To the south of our property, where our land jumps the lane and then runs above it to the east, there are two fields marked on the deed maps as Upper Tyning and Lower Tyning, and which we call collectively the Tynings. They are both roughly triangular with their longest sides touching along a precipitous bank, called a lynchet. Lynchets are medieval earthworks (some are believed to be neolithic) which were made by ploughing the hillside to form banks to ease the steep slopes. In the mind’s eye the bank is a little like a diagonal fold made from corner to corner on a handkerchief. A crease in a continuous surface that divides the one thing distinctively into two with an above and below and a steep slope between.
The lynchet is fifteen metres or so at its deepest point and tapers to both ends where the fields meet again as the contours connect and allow free movement of stock and tractors. There are four mature sycamores on the banks and a hedge at the top comprised primarlily of elder, blackthorn, hawthorn, elm and dog rose. Being too steep to manage, the slope has a vegetation all its own with cowslips, hypericum, oregano, knapweed and scabious that escape the heaviest of the grazing. In the time we have been here we have allowed the bank to rewild. It was regularly sprayed by the previous owner to keep bramble and dog rose in check and was barren when we arrived, consisting of little more than rough grass and seedling sycamores. The blackthorn, or ‘Mother-of-all-woods’, has created protective thorny thickets where briar roses, spindle and seedling trees are now pushing through.
You enter the fields at one corner of the handkerchief and are immediately greeted by a rickety tin hay barn and the option to go left and up into the rise of the top field or down to the sweep of the field below. Where the fold in the land starts to decline where the two fields converge, sometime in the past our predecessors planted an orchard. Running in two lines along the contours, the avenue of apples make this place particular and this relict orchard now speaks of a past age when the land was a market garden.
Pruned high, too high to harvest without ladders, they pose a question about how this place was used, but the orchard allows for a shadowy place on the sun-drenched slopes and provides a natural point of gravity. We watch spring come to life in their sugary May blossom and gather the windfalls which pool at their feet in October. Before our own orchard started to provide for us, we would fill barrowloads with windfalls for the freezer. Somewhere between a cooker and a dessert apple, they have good substance, but we have yet to name the variety by sending a fruit away for identification.*
When we first arrived here, we imagined making a sinuous table to run through a section of their dappled linearity and eat lunch under the blossom, but we have never had the time to do more than gather the windfalls here and savour the collective outline of the trees. A conversation of leaning trunks and limbs that umbrella above and reach to connect the whole. In the thirteen years we have been here the trees have slipped into a serious and definite decline, to break the double line and take on a run-down melancholic air. We feared that our links with the place that was here before us would soon disappear.
We estimate the trees to be about 150 years old and their age of demise is now upon us. However, the biodiversity audit we started two years ago revealed them to be one of the best habitats on our land for invertebrates. Their hollowed trunks and rotting limbs provide habitat for deadwood invertebrates (saproxylic species) and small mammals, including bat roosts, as well as offering homes to birds, mosses, lichens and fungi.
With the loss of old orchards across the UK many invertebrates that rely on dead wood are becoming at risk, so they are important habitats to retain and replace. Our survey recorded Rhinoceros Beetle (Sinodendron cylindricum), the larvae of which develop in rotten heartwood, the nationally notable tumbling flower beetle (Variimorda villosa), the larvae of which breed in deadwood, fungi and galls and the hoverfly, Chrysotoxum cautum, which is dependent on veteran trees with enough life in them still to support wood which is in decay. Also recorded were Apple Blossom Weevil (Anthonomus pomorum) the larvae of which feed specifically on apple blossom, with adults overwintering under loose bark.
So, when the trees have come down, often silently and without a big commotion, we have removed only the limbs that hindered access for cutting the hay and left as much dead wood standing as possible. We made an eco-pile from the cleared wood and have left a tree which seems to have decided that it is happy to keep growing in a reclining position. But every tree that toppled has prompted a greater sense of urgency to not let the orchard go and to replant a new generation amongst the veterans.
The rejuvenation began two years ago in the summer of 2022 with wood made suddenly accessible from the reclining tree without the need of a lofty ladder. One of the wonders of living in a country with such a rich tradition of growing is that it is still possible to commission new trees from old and to have budwood grown on to new rootstock. Keepers Nursery provide this service and a choice of rootstocks which limit the size of the tree according to their vigour. We chose M25, the largest and what we imagine these trees to be growing on, and followed their pragmatic set of instructions.
It is important to harvest strong vertical growth with vigour in the stems and semi-ripe wood in mid-July. I cut several pencil thick stems of fresh wood with good leaf coverage and already formed resting buds where the leaves met the stems. They were wrapped in damp newspaper and put into a moistened plastic bag so that the leaves stayed hydrated and sent by First Class post. We paid a deposit, requested six new trees and waited through the following growing season, the time it takes to graft the bud onto onto field grown rootstock and a summer to grow it on.
The whips arrived in the post at the end of December. Seven rather than six and with vigour already in their stems. I heeled them in and planned carefully where they might fit into the gaps between the veteran trees. Placing the trees in new soil and not the exact positions of the old trees is important, because apples, like roses, can suffer from replant disease. Beneficial fungus were added in the form of Rootgrow mychorrhizae to help the new trees take. We will most likely repeat the grafting process this summer, in the expectation that we will have more failures in the old trees and that another half dozen will be timely in a couple of years. In the meantime, we will enjoy the swansong of the elders and the very good feeling of placing new life amongst the old, which still has so very much to offer.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 13 January 2024