By Gail Falkingham, Record Assistant
The collections of the County Record Office include a number of sources which can tell us about the existence and use of orchards and fruit trees in North Yorkshire in previous centuries. Historic maps show us that orchards were once much more widespread than they are today. Estate records and gardeners’ notebooks provide further details of the types of fruit and varieties that were grown.
A Brief History of Orchards
There are many thousands of varieties of apples and pears. It is thought that the Romans first introduced the pear and the sweet apple (as opposed to the crab apple) to Britain almost 2000 years ago. Early evidence for the presence of orchards is indicated by a number of Anglo-Saxon place-names in the North Yorkshire containing ‘Appleton’ from the Old English words ‘æppel’ and ‘tun’, referring to places where apples grow. Examples from Ryedale District in North Yorkshire include Appleton le Street on the Roman road heading north west from Malton, and the nearby Appleton le Moors (the Moors was a later addition to distinguish it from Appleton le Street). In Hambleton District there is Appleton Wiske on the River Wiske, and the Applegarth in Northallerton.
Medieval monasteries kept orchards, also known as ‘pomaria’. Remains of a cider press can still be seen at Fountains Abbey, and Ampleforth Abbey still produces its own cider today. Apple juice and cider making were ways to use up surplus and windfall fruit.
One of the first books on gardening was written in the 17th century by William Lawson, ‘A New Orchard and Garden, or, The best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good for a rich Orchard: Particularly in the North and generally for the whole kingdome of England…’, published in 1618. Editions produced from 1623 also contained ‘The Husband Mans Fruitful Orchard’. Lawson (c.1554-1635), who was vicar of Ormesby in the North Riding, dedicated the book to Sir Henry Belasyse of Newburgh Priory. His book provides advice on a wide range of orchard-related topics, including the soil, the positioning and form of the orchard, as well as fencing, walls and moats. Lawson also advises on the best distance to plant trees, on grafting, dressing, pruning, pests and diseases, gathering and keeping the fruit, as well as making cider (from apples) and perry (from pears), and even suggesting the wages to pay your gardener.
Orchards were commonly to be found within, or close to, farms and villages. They can clearly be seen on historic Ordnance Survey maps from the 19th century, depicted with symbols for fruit trees, spaced in a regular grid pattern. They can similarly be seen on earlier 18th century maps, sometimes surrounded by a moat, fence or hedge.
A plan of 1722 from the Fauconberg (Belasyse) of Newburgh Priory archive [ZDV VI 4], shows two orchards, situated to the east and west of the central pleasure gardens lying south of the formal gardens in front of the house. One, to the east, is square in plan, the other to the west is smaller and rectangular. Both are surrounded by a moat (ditch of water). Lawson, in 1618, (whose book was dedicated to the then owner of Newburgh Priory) was of the opinion that a moat is the best fence for an orchard as it ‘will afford you fish, fence and moysture to your trees, and pleasure also, if they be so great and deepe that you may have Swans, & other water birds, good for devouring of vermine, and a boat for many good uses’.
A traditional orchard typically contains apple trees, but might also have a mixture of fruit and nut trees, such as pear, plum, damson, cherry, walnut and cobnut (hazel) according to regional variation. The trees are planted in a regular pattern and often grown as ‘standards’, with their crowns high enough to allow for livestock, such as sheep or cattle, to graze beneath, unless the grass is allowed to grow and is cut for hay.
Different varieties of apple trees flower at different times of the year. To produce a fruit, an apple flower must be pollinated and remain undamaged by frost. An apple tree ideally requires different apple varieties nearby for cross pollination by insects and, to get a good crop, their flowering times need to overlap. To achieve maximum pollination, two trees of the same or adjacent flowering group should be planted close together.
Traditionally, orchards were planted in a grid formation, in rows, or sets, of trees from North to South, making it easier to map the different varieties and also to access and collect the fruit. It also means that each tree receives an even amount of sunlight. Trees were spaced generously apart, the distance depending upon the variety, so as to avoid competition for root and canopy growth.
A plan of an orchard, possibly for Brockfield Hall, near Warthill, York, survives in the Agar family estate archive, dated 1804 [ZSG XIII 1/10]. This depicts a rectangular grid, 8 rows wide and 11 rows long. Each square contains the name of a variety of pear, plum, apple or crab apple, although some squares in the south-east corner are blank. In two squares, ‘Quince’ has been crossed out and replaced with different plum varieties. Two varieties of apple have also been crossed out and replaced: ‘Codling’ and ‘Ribston Pippin’, the latter in several squares. We are unsure of the reason, perhaps the varieties were unsuccessful in those locations, or maybe there was a change of plan?
The varieties named are:
Apples: Ribston Pippin, York Glory, Royal Russet, Hunthouse, Yorkshire Greening, Margaret, Golden Rennet (Reinette), Sir Walter Blacket’s Favourite, Norfolk Beaufin for pressing, Bowes’s Nonsuch and Nonpareil
Crab Apples: Siberian, Double Flowering Chinese Apple and Minchal (possibly Manchurian)
Pears: Catillac, Swan’s Egg, York Bergamot, St Germain and Crasane (possibly Passe Crassane).
Plums: White Magnum Bonum, Imperatrice, Red Orleans, Red Damascene and White Damascene (damascene is an old word for the damson).
Apple trees are commonly grafted because they cannot be grown from seed as ‘true’ varieties. Grafting involves taking a cutting, also known as a ‘scion’, from a budding branch of one apple tree, and combining it with the rootstock branch of another apple tree. This is done whilst the tree is dormant, usually in late winter or early spring, before the sap begins to rise and the buds of the rootstock tree are ready to open. Both the scion and the rootstock are cut precisely, on opposing angles, so that they will marry up exactly to each other, and fit together as if they were one branch. The joined area is then wrapped to keep the two branches in place until the graft begins to grow. Grafting also has the advantage of producing trees which reach maturity faster than those grown from seedlings or cuttings.
Several varieties of apple may be grafted on to one rootstock, each pollinating the other and potentially bearing fruit at different times, depending on the variety; this is called a ‘family’ tree. Such a tree would be ideal for those with limited space.
An example of such a ‘family’ tree can be seen illustrated in a gardener’s notebook belonging to John Smith of Egton, 1824-1867 [Z.139]. This drawing shows 13 numbered grafts on six branches of a stock apple tree of the Leadington variety. On the opposing page is a corresponding numbered list showing five apple varieties, each of which is grafted onto its own branch. These are a mixture of cooking and dessert apples, which would be ready to harvest at different times of the year:
Also listed in the notebook are the eight apple varieties in the Old Garden:
1 Pomroy (Pomeroy)
2 Cam Live
4 Thomas Redman Golden Russett
5 Black Apple
6 Lem Pippin (Lemon Pippin)
7 Egton Apple or Wiltshire Catshead
8 Royal Russet
Fruit trees did not always have to be planted free-standing in orchards, they could also be trained to grow flat up walls and fences. These are known as espalier, a French word which originally referred to the trellis or support on which the tree was grown, and comes from the Italian spalliera, meaning ‘something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against’. This is a decorative, space-saving way to grow fruit, and requires little pruning once established.
Whilst the south-facing hot walls in walled gardens were often planted with more exotic types of fruit, such as peaches, nectarines and apricots, apples and pears were also commonly grown as espaliers. An espalier tree typically has branches trained horizontally on either side of the main stems. Trees were also trained by selective pruning into a variety of different shapes, such as a fan, cordon or candelabra.
‘Orchards’ by C Masset, 2012. Shire Publications Ltd.
‘Apples: A Social History’ by S Twiss, 1999. National Trust