New book charts decline of our region's orchards

Harvesting concept. Happy kids with baskets on apple-trees alley, picking apples on sunny day.

Orchards have declined catastrophically across our region, according to a new book. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

East Anglia's disappearing orchards are chronicled in a new book. 

The Orchards of Eastern England, by University of East Anglia professor Tom Williamson and Gerry Barnes, former head of environment at Norfolk County Council, traces the story of fruit growing in Norfolk and the eastern counties back to the late Middle Ages. 

orchards pic

An orchard which has survived at Bramerton, with closely-planted trees which were once a common feature on fruit farms - Credit: Prof Tom Williamson

Orchards were common features of the medieval and early modern landscape. By the 17th century some areas had begun to specialise in fruit production, such as the Fens around Wisbech. 

Commercial production really took off from the 1850s, fuelled by the growth of large urban markets and the coming of the railways, new transport systems that could take the fruit to them with relative ease. 

By the 1960s orchards were extensive in many districts but, since then, they have largely disappeared, impacting on the character of the landscape and biodiversity. 

Tom Williamson, left, and Gerry Barnes, authors of Ancient Trees in the Landscape, at a 15th century

Tom Williamson, left, and Gerry Barnes, who have written a book on our declining orchards - Credit: Denise Bradley

Prof Williamson, who lectures in the history of landscapes, said the acreage of orchards in the region had declined by more than 80pc. 

"We've gone from around 48,000 acres of orchard in the eastern counties in 1960, to 8,000 today," he said. "It's an absolutely catastrophic decline. It's been caused partly by the demise of the big commercial orchard on the Fens. It's also the gradual attrition of the old farm orchards. 

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"One of the things people who were around  in the 60s all said was it's the supermarkets - there used to be a lot of fruit wholesalers and independent grocers you could sell to."

orchards book

The Orchards of Eastern England is available from book shops, or directly from the University of Hertfordshire Press, priced £13.59. - Credit: Prof Tom Williamson

Globalisation of world trade, changing lifestyles and a host of other factors have also taken their toll.  Many orchards have been turned over to other farming uses or developed for housing. The growth in interest in local produce and heritage fruit varieties has seen a slight reversal in the decline, but the glory days of orchards are gone forever.  

Prof Williamson and Dr Barnes have previously co-authored a number of books for the University of Hertfordshire Press, including Trees in England and Rethinking Ancient Woodland.