Where ever you go in South Cambs. it’s possible to see the remnants and relics of a once thriving fruit growing industry. Most of the commercial orchards were grubbed up in the 1970s so it’s a question of looking for clues such as house, place and street names, bits of old orchard, and hedgerow fruit trees. Also many of our villages have community orchards, established since the 1970s when the pressure group’Common Ground’ was established to protect our orchard heritage before they all disappeared due to ‘market forces’.
I am in the process of writing a history of fruit farming in South Cambs. To this end I have been researching the whereabouts of old orchard land in around the villages using documentary sources and large scale OS maps. Having done this research its interesting to then go for a walk and have a close look at the landscape. There are a series of local walks which provide ample evidence of our former orchards.
For example: walking from Shepreth, where I live, to Barrington, I pass ‘The Bramleys’ and ‘Blenheim Close’, and if you look at old maps you find that these private housing estates were once old orchards attached to the Docwras Manor estate. Bramley Seedling cookers and Blenheim Orange, a dual purpose cooking and dessert apple, were widely grown in local orchards. Crossing the River Rhee or Cam, using the footbridges into Barrington, you see a strip of old orchard attached to a property on the right hand side of the footpath. At one time there were many of these small orchards backing on to the river, with properties fronting the High Street. These were smallholder orchards of an acre or so, where the owners or tenants combined fruit growing with poultry, pigs and honey making, and often combined this work with paid employment elsewhere.
Turning left along Barrington High Street and walking back towards Shepreth, on the right hand side of the road before the road turns down towards the bridge, there is a property called ‘Orchard End’, where through the hedgerow you can see a fairly large plantation of old fruit trees, grown as half standards, set in a square pattern about 16-20 feet apart. This was a standard method of cultivation. In the opposite direction, climbing to the top of Barrington Hill (Chapel Hill), on the left hand side was a large 50 acre orchard of plums, greengages and apples, owned by the Eastwood Cement Company (circa 1930-60). This was considered a prime site for orchard land because of its relative height. The fruit trees did not suffer from frost damage at blossom time, since the cold air collected in the valley bottom. for the same reason Mettel hill in Meldreth and Greenlow (Grinnel) hill, in Melbourn became prime orchard land and the latter remains so, (Cam Valley Orchards).
Most of the local farm shops and gardening outlets began life as fruit farms. In Meldreth Fieldgate Nurseries started out as a fruit orchard and so too Phillimore’s Garden Centre in Melbourn. The largest of these concerns, Bury Lane Farm Shop was the old Bury Lane Fruit Farm, a 79 acre holding established in the early 1900s, part of the Melbourn Bury estate. This became a ‘pick your own’ fruit farm in the 1970s. You can see their old plum orchard on the right hand side of the railway line, as you travel by train to Royston. Similarly you can see old orchard land on the left of the railway line just before you enter Meldreth station.
The one remaining commercial fruit farm is Cam Valley Orchards in Meldreth, centred on the cold store and farm shop in Whitecroft Road.The present owner, Tim Elbourn, owns about 50 acres of orchard land in Meldreth and Melbourn. Tim grows a wide variety of heritage apples as well as pears, plums and gages. His shop is well worth a visit and offers excellent fruit and good value for money.
In terms of acreage, the main center of fruit growing in South Cambs was Melbourn and Meldreth. This can be seen in the road names in Melbourn which celebrate the apples grown in the area: Bramley Avenue, Russet Way, Orchard Road etc. Cherry Park industrial estate is the former site of the Palmer family’s apple cold store and packing sheds. The Palmers were the largest fruit growers (and early pioneers) in the district. The ‘American Golf’ site on the approach to to the village was formerly a large apple orchard, owned by the Palmer’s. One of the earliest orchards was owned by a local Melbourn farmer, J.J. Newling, at The Moor, near the present site of the allotments. In Meldreth, Howard Way commemorates another pioneer fruit growing family, who owned Chiswick Farm situated in Chiswick End.This fruit farm was later owned by the Dash family until it was grubbed up in the early 1970s.
Stockridge Meadows in Melbourn is a good recent example of the community orchards which have been set up in the district.This has been turned into a nature reserve with a circular walk. New fruit trees have been planted to supplement the older fruit trees which once formed part of a commercial orchard. Other community orchards have been established in Harston, Orwell, Kingston and The Eversdens. One of the most recent community orchard developments has been in Trumpington where a project to plant local heritage apples has been undertaken.
In medieval times most orchards were situated on small crofts or enclosures of land with the villages, close by the farmhouses and other properties. As the industry developed in the late 19th century arable land was converted to orchards, a response to the Great Agricultural Depression and falling cereal prices. The introduction of the railway line from Cambridge to London via Royston in the 1850s opened up new and more distant markets for local growers and a rapid means of transport for perishable fruits. All of the villages with local stations saw the expansion of fruit growing: Harston, Foxton, Shepreth and Meldreth. Villages further afield such as Harlton, the Eversdens and Kingston sent fruit to Lord’s Bridge station on the Bedford-Gamlingay-Cambridge line.
You can enhance the enjoyment of your local walks by keeping a watchful eye for signs of old orchard land; there is much more of it around than you might think!