Gardens and Landscapes
An apple tree with ripe fruit is visible in front of the bricks of Walmer Castle, Kent

Conserving England’s orchards

An apple orchard, trees heavy with fruit, might be seen as a quintessentially English image. Indeed, many English Heritage properties have orchards, historic or contemporary, and our expert team of gardeners and landscape experts work hard to care for them.

But apples might not be quite as English as you might imagine … Read on to learn about the history of this iconic fruit and how we look after some of the glorious orchards in our care.

A variety of apple species laid out in a grid at Audley House apple fair, with varying sizes and colours shown
Apple species at Audley House apple fair

The first bite

We know apples were gathered in Europe in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, but these wouldn’t have have borne much of a resemblance to the fruit we think of as apples today. Archaeology suggests that they were smaller, more in line with the Malus sylvestris breed: what we think of today as a crab apple. This scientific name translates as ‘forest apple’, and far from the sweeter taste we enjoy, we can imagine that they would have tasted very acidic. Not so tasty in an apple crumble!

The domesticated apples of the sort eaten now come from central Asia, and sweeter-tasting fruit nearer to what we’d recognise appeared in the Middle East around 4,000 years ago. These came about because of the cross-breeding of different types of apples, allowing them to be bred for a more palatable taste. But it was the development of ‘grafting’ – a technique that allowed the growing of trees with especially flavourful fruit – that helped to increase yields, disease-resistance and ease of growing. These varieties in turn passed to Europe, and the Victorians, always enthusiastic horticulturalists, continued to create new types. They developed grafting techniques to maximise production and to share the best across the country.

Tens of English Heritage sites today have orchards, cared for by skilled gardening teams and volunteers. Read about some of these orchards here – and, next time you crunch into your favourite apple variety, don’t forget their fascinating history!

A view of the Great Cloister at Mount Grace Priory with an apple tree in the foreground.
A view of the Great Cloister at Mount Grace Priory with an apple tree in the foreground

Mount Grace Priory, House and Gardens

The area visitors to Mount Grace now see as an orchard didn’t start life that way. Historic images show this section of the landscape as a kitchen garden, laid out with railway sleepers and even, at one time, railway carriages!

2018 saw a huge project at this property, and as part of this the old kitchen garden was replanted as an orchard. It includes not only many different sorts of apples but also cherries, damsons and plums. Gardeners were careful to plant types (or cultivars) of fruit that would have been grown locally from around 1900, including the ‘Nancy Jackson’, a 19th-century cooking apple from Yorkshire, and the ‘Ribston Pippin’, an 18th-century eating apple that was first grown just an hour or so from Mount Grace, at Ribston Hall.

Visit Mount Grace Priory, House and Gardens
A view of the espalier apple trees at Walmer Castle and Gardens. Espalier is the process of training a plant against a frame, as you can see here.
A view of the espalier apple trees at Walmer Castle and Gardens. Espalier is the process of training a plant against a frame, as shown here.

Walmer Castle and Gardens

The array of fruit in the orchards here includes apples and pears which were originally donated by the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers. This livery company (a kind of trade body originating in medieval guilds) can trace its origins to before 1300. The Company gave the fruit collection to Walmer by way of a gift to the Queen Mother, who was undertaking the honorary role of Lord Warden at the castle at the time. In fact the Queen Mother herself planted one apple type, called ‘Jupiter’, in the orchard.

Visitors to Walmer’s orchards will notice that the majority of fruit types are authentic to the region, originating from the Kent area. Varieties on display include historic species such as the ‘Blenheim Orange’ apple, dating from the 1700s, to the much newer ‘Greensleeves’ which was bred in the 1960s by a local Kent research station.

Visit Walmer Castle and Gardens
A view of newly-planted trees on a grassed area, with the castle walls visible in sunshine behind
New saplings: the new trees in the community orchard at Barnard Castle, planted in 2019.

Barnard Castle

2019 saw the completion of a project to replace the former garden at Barnard Castle with an orchard and wildflower meadow more in keeping with the setting at the base of this dramatic 12th century castle.

Gardening colleagues and volunteers from Mount Grace Priory created a traditional orchard, replete with local fruit varieties including 13 different types of apple. Types planted in the orchard include the ‘Green Balsam’, a North Yorkshire breed from the early 19th century, and the ancient ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ from the early 1700s.

The orchard includes standard trees (unlike the espalier trees pictured at Walmer Castle), so visitors can wander beneath the boughs along mown paths among a wildflower meadow. The new orchard will offer seasonal showings of spring flowers and autumn fruit.

If you’d like to be a part of making a totally new orchard, why not consider becoming an English Heritage volunteer

Visit Barnard Castle

More food and landscapes

  • Victorian apple recipes

    Fans of Audley End cook Mrs Crocombe will enjoy this short film about how she uses apples in her Victorian kitchen.

  • Foraging at Stonehenge

    For more about how our ancestors ate, including apples, take a look at this blog post about foraging and Stonehenge.

  • Treats from the orchard

    Like apples? Shop the range of English Heritage chutneys and ciders in our online shop.

  • Conserving our landscapes

    English Heritage protects other special landscapes, too. Learn about the work we do with endangered meadow habitats here.

Visit other sites with orchards

  • Osborne House and Gardens

    Osborne, former home of Queen Victoria, includes a walled garden which was replanted in 2000 and features historic fruit varieties with royal names, such as the ‘Lane’s Prince Albert’ apple.

  • Audley End House and Gardens

    Audley End House and Gardens hold an apple festival each year to celebrate the huge range of species grown there. Learn more in this blog post.

  • Battle Abbey

    The 19th-century owners of Battle Abbey planted an orchard to guarantee fruit year-round. You can even explore a list of the fruit varieties in the Battle Abbey orchard.

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