Tuesday August 11 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The lost orchards of Tardebigge

Posted on March 31 2016 at 11:32:36 0 comments

Damson trees

Mary Green gets a glimpse into the village’s fruit-growing past.

We have had some interesting bird activities round here. Our resident swans have split up and found new partners, which is unusual for swans.

I saw both pairs together recently, one male being very aggressive towards the other. And I have discovered that long-tailed tits have a habit of sitting at your window for ages pecking at the glass.

Recently I saw two mallard drakes nodding and bobbing at each other like they do usually in courtship to the ducks, and sure enough they tried to mate afterwards. So we have adulterous swans, gay drakes and obsessive long-tailed tits. Who needs soap operas?

This month in my special wildlife places I am having a look around Tardebigge. This is a good place to explore the canal, field paths and minor roads, and very nice in spring. The special thing about Tardebigge is that it is a combination of an old industrialised canal settlement, and a centre of orchards and fruit production.

Above the little village is the beautiful church steeple, designed to be like a surgeon’s needle. Needle-making was one of the local industries. If you look down from the churchyard you can see clearly how the countryside was once a mixture of farming and industry.

You can also see the importance of transport. The canal of course made this settlement, but there is also an old footpath passing through the churchyard, now called the Monarch’s Way. This is unfortunately added to by the noise of the modern main road nearby!

And in spring, you can still see the blossom from the old orchards. Most of them have gone now. At one time it was a cidermaking area and there is still one producer left.

But there are remnants of eating and cooking apples too, and plums and damsons. These have spread into the countryside as “wildings” so you will find them if you walk along the canal.

There are also wild fruit trees like cherry-plums, bullace and crab-apples in the hedges, and sometimes they interbreed to produce semi-wild plums and apples. 

Worcestershire, along with Herefordshire, Somerset, Devon and Kent, was traditionally a big fruit-growing area. Around and just after the Second World War there was a new planting of fruit trees in places like Tardebigge, as people realised they should be more self-sufficient in food.

But in the 1970s and 80s, cheap imported fruit (especially Golden Delicious!) took over our supermarkets. Most of the orchards were ploughed up for other crops.

Recently there has been another revival of interest in English fruit, especially old apple varieties. New storage methods mean they can be kept through the winter, and they are holding their own in the supermarkets. They haven’t come back to Tardebigge yet, though.

I have found evidence of these old orchards in the work the local Worcester, Birmingham and Droitwich Canal Society volunteers have been doing at Tardebigge.

They started off by uncovering some old lime kilns at New Wharf, part of its industrial history. In the process they cleared a lot of old rubble and strong scrub growth, and uncovered what was growing nearby.

Part of the area was orchard and garden linked to the cottages nearby. The trees are still healthy though they have missed being looked after over the years!

There are a couple of damsons (pictured above) which blossomed and fruited luxuriously last year. There is a plum tree, gnarled and weather-beaten but again full of fruit last year.

And there are five apple trees, of different varieties, one bent over nearly to the ground, but still fruiting well. One at least is an early fruiting variety, perhaps a local one.

One at least is a late one which I think would be a good keeper. It would be good if an expert on apple varieties had a look at them this year.

The damsons are valuable relics of what was a tree so common that everyone must have had one. As they disappear they are rarely replanted, which is a shame.

You can eat them raw or cooked when ripe, make wonderful jam, and of course damson gin, which I think is better than sloe gin because you don’t have to put sugar in. The plum tree too is a lovely eating variety.

The cleared patch has other interesting flowers, again a mixture of garden and wild. There are garden daffodils and bluebells, but wild primroses, celandines, alkanet, daisies, buttercups, cow parsley and lots more. I went to do the Great Garden Birdwatch there in January.

There actually weren’t very many birds there, probably because a lot of the seed-carrying vegetation had been cut back and there were nearby gardens with bird feeders! There was a territorial robin singing loudly at the entrance, though.

Since then birds have begun to come back and I have seen and heard chaffinches, blackbirds and great-tits there, a visiting rook and a buzzard overhead. The volunteers have put up bird boxes and bat boxes, and with the blossom and fruit coming back this year it should be a great bird habitat.

At the end of February a Scout group came to do some work on the site, clearing the stream and dealing with some of the debris on the site in useful ways.

They collected together a lot of logs and twigs to make a good habitat for insects and invertebrates. It already had some lovely fungus on it, and may even attract small mammals like mice and hedgehogs.

The other trees here include two free-standing hazels and a long hazel hedge. You can see very clearly how hazels coppice themselves, growing lots of small trunks from their base. They make natural bean-poles and clothesline-props, and are also fashioned by a local woodsman into Morris dancers’ sticks.

There are a couple of ash trees and some good old hawthorns, as well as lower-growing elder and some garden-escape lilacs. There should be some good green leaf by April.

If you are interested in a visit to the site (or volunteering to help!), contact Bill Lambert on .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Along the canal itself there are always interesting plants and birds to see. One of the earliest flowers in the year to bloom, the winter heliotrope, grows a bit further down the towpath that follows the famous locks.

It is a native but probably escaped from the garden of the nearby isolated cottage.

Near the New Wharf and further down again there are beautiful stands of tansy in the late summer. This ancient herb is becoming rare but you often find it near habitation. It has heads of bright yellow buttons, and a pungent smell.

It was used for things as diverse as embalming bodies and flavouring cakes! Not surprising then that if you make a cake with it in it keeps well.

As well as the scattered fruit trees, the canal banks here are full of hawthorn. They are left to grow fairly freely so they blossom beautifully in May, and are full of berries in the autumn.

If you walk down past the locks on a still May day you can smell the musky scent of hawthorn. In the water are some more unusual plants like arrowhead, which looks just like its name!

The towpath edge is quite close-mowed but has great daisies and buttercups later on.

Among the birds are of course the ubiquitous mallards, with the addition usually of a white farmyard duck. There are moorhens and herons as well. If you walk down to Tardebigge reservoir these are added to by swans and great crested grebes.

It’s worth looking out in spring for the grebe’s mating dance, when they face each other and make a perfect heart-shape with their necks and heads. You can watch them dive and reappear.

It’s easy to create a walk round Tardebigge using the towpath, the Monarch’s Way and other field paths and small quiet roads. The church is a good place to start and finish, with its ancient yew tree, and a beautiful flowering cherry in spring – and great views.

On the subject of apples, and Morris dancers’ sticks, my poem this month was written after Aelfgythe’s wassail in Alvechurch.

Carrying a torch

We start at the Crown, by the water:
Withybed, full of apples, plums and damsons.
The sky black with a pale silver moon,
Receives the wassail. There is sound
Of accordion, melodeon, fiddle, drum
Hanging in the soft February air
The women glowing in silver and black
The light spirit of air, the dark of earth.
Such lovely country legs, and the kids
Shout for Nan and Aunty Linda, doing
Their first dance in public, treading firm
On the earth, encouraging the roots.
We light our torches in the wind and walk on
Through the village streets, music playing,
Surprising cars and bringing people
To their windows. I carry a torch of fire
For Alvechurch, for the music, for the dancers
And for all the apple trees, here and gone.
Magic does not need gods and goddesses
Women have always known: we make it ourselves.
We reach the Weighbridge, by the water,
Down torches, fill glasses, and the music
Plays and the dancers dance with the rhythm
Of heart beats and the melody of stars.
We bless the trees, and each other, and the world
Turning slowly in the night sky
Bringing spring, and blossom, and fruit
To another year under the moon’s kindness. 

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