Sheds: not just for lawnmowers

Worcestershire: fruit basket of the West Midlands. Well yes, one of them, or perhaps more accurately, the county is part of a large and distinctive area of western England that by the 19th century was a tapestry of orchards home to many locally distinctive varieties of apples, pears, cherries, plumbs and damsons. A glance at any 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map of the Teme Valley, Wyre Forest or the Vale of Evesham will reveal just how widespread orchards had become by the late 1800s. Local markets and consumption were a long-established feature of the rural economic and social cycle; cider, for example, was currency. By the 19th century, however, orchards were becoming a commercial crop linked to more distant markets by the strategic rail network. The burgeoning industrial heartlands of the Black Country and Birmingham had a growing population demanding produce that could not be grown locally on a large enough scale.

Fruit trees offer their harvest during the transition from summer to autumn; the time when cool morning mist fills the still green valleys. What better than to pluck a ripe Worcester Pearmain apple from its branch to enjoy a freshness of flavour that can only survive in that moment before it fades on its journey to the supermarket. By now, in late September, plumbs and damsons have gone over and the apple harvest is coming to a close. Historically, the intensity of the annual orchard harvest season was industrial in its scale if still traditional in technique. For a few weeks many hands were needed to shake, gather, pluck and pack fruit with the softer plums and damsons particularly vulnerable to becoming quickly over-ripe. The landscape was adapted to support the effort and a great many small buildings were constructed along lanes, hedgerows and field corners creating a new vernacular that quickly became a signature of fruit growing areas. These sheds, shacks or hovels provided both shelter (occasionally basic accommodation) and spaces where fruit could be packed and stored or redistributed to markets.

As with many human endeavours, fruit growing has left its tokens in our modern landscape. In the Vale of Evesham, traditional orchards are still being managed although now on a vastly smaller scale. Modern commercial orchards are built around mechanisation as opposed to the human hand. There has not, therefore, been a role for the traditional buildings in the last few decades. Without the protection afforded to many grander historic buildings they are gradually being claimed by weather and scrub with often an out-of-place and isolated patch of mature scrub the only hint of their former presence. Brick examples have fared better, but are still, without purpose, succumbing to neglect. Their rarity increases each year and within a generation they risk being lost from the landscape altogether.

The Vale of Evesham Landscape Partnership was formed in 2014 from a diverse range of individuals, groups and organisations all eager to celebrate the importance of the Vale’s contribution horticulture. A major project has now been tendered in the hope of securing grant funds that will lead to a five-year programme of community engagement, social history and landscape restoration. Ever competitive, there are no guarantees of securing a grant. However, if successful there will be a project dedicated to recording the buildings that survive, and better still, plans to restore and re-purpose a handful of examples in their traditional land-management context. Never has the fate of the humble shed rested on such slender threads. Time will tell.

For more information about the project or the sheds of the Vale contact archaeology@worcestershire.gov.uk

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