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Saving the apples of Prince Charles's eye

A corner of the Garden of England which is devoted to preserving thousands of fruit varieties is itself under threat.
BROGDALE, NEAR Faversham in Kent, home of the National Fruit Collections, is a place close to the hearts of keen fruit gardeners everywhere. This is partly because of the inherent fascination of the place, where 2,500 varieties of apples - including one dating from Roman times - at least 500 pears, and a myriad of plums and cherries, grow. It enjoys the best fruit-growing conditions possible in our climate, and is situated smack in the middle of what is left of the "fruit garden of England".

I suspect that the goodwill that Brogdale generates may also stem from sympathy engendered by the financial vicissitudes which have dogged it for more than 10 years, and have resulted, on several occasions, in its being saved from closure at the 11th hour.

First it was the Prince of Wales who rode to its rescue in 1990, when changes in government funding led to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) being forced to pull the financial plug on what had been an important fruit research station.

HRH stepped in and, together with the local council, Swale, provided a sufficient mortgage for the Brogdale Trust to be set up. It could then continue to cultivate the National Fruit Collections, with some help in running costs from Maff, and open to the public. (Maff owns the National Fruit Collections, but the Trust provides the home and the organisation for them to be visited.) This mortgage, it was agreed, would be paid off over 10 years, ending in 2000.

Unfortunately, not enough to date has been raised by public appeals to pay off the mortgage. The Trust has therefore been feverishly active for the last year in trying to secure Brogdale's long-term future.

It is possible that it has succeeded. The Trust was introduced by one of its Friends to a Kent firm of developers, Hillreed, which has bought the entire estate of 149 acres from the Duchy of Cornwall and Swale Borough Council and paid off the mortgage. The Trust is currently a tenant, but Hillreed has promised to give back 141 acres, provided it can build houses on the remaining eight acres, most of which is classified as "brown-field" land. It has promised also to provide a new visitors' centre, offices, a laboratory and various other facilities.

It remains to be seen whether Hillreed will get planning permission to establish a residential development of 89 houses in an area where such development would not normally be contemplated. The Trust hopes, however, that it will be considered as an "enabling development", deemed necessary for the continued viability of the Trust and to prevent dispersal of the National Fruit Collections.This application will be considered in the next three months. The consequences of failure would be serious for the Trust, for it would then have to raise enough money to buy back the land.

In a perfect world, no doubt, it would not be necessary for an organisation such as the Brogdale Trust to depend on such an arrangement to secure its future. But Hillreed's action has enormously boosted morale at Brogdale. As Jane Garrett, the chief executive, says: "Confidence has broken out."

Sponsorship deals are being made, and funds are now forthcoming for a number of educational projects. Education of the public is one of the Trust's main objectives, and one with which it has been highly successful in the decade since Brogdale opened to visitors. The Trust already has planning permission for a number of imaginative fruit gardens on the site, and intends to put in a bid for National Lottery money should Hillreed's application be successful. Having seen the plans for myself, I am rather hoping that the future's bright, the future's apple.

If you wish to support this scheme, write to Brogdale Horticultural Trust, Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent ME13 8XZ. The Trust is also offering a two-for-the-price-of-one ticket to 'Independent' readers, who bring a copy of this article with them, to see Brogdale during blossom time (Tickets, pounds 2.50, available from 20 March until the end of June, include a guided tour); e-mail: information@brogdale.org.uk or www.brogdale.org.uk

Ursula Buchan's latest book, 'Plants for All Seasons' is published by Mitchell Beazley (pounds 16.99)