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Reviving the Old Apple and Pear Varieties in the Southern Marches.

Treasures and Pitfalls: Locating Old Orchards Using OS Maps

The Bromyard area of Herefordshire is strongly connected with fruit growing. A local apple variety, Collington Bitter Sweet or Collington Big Bitters was used for cider, cooking and mincemeat; fruit trees are dotted in and around the town; and a number of street names reflect lost orchards.

The excellent book 'Bromyard: Minster Manor and Town', by Phyllis Williams, includes a facsimile of the 1928 Ordnance Survey (OS) map and an aerial photograph, also by the OS, from 1971, as illustrations of the survival of burgage plots.

The juxtaposition of these two images suggested that many orchards were lost during this period, but also did seem to point to the location of a few old orchards that might still be present today.

The possibility was presented to use a series of OS maps to chart the fortunes of orchards in the area over a period of a century or more, and that these maps might provide a quick way to focus on the oldest surviving trees for identification and propagation.

There were good sources of information available. Bromyard has a very active local history society, which holds maps, books, photographs and other resources. The Ordnance Survey web site can provide segments of historic maps of any area, and their historic maps department was able to answer some difficult questions. Hereford Record Office was another source for maps of the area, particularly at the old 25 inch and 6 inch scales.

The first facts to emerge were in many ways disappointing. The 25 inch series of 1928 (all or parts of sheets 21/6, 21/7, 21/9 and 21/10) included a small footnote stating that they were based on a survey of 1885, with revisions, and were not therefore, the result of a full contemporary survey. The OS stated that this was often the case, and that typical notified revisions would be the extension of the railway during this period or major new building work. They thought that many changes of agricultural field use, such as the ploughing up of an orchard, were unlikely to be included until the next full survey.

A check of the 1928 maps against the previous 1904 and 1886 editions indicated that this was probably true. All fields marked as orchards in 1886 still seemed to be orchards in 1928 (although the symbols used had changed slightly), while no new orchards had appeared. The picture was suspiciously static. Perhaps the apparent great loss of trees between 1928 and 1971 was rather exaggerated, since it might be the aggregation of almost all losses between 1885 and 1971. It was subsequently confirmed that no new full survey was carried out until the 1970s, and that even the editions of the 1950s were based on the survey of 1885, forming a distorted picture in which perhaps 90% of orchards losses over the whole 94 year period were apparently compressed into the final 18 years. While other sources have suggested an accelerated rate of loss during the C20th, using the OS maps to try and evaluate this would be very misleading indeed. Certainly, the use of OS maps to help identify patterns of orchard change has to be approached with considerable caution.

Maps from the 6 inch series for 1888, 1930 and 1952/3 were also compared, and these did underline the more accurate picture of changes to orchards as a result of revisions such as urban development. One of the changes ties in very well with reports from local residents that old orchard trees may be found in the gardens of some early C20th houses. Houses and allotments in the 1930 edition covered an orchard shown on the late C19th maps, but regular rows of trees were still shown between the houses. Trees absorbed into the protected environment of gardens in this way sometimes have better prospects of survival than their equivalents on farmland. If trees are there, they could now be well in excess of 100 years old, and these gardens will be on the list for collecting fruit samples this autumn.

The foot and mouth crisis has hindered any detailed investigation on the ground, and these will probably now be held over until next year. However, three example fields, in reasonable view from public roads, were selected on the basis that they were marked as orchards on all of the maps from 1886, and also showed trees in the 1971 photograph. One of the fields now seems to be treeless, one may contain a single remnant, but the third contained a number of beautiful old trees. It is just possible that an ancient orchard was uprooted after 1885 and subsequently replanted - and we can now conclude that the OS maps are unlikely to show evidence of such a change - but from brief observation it is equally likely that these are another example of C19th trees in the area.

One further individual tree that almost certainly dates from before 1885 was located as a result of the older OS maps. The 1886 edition included symbols to represent small groups of trees included in larger fields. One example was in a field that still borders the town today, and a battered and stag-headed Perry Pear was found there. These small-group symbols, together with individual trees in hedge boundaries, were left out of all future editions, starting from 1904, as part of a rationalisation, so the 1886 edition was the only map evidence to point to this tree. A photograph held by the local history society, and probably dating from the 1890s or early 1900s, was then found to show the group of trees, with the characteristic shape of the mature Perry apparently discernible, and this further enhanced the credibility of the tree as a long-lived survivor. Perry Pears are, of course, generally renowned for their longevity.

In conclusion, OS maps can be relied upon reasonably well to show the loss of orchard space over a long period to new homes or civil engineering projects. They are, however, unlikely to show a reliable picture of orchards lost to alternative agricultural use, except where they follow a full new survey. Nevertheless, some interesting results can emerge when maps are used to try and locate the oldest trees in an area, and when combined with alternative historical sources the exercise can be very enjoyable and worthwhile. Although some individual trees - especially those planted originally in gardens - might not be found this way, it can provide a quick method of homing in on possible examples of surviving trees from very old orchards.

John Powell, 2001

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