Fruit, Friends and Festivities … biography of an orchard, part 2.

Orchard reclaimed (a continuation from the previous post)

Five years or so after the Pill orchard was handed over to the local community in about 2004, a group of committed volunteer enthusiasts (which later became the Friends of Watchhouse Hill) began to organise improvements to the hill area and a reclamation process began on the orchard. Workparties (that are still regular events) vigorously tackled the brambles and the neglected trees were pruned and nurtured back to better health, with new trees planted where there were gaps; there are now about 120 – 130 fruit trees. Some painstaking detective work has revealed the identity of most of the existing apple varieties and there have been abundant crops of apples in most of the years since the orchard has returned to being managed.

Help for habitats – Wildlife

While the rejuvenation of the fruiting trees was one aspect of the work, it was also important to ensure that the management of both the orchard and the Hill provided a range of habitats for wildlife. Cattle were no longer grazed on the hill but wild meadow flower-seeds have been sown in recent years and nest boxes, both small and owl-sized (some made by local adults and children during a workshop), have been installed in the trees, although I have seen blue-tits doing what they do naturally and nesting in holes in the apple trees there too – a charming sight! Great spotted and green woodpeckers, jay, heron, crow, swift, swallow, house martin, and raven can all be seen in the orchard or nearby.

The grassland is managed to encourage voles, shrews and mice to support the dwindling population of predators and sparrowhawk, buzzard and in some years kestrel have been seen here, and owls can often be heard in the area. Jackdaw, blackbird, song thrush, robin, blue and great tits are regulars in the orchard and in the winter the fieldfares and redwings arrive from the far north and gorge on the fallen apples.

During one work party session in the orchard I found a toad under some leaves at the base of a fallen apple tree and last summer almost tripped over a slow worm on the path by the orchard fence. I’ve also seen a fair range of butterflies, spiders and beetles and heard the chilling scream of foxes after dark. Some years ago we found evidence of badgers adjacent to the orchard, there was an extensive sett on the very steep wooded bank in the narrow strip of woodland that separates the orchard from a long drop (25 metres) into the river, the Hung Road (see end of post on the Bright Family).

An Apple for the Teacher (and the Pupils, the Playgroup, the Choir, their Families…)

The orchard has been happily adopted now as part of the village and provides a venue where all sorts of things take place; while families and individuals can often be seen just enjoying the space in their own way – watching the wildlife, picking apples, or just sitting quietly amongst the trees – a wide range of activities and events have been organised for the community too over the years that involve discovering, playing and learning as well as performances, celebrations and harvesting.

Little Apples pre-school play group on May Day

A pre-school playgroup, Little Apples, meet regularly in almost all weathers – a charming sight on sunny days! One year a food-themed schools project for local final year juniors and first year secondary pupils took place with stories, apple gathering and cooking;  some youth group sessions one summer gave local youngsters the chance to camp out and learn how to make a fire responsibly and cook over it.

There have been village picnics on summer afternoons, special evening events for families with fireside picnics, and bat and moth identification, ‘owl prowls’, dawn chorus walks and a herb discovery trail. Theatrical performances over a couple of summers were unusually blessed with lovely weather, and one local couple even held their wedding party there to coincide with the flowering of the apple blossom!

It’s not always wonderful weather though; a memorial tree-planting event with the local community choir took place there on a very rainy evening in March 2008; theoretically it was cancelled because of the weather but a sizeable crowd turned up anyway and the event is fondly remembered by a number of people in the village.

A few rotten apples

The open space and playing fields on the hill-top around the orchard with the expansive views out to the Severn and the Welsh Hills are much enjoyed by local people, and the space currently benefits from a small army of volunteer litter-pickers. It’s also used by a large community of dog-walkers and when the orchard came under the care of the community it was decided to designate it as a dog-free zone. So a fence with gates was installed surrounding the orchard and paths are mown through the long grass in summer before it gets a final all-over cut in autumn.

Because of the events that take place here, with many children, it’s a blessing to have an area free of dog-mess. While most people are responsible about cleaning up after their dogs, and respect the orchard boundaries, one or two people provocatively allow their dogs in; one rationale offered by a man being challenged about this: “well you can’t keep out the foxes so why does it matter?” There are very few foxes but dozens of dogs.

There have, sadly been a few other anti-social occurrences – wooden benches and nest boxes that had been installed were damaged or burned, the adjacent interpretation boards spray-painted and a spate of what appeared to be deliberate, large-scale littering a few years ago coincided with the end of the school year.

But thankfully the orchard is generally much appreciated and used respectfully by people of all ages, however, natural disasters can damage the orchard too! Heavy rain saturates the earth and has caused a few older trees to topple over while large branches have in some years broken off because of high winds, the weight of snow or the sheer burden of fruit in particularly fertile years. Fallen trees are often left for wildlife and two summers ago wasp and hornet’s nests were established in the roots and trunks of two specimens with appropriate warning notices attached to steer clear!

(Nearly) Upsetting the Apple Cart

In the late summer the fruit is often abundant and is free for locals to take, each in moderation! In our home we use the apples for puddings, drying, and making delectable apple wine. However, opportunists from outside the village have been known to turn up in previous years with vans, crates and ladders, but after some diplomatic conversations we’re hoping it’s now clear that’s it not a free resource to everyone!

Forbidden Fruit? Not on Apple Day

Despite these incidents, the orchard is generally much valued and one of the major events of the orchard’s year is Apple Day in October, a delightful (though occasionally very wet) annual feature for all ages, organised by the the Friends of Watchhouse Hill. On offer are apple-related games, apple cake eating, storytelling and a chance to go up to the highest branches of the trees to get those hard to reach apples in the local farmer’s cherry picker lift (the same farmer who mows the meandering paths through the long grass). The fruit is then crushed in a press at ground level and we drink the juice – can’t get fresher than that!

An Apple (or cider-soaked toast) on Wassail Day keeps the demons away

In the darkest part of winter the other essential event takes place – the Wassail, also organised by the the Friends of Watchhouse Hill. Just after dark on or near Old Twelfth Night – around January 17th – a lantern-bearing crowd gathers by the creek in the village to start the event. The participants wend their way up the cycle path and process into the orchard where a gift of cider-soaked toast (cider made from the orchard apples of course!) is placed in the largest, ‘King’ tree by the Wassail king or queen and a junior helper. Warnings to bad spirits are issued through shouting and clattering and bashing of old pans brought along specially, then a glass of the juice from the apples (some of which has been transformed by the magic of fermentation…) is raised to wish a good harvest in the coming year. Our village ladies Pill Shark Morris team perform in the lantern light and the Pill Whalers sing wassailing songs, along with a few other local Wurzels’ favourites

The continuing hard work of the Friends of Watchhouse Hill volunteer team not only generates a huge amount of enjoyment for village residents, and provides well managed habitats for wildlife, but has paid off in another way too as the whole of the Watchhouse Hill open space has been awarded the Green Flag for several years running now. This long established orchard site is a gem of a feature for the village (the Apple of our Eyes?!) and a very special place for events, social gatherings or to simply stroll through or linger in at any time of day, night or season, let’s hope the wassailing, and the locals, continue to help it thrive.

The Green Flag on Watchhouse Hill

More photographs of the orchard and the events that happen there can be found on my Pill Village flickr pages.

“A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible” Welsh proverb.

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