Discover the largest orchards cared for by the National Trust
Nestled in the Herefordshire hills, the Brockhampton estate is home to approximately sixty-five acres of traditional orchards.
Acre-upon-acre of beautiful blossom and fruit
Whatever the season is when you visit Brockhampton, you simply can’t miss the impressive elderly fruit trees which engulf the medieval manor house and beyond. Surrounding the house is an orchard full of ‘Shropshire prune’ damson trees which erupt into cloud-like blossom around early April followed by laden boughs of sweet fruit by late summer. Head through the gate and the damson trees begin to intermingle with apples, many local heritage varieties grow here such as the ‘Onibury Pippin’ and ‘Worcester Pearmain’. Other fruit on the estate include cherries, pears and the not-so-common Medlar fruit which dates back to the Roman times, you have to wait for this fruit to ‘blett’ or rot before it is sweet and soft enough to eat.
The orchards here at Brockhampton don’t just please visitors with Instagram-worthy blossom shots and fruit picking but they also create a myriad of habitats and biodiversity too. To enhance this space further, lowland meadow has been planted in and around the orchards, the combination of traditional fruit trees and native wildflowers will encourage pollinators such as bees and butterflies in the warmer months. As the weather turns cooler, Brockhampton resident farmer James Hawkins will graze his Hebrides sheep here to help manage the orchards organically.
Dead wood from fruit trees such as damsons provides a great home to many species of fungi, lichens and insects, which in turn will help out the bird population as they search for insects. At Brockhampton, we're lucky enough to have the Noble Chafer beetle and a rare mistletoe weevil. The weevil isn't particularly interesting to look at but before it's appearance in Brockhampton over fifteen years ago, it had never been found in Britain before. It's even rare to find it on the continent where it is known to exist.
The noble chafer on the other hand is rare but is a little more interesting to look at with its iridescent green body. Its main habitat is on fruit trees over 50 years old that would normally be taken out due to their lack of fruit production. This little beetle presides within the old, decaying wood within the tree, making it important to consider how we clear away any dead wood that comes down. It is generally found by the droppings it produces, called frass, which become abundant and accumulate like fine gravel in hollow branches or trunks.
In order to better manage the orchards for mushrooms growing on the ground (that need shorter grass), fungi growing on the deadwood hanging from trees, and the lichens that grow around the orchards, we're adjusting our management and grazing regime to better fit with the wildlife needs. It's important that we don't use pesticides or fertilizers as this could harm the wildlife.
Interestingly archaeological investigations in 2015 confirmed knowledge that a large orchard, spanning over twenty-one acres once stood in the grazing fields behind the manor house here which has since been lost. Last year we began reinstating these lost Victorian orchards but with a modern twist. Bristol-based artist, Walter jack was commissioned to help create an orchard that had the enjoyment of visitors at the heart of its design. Working alongside landscape architects Rathbourne Partnership, Walter developed a concept of the orchards which will span across three fields. The first of the orchards was planted in winter 2019 and can now be explored by visitors, this orchard features five ‘circular rooms’ surrounded by lowland meadow. Each ‘room’ features unusual and rare varieties of fruit, specially chosen to tell the story of the history of the eating apple, from its origins in Kazakhstan to the traditional Herefordshire cider apple.
The story of the apple will also be told though different means of interpretation and art, the first installation being the 'Herefordshire Bull' trow which will sit in a sea of meadow grass in the new orchards.
Sadly, many of our orchards in Herefordshire and Worcester have been grubbed-up over the past century. Some of this is due to neglect or more popular varieties of fruit being imported from abroad, with another culprit being development and change of land use.
In years past, orchards were very important to local economies. The annual fruit harvest brought a bounty in which was enjoyed throughout the year. Apple orchards gave the people the means to make cider, juice, and cider vinegar which can be used as a preserving aid, disinfectant and in medicine.
Not only are orchards significant to Herefordshire’s past they create wonderful habitats which is why the National Trust are working hard towards preserving and maintaining the orchards at their special places in Herefordshire.
When visitors explore the buttery inside the manor, they’re quite often mistaken into thinking they’re looking at a room linked to dairy products. It’s possible some food bits were as large stone slabs on the floor and work surfaces make it very cool, but its main purpose was to store alcohol, so named after the wooden butts or barrels.
There are a couple of stone apple presses on the estate which now belong to the resident farmers. It’s though previous occupants of the manor house would’ve had their apples pressed on site here and the cider would be stored in the cool buttery to ferment before being served in the magnificent Great Hall at dinner time. All excess fruit would be eaten and sold at market locally.
Sadly, horse-drawn apple presses are a thing of the past and the ones here are not only now privately owned but beyond repair. However, we have continued the tradition of annual apple pressing in October over the years, but now through an outside company who bring a portable press on-site, the cider is still left to ferment in the buttery too.
Wassailing (Wassail meaning ‘Good Health or Be Well’) is an Anglo-Saxon custom in cider producing regions of England, it is thought to bring a bountiful harvest when communities take part in this traditional event which blesses the orchards.
Wassailing, on around Twelfth Night in January (around 5/6 January), brings many together to drink a concoction of mulled ale, served in huge silver or pewter bowls and mixed with curdled cream, apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar, small pieces of toast are often added and float on the top, its appearance leading some to call the drink ‘Lamb’s Wool’.
With a greeting of ‘Wassail’, cider is poured onto its roots and toast is offered in the tree’s branches, an incantation recited and those present sing, shout and bang drums, pots, pans etc. to ward off evil spirits.
Have you ever heard of the Apple Tree Man? He is the spirit of the orchard and lives in the eldest tree, the fertility of the orchard is his responsibility. He brings blossom in spring and a good harvest in early autumn and is thought to reward anyone who shows kindness towards him.
Every orchard has its own Apple Tree Man and there are many tales of apple thieves being spooked and scared by this peculiar spirit! The Wassail is though to please the Apple Tree Man who is thought to be charmed by the offering of cider and toast.