This is an orchard report from one of our CICO6 students – Daniel Strangleman. He was asked to gather information about Claybury orchard and produced this lovely personal piece. For more information our CICO course, click here.
Claybury orchard lies within Claybury Park and is situated to the south-east of Claybury Woods, an ancient forest that dates back to at least the 1600’s.
As I walk around the orchard, the first thing that draws my attention is the character of the veteran trees. The gnarled bark, the decayed broken branches, the moss, the ivy, and holes revealing hollow trunks. Standing with a row of Bramley’s Seedlings on one side and a row of Newton Wonders on the other there is a sense of an avenue of veteran trees, but this is not strictly true, other veteran trees dotted around suggest there used to be more full rows of trees to what must have been a grid like layout. The grass has been mowed allowing a circle of long grasses around each tree, one has even got planted flowers at its base. I think this almost frames the trees and highlights the individual character they have developed over the years.
The orchard is thought to have been planted in the 1920’s for the Claybury Lunatic Asylum. I found two old maps showing the area. This one here, from a map series dated 1944-69, appears to show an orchard. An earlier one dated 1892-1914 labels the area as asylum farm with no clear suggestion of an orchard, but it could potentially have existed as part of the farm.
I, myself, have become interested in orchards though my time spent volunteering at the Forest Farm Peace Garden, an eco-therapy charity designed to help people with mild mental health problems by connecting with nature. So I was intrigued to find out whether the patients had any participation with the orchard or whether it was merely a practical way to provide food for the running of the asylum. While I couldn’t find any direct reference to the orchard, I did find that “for the managers of the asylum, types of useful activity included domestic, kitchen, laundry, and farm work under supervision. Many asylums were supported by or dependent on patient labour”. So, I would assume that the orchard would have been used as part of the activities for the patients.
“I can’t help thinking that the principles Claybury Hospital were built on are like the seeds that has led to the current and increasing belief that nature is beneficial to mental health and the type of eco-therapy programme that I have experienced at the Forest Farm Peace Garden.”
I found out that the reason Claybury forest was chosen as the site for the lunatic asylum, was because of the belief at the time to locate “asylums in naturally attractive areas” because it was thought to help with the patients mental health and “enliven the spirits”. I also found out that, “In the 1960s staff here pioneered a ‘therapeutic community’ approach to psychiatry”. I can’t help thinking that the principles Claybury Hospital were built on are like the seeds that has led to the current and increasing belief that nature is beneficial to mental health and the type of eco-therapy programme that I have experienced at the Forest Farm Peace Garden.
The varieties of the veteran trees are predominately English cooking apples, which points to the use they would have had for the asylum, and maybe even a chance for the patients to help out in the kitchen. At some point, either before or after the rebranded Claybury Mental Hospital closed in 1997, the orchard became neglected and fell into disuse. The hospital buildings were developed into luxury gated housing while the land including Claybury Woods and the orchard, became part of Claybury Park.
I continue to walk round the orchard. Behind their own sturdy fences there are also newer additions to the orchard.
These trees were planted, along with the restoration of the orchard, with the help of The Orchard Project. The varieties of these new trees are more varied, for example; Rajka, a modern variety from the Czech Republic, Court Pendu Plat, dating back to 17th century France, and a few English ones to complement the existing trees. These speak less of the practicality of fruit needed for a working kitchen, and more of a celebration of apples, showcasing a variety of more unusual apples to spark an interest from passers-by.
The site is managed by Redbridge Council including a local volunteer group called Vision. It is open to park users, who are allowed to take an apple or two if they want (I definitely want to find out what a French apple from the 1600’s tastes like!).
As I wander round, I notice that there are apple trees in more overgrown areas; behind thick brambles and nettles, and surrounded by foliage. Of course, this may be the result of a lack of funding for the restoration, or the practicalities of how many apple trees are needed and able to be maintained, but I think more likely is that it was a deliberate intention to leave wild areas. I know veteran trees are great for wildlife, the old and rotting wood provides much needed habitat for creatures when a lot of this kind of environment is cut down and tidied away. So a few areas where veteran trees are left in wilder surroundings, that people can’t easily access and disturb, must be beneficial to the bio diversity of the area, and being right next to the ancient woods may even complement its usefulness for the wildlife and complex eco system of the ancient forest environment.
Over the next few weeks, I return to the orchard each time I cycle home after visiting the peace garden. It’s been nice just to take a few minutes and sit down amongst the trees. Watching the gentle movement of the leaves and the dappled light on the grass, seeing a green parakeet eating an apple, and every time I’ve been there, I’ve also seen other park users showing an interest in the orchard.
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