Our Celebrations of Orchard project has been nominated in the National Lottery Awards for 2019 as one of their top 10 heritage projects for this year. We were shortlisted from 750 other projects to get to this stage. This acknowledgement gave me an opportunity to reflect on what a fantastic project this was to work on and be a part of.
The project ran for three years in London, restoring 30 old orchards around the city whose stories we had forgotten, whose trees we had neglected to tend, and whose fruits were spoiling each year. Not only did we restore them together with local communities, we also celebrated them.
For me this work is about imagining how living in a city could be. And this cannot be done without learning how it is now, and how it came to be like this. There are orchards which were planted on farmland, some 100 years ago, surrounded by dairy cows who were milked at 2am so that the milk could arrive by train in London by 5am. Those orchards now find themselves firmly in the city limits, surrounded by houses and flats, names of trees forgotten, not pruned nor thanked, pushed to the edges of our awareness. There are orchards which were planted in the grounds of psychiatric hospitals, when tending to people’s poor health included spending time in the hospital’s gardens, and being nourished by their produce. There are old orchards now whose neighbours pleaded that what they most wanted for their patch of green space was litter picking, as their council’s budget cuts had left their park staff overwhelmed looking after more than 30 sites single-handed, leaving little time for the pile up of bottles, trolleys, plastic bags and sandwich wrappers that gathered there as residents stopped caring about putting things in the bins, which seemed to never get emptied.
An incredible 13,000 people got involved in their local orchard through this work – either learning how to prune trees with sensitivity for their age, grafting new trees using scions from the old orchards, graduating from our 6-12 month Community Orchard Management programme, coming together for a harvest and learning how to make juice or cider from their surplus fruit, or by attending a seasonal celebration in their orchard – a blossom picnic, an apple day, a wassail. Some yet just came to pick litter.
There are many beautiful, humbling stories woven in this time, and a few I was fortunate to witness. People coming together and meeting their neighbours for the first time, finding solace sitting with trees which have stood longer than their block of flats, discovering that a raucous wassailing cry might be a welcome sound in the city every now and again or the shared smile after tasting how sweet apple juice can be when pressed by many hands. These are precious sounds. For me, it meets a longing deep beneath our blank faces at rush hour, unable to look one another in the eye as we shuffle into a carriage. That we might be able to inhabit and also share the same space as fellow city dwellers – for one does not necessitate the other.
And this Award! Well, voting for us mean we win £10K to continue this great work, and we’d also have an appearance on The One Show. It will take you less time than it did for you to read these musings. Vote here by 21st August.
Ella Hashemi is Head of Operations and Programmes at The Orchard Project, and worked on Celebrations of Orchards as an Orchard restoration project manager from 2016 to 2018.