27th November 2016.
Out along the Teme Valley west of Worcester to Alfrick ~ ‘Alfred’s Farm‘ ~ to lead a guided walk. It’s for the Three Counties Traditional Orchard Project. Over 80% of the old orchards have vanished from this part of the world. Many of the remainder are unkempt sprawls, within which secluded treasures can still be found. The names are wonders in their own right: the Pitmaston Pineapple, Chatley’s Kernel, Colwall Quoining.
In the early 19th century, agricultural surveyor W Pitt produced a wonderful work, a report for the Board of Agriculture that matches in poetic flourish its undoubted value as technical treatise and social history. Pitt spent years travelling the length and breadth of Worcestershire for his General view of the Agriculture of the County of Worcester (1813), and despite his modernising spirit’s occasional exasperation at the backward ways of country folk, evidently loved the landscape:
“The climate of Worcestershire… is remarkably mild, soft, healthy and salubrious… the vallies of the Avon and the Teme… have at this low elevation a warmth and a softness which ripens the grain, and brings to perfection the fruits of the earth from a fortnight to a month earlier than in more elevated countries.” (Pitt 1813, 3)
Pitt’s survey has long held me in thrall, and is my muse for today’s walk. We head south through the scattered farmsteads and drop down the sandstone scarp into the valley of the Leigh Brook. I walked this route five days ago, when Autumn rains had whipped the brook to a muddy, broiling torrent. But today it is once more sedate, all energy disgorged into the Teme downstream – until the next downpour.
Orchards of apple, plum and cherry dot the slopes. The 1885 Ordnance Survey shows massed ranks of orchard, covering almost half the parish. Today, clusters survive, glimpsed behind hedgerows, scattered fitfully across pasture, laden with mistletoe – a “parasitical weed” to Pitt. The project is nurturing forgotten varieties, passing on skills: tending, pruning, identifying, valuing.
In Pitt’s day, 7000 tons of fruit a year passed north from these latitudes along the burgeoning canal network, heading beyond the West Midlands as far as Lancashire and Yorkshire. This was the fuel that fed the industrial revolution. And not an acre wasted: Pitt records beans, turnips and wheat undersown between orchard rows, livestock grazing beneath the canopy, and hop-yards stippled with lines of trees.
Back up the hill, and a view south across the valley to the wooded slopes leading up to Old Storridge Common, and north to the Abberley Hills. The last word to Pitt:
“From Tenbury down the Vale of Teme, a tract of country possessing great fertility, variety and beauty” (Pitt 1813, 312)
Reference: Pitt, W, 1813. General view of the Agriculture of the County of Worcester, With Observations on the Means of its Improvement. Reprinted (1969) for David and Charles Reprints: Newton Abbot.