Claire realises. She grabs me by the arm, thanking him and saying we will try and catch up when he is not so busy. He is the middle of tupping she explains quietly. “But I didn’t even to get to tell him about the Quinces” I reply. 100 percent overkeen towny.

 And then finally we completed! Money gone, big bit of grass now owned. Normally people celebrate occasions like this, popping the cork on some sparkling cider, but I don’t feel like we had actually achieved anything yet. The journey lay ahead, it was long, and there would be considerable ups and downs. To revisit our Lord of the Rings analogy, the fellowship didn’t celebrate until the job was done. We probably should have done. We weren’t exactly heading to Mordor. 

The first thing to do was get the first set of trees in the ground. It was tempting to go all in, but we had decided to stagger the planting over 3 years. 100 trees a year. It wasn’t so much the money, a single grafted rootstock around twelve to fifteen pounds, but that we wanted it to evolve.  We might change what we wanted, or learn something new, or even, most likely, we would make loads of mistakes, so staggering it out allowed us the opportunity not to balls it all up immediately. 

There was no honeymoon period. With the first year being tough. Tough mentally. So many people can not wait to leave their employment. But it does have advantages. The paycheck, obviously, but colleagues (even the annoying ones), a sense of importance, of being needed, of contributing. And what I found hardest was that I used to be really good at something. But now I was a complete beginner again. And everyone thinking we were mad!

And tough physically. Near enough our first day at the field (it wasn’t an orchard yet) coincided with the beast from the east. Sheltering from sub artic temperatures in a small caravan. There was no power yet, with a tiny electric fan fueled from an old generator.  If you put the kettle on, the thing often spluttered to a hault half way through the boil. Back outside to curse, and spend a few minutes pulling on a cord trying to get the thing going again. Until said pull cord came off in my hand. Sat in the cold and the dark, sipping from a lukewarm cup of tea. 

This was followed by one of the hottest summers on record with the young trees needing watering. Lengths and lengths of hosepipe connected up and run around the orchard, only to find the flow rate had all the enthusiasm of a queue at the job centre (at this rate my next appointment). Whilst we still hadn’t updated our caravan wardrobe. 

To do lists became lists of lists, with it being extremely rare being able to actually tick something off. Instead trying to take satisfaction from shading in a small circle, as we added more and more important tasks to the bottom. But we were working hard. As well as planting trees, we had carried out repairs to the old cow shed, and started to clear away lots of the previous owners junk. The hedgerow seemingly a favourite place to store bits of gate, roof sheet, and bale wrap. 

One day we arrived to find sheep were nibbling on our young trees. What a Utopian they had discovered. Between the two of us, our dog who is part sheepdog hiding behind us, we were able to herd the sheep up towards the corner of our plot, where there was a gate to the neighbouring farmers field. Only to realise it would have been better to open the gate first. An important thing, that they didn’t show you on Countryfile. And as we sidled around them towards the gate, the sheep made a run back down towards their all you can eat buffet. The following day Claire found me refilling the hedge with all the crap we had just been pulling out. 

And we did make loads of mistakes. Chiefly not having faith in ourselves and waiting a year or two to plant the second and third set of trees. It turns out trees grow slowly! Only now, in the fourth year, are the first set starting to look like trees. I wish we had put them all in in that first winter. And our spacings. We wanted the trees spaced out in the traditional manner. But it turns out that 10 paces up a slope is slightly less than 10 paces down. Only by a fraction, but one that when scaled up over 20 trees, results in a slight curvature to the planting line. The Romans would be appalled. But we really like it. Straight lines and curves. 

Despite all this our vision remained strong. Our passion for what we were doing undimmed. The dream not once becoming a nightmare. The downs were thankfully followed by ups. Higher highs than I had expected or experienced before. The first blossoms. The first fruits. The first tastes – like Adam and Eve in our very own Eden. A Sops in Wine, with its red apple flesh, the intense aromatics of the quince,  the hard to describe melon-like freshness of a while mulberry straight from the tree – I had never tasted anything so delicious. 

I don’t miss my old employment at all. Maybe just my former workmates (but not the annoying ones) for the social aspect– an orchard can be a truly lovely but lonely place.  I think I have found my true calling, liberated to truly become fulfil what I was meant to do. Sometimes I drive past where I grew up, and for a split moment, thinking about popping in to see my mum for a chat.  I think she would love it, telling me to keep going when things were tough, and giving me good horticultural advice. I would tell her I now had wellies that fit and that a watering can is always essential. And I would love to tell her about all the different varieties we had planted – the malus domestica, Cydonia oblonga, the morus alba et al. 

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Story of an Orchard Dreamer by Mike Shorland, owner of Rull Orchard | Food Drink Devon

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