Not so long ago, orchards of all kinds of fruit trees were a common sight in the fields and gardens of England. Apples have been cultivated in Sussex since Roman times. As recently as the 1950s, a dense network of orchards - big and small, urban and rural - spread right across Sussex. These orchards formed a valued part of everyday lives and livelihoods and were hospitable to wildlife, too.
Think of the Downs and most people don't immediately think of fruit and orchards, yet our Biosphere has a long history of fruit-growing. Orchards are part of the character of our Biosphere, provide important places for wildlife including pollinating insects, are places people can enjoy and can provide an abundance of fruit.
A number of orchards once stood at the edge of Brighton and Hove, but have now been lost to housing. Some orchards still remain in suitable locations, even quite high up in the Downs such as Stanmer Park and Saddlescombe Farm, but many have unfortunately been lost.
A few years ago the Brighton Permaculture Trust (BPT) carried out some detailed research to publish our book "Apples and Orchards in Sussex" which summarises the past and present of fruit-growing in the county and speculates about its future.
Brighton Permaculture Trust manages three small orchards at Stanmer next to the village and church, which are open to the public to visit. These orchards are significant as they host the national collection of Sussex apple varieties - young trees of most of the 33 apple varieties associated with Sussex are now growing in the collection, including the Biosphere's very own apple variety - the recently named Stanmer Pippin!
One characteristic of the Sussex varieties is that many of them grow well in the local climate and soil conditions of the county, whereas the apples found in shops are often difficult to grow and will struggle to produce a healthy crop of fruit.
Happily now people are once again planting their own orchards - now is the time to re-establish orchards as a living resource accessible to everyone! They are appearing all over, around housing, in parks, school grounds, fields on the edge of towns and on village greens.
Working with local partners, Brighton Permaculture Trust has helped communities and schools to plant over 100 orchards across Sussex over the last ten years, over 45 or which are in our Biosphere Region! These range from tiny urban sites like London Road station and the Bevy Pub co-operative in Bevendean, to school orchards like Buckingham Park School in Shoreham, as well as larger sites such as Craven Vale housing estate and Racehill Community Orchard with 200 fruit trees in Whitehawk , plus the embryonic Peacehaven Community Orchard now being created in the new ‘Big Park’ there.
How would you like to pick apples near your home, ripe from the tree when they are freshest and tastiest? You too can plant one of these wonderful Sussex apple tree varieties in your garden, or school grounds or community garden! Many varieties are available from November to February to obtain and plant out, by contacting BPT to connect with local supplier Peter May.
To find out more please come along to our popular Apple Day at Stanmer (free admission, £5 parking) which this year is coming up on Sunday 27th September. There you can enjoy tours or our orchards, along with apple pies, juicing, cider, apple identification, expert advice, children's activities, entertainment and much more. We’d love to see you there!