Gardening: Where did all the orchards go?: Anna Pavord visits a living museum of rare apples and pears that Lincoln's developers want to bury in concrete

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I remember one year being spectacularly sick from a great height in an uncle's orchard. I had eaten too many damsons, and swaying about in the topmost branches of the tree - it was a point of honour to climb as high as you could before you started pigging - did nothing to calm the stomach.

Fruit trees are great survivors and although the farm orchard was mostly left to its own devices, the trees bore prolifically. The ground squelched with cider apples bound for the huge stone cider press in the yard, the plums buzzed with wasps stumbling drunkenly over the fermenting flesh. In autumn, pigs would be let into the orchard to snuffle up the windfalls; in late spring, lambs pogo-ed lunatically under the blossom.

Orchards then were a familiar part of the landscape, not only in the country but in towns, too - tucked away behind the larger properties, or in one- acre oases as parts of market gardens. Even now from a bus or a train you sometimes see the tall, elegant drooping shape of an old pear, a marker from the past, looming among close-packed houses.

In 1895, when the Royal Horticultural Society held its first exhibitions of British-grown fruit at the Crystal Palace, London was ringed with orchards, especially in Middlesex at Twickenham, Southall, Hounslow and Uxbridge. In the Thames Valley alone, during this great renaissance in fruit growing, the number of orchards doubled to cover 5,000 acres.

Fruit growing has always been more a southern than a northern preoccupation, the risk of frost at blossom time being greater in the North, so the survival of a magnificent old orchard within the city of Lincoln, at Cross O'Cliff, is a double wonder. A gasometer rises on one side, houses press in on the other, and you can hear the traffic grinding up the busy A15.

Cross O'Cliff has that poised, slightly dream-like quality of all old orchards - self-contained worlds that work to a timetable we all used to understand. We don't any more. This orchard is shown on maps of about 120 years ago. Some of the pears have reverted to the stock of hawthorn and quince on which they were grafted, but most of the trees survive, soaring now 60ft or more out of a wilderness of bramble and elder, their branches dripping with fruit.

I heard about it from Claire Peasnall of Bracebridge Heath, Lincoln, one of a group in the city which is trying to secure a future as well as a past for the orchard. Three years ago the old Lincolnshire county council, which owned the land, awarded itself planning permission to cover the four-acre orchard with houses. The city council opposed the idea, but an inquiry found for the county, and it seemed the orchard, which had serenely survived the building booms of the Forties, the Sixties and the Eighties, would crumple in the caring Nineties.

In the spring of last year, though, the old county council was ousted and, with the Countryside Commission's support, Cross O'Cliff's defenders dusted down their documents and started again. The new county council commissioned a survey of the orchard, and Mrs Peasnall hopes for a decision on its fate soon.

If this were just four acres of wilderness, people would still be fighting for it. But old orchards have particular importance, because they were most often planted with specific varieties, bred or selected for local conditions. Among the old trees at Cross O'Cliff, where nightingales sing, experts have already identified apples such as 'Peasgood Nonsuch' - an enormous golden fruit, perfect for baking, which was originally raised by a Mrs Peasgood of Stamford, Lincolnshire. She grew it from a seed, possibly a 'Catshead Codlin' that she sowed as a child in Grantham in the 1850s.

This apple was included in the Stamford Horticultural Society's exhibit at an RHS show in London in 1872. 'One of the most handsome apples in cultivation,' the RHS declared, awarding it a first-class certificate. But because it is too soft an apple to travel well, it never became commercially important.

The orchard also contains the 'Allington Pippin', a dessert apple with a distinct whiff of pineapple about it. This was raised some time before 1884 by the Lincolnshire nurseryman, Thomas Laxton, ('Laxton's Superb' is his, too). Originally called the South Lincoln pippin, it was renamed after his own nursery by the great apple buff, George Bunyard. 'It is one of the most beautiful fruits grown,' Bunyard wrote in The Fruit Garden, the massive bible which he published in 1904. Who grows it now?

In those epicurean years at the turn of the century, when the aroma and taste of an apple was as seriously considered as the bouquet and savour of a wine, 1,500 different varieties were exhibited at the National Apple Congress of 1883 in Chiswick, west London. The exhibition was kept open a week longer than planned so as to to satisfy demand.

Cross O'Cliff orchard was young then. Who planted it? Mrs Peasnall has found out that the land originally belonged to Sandfield House on Cross O'Cliff Hill. Alice Ward, who lived there in the Thirties, recalls that most of the big houses on the hill had orchards, all except Cross O'Cliff now buried under concrete. She remembers scrumping 'with the best little terrier in the world' for company; and she particularly remembers the pears, including a prolific small, hazel-coloured one, always the first to ripen.

The pears in the Cross O'Cliff orchard are still magnificent; carefully chosen for the site, they include 'Hessle' and 'Williams's Bon Chretien', both recommended at the time for planting in northern and eastern counties. You would expect to find 'Jargonelle' here, too - an ancient, small, superbly flavoured and early pear. Perhaps this was the one - it is hazel- coloured - that Mrs Ward scrumped with her terrier.

The trees would not have done so well if the site had not been well chosen in the first place. The best orchards are protected from the north and north-east and planted on a slight slope, facing south. The classic pattern for planting is the quincunx, the trees arranged like the five on a dice. Cross O'Cliff is planted on a grid pattern that would have made cultivation between the rows easier.

Someone was making a living out of this place, selling the apples and pears in Lincoln market, until the Sixties. And that is the best reason for the survival of this orchard and others like it: the fact that we all still prefer the epicurean 'Jolly Beggar', the 'Catshead' and 'Keswick Codlin' to the ubiquitous Golden Delicious. But ability to travel, rather than taste, is today's

criterion.

Long after the turn of the century's great apple renaissance had faded, more than 4,000 acres of orchard continued to soften the landscape of Lincolnshire. By the Seventies there were scarcely more than 500. And by 1992, just 168. Lincoln needs Cross O'Cliff.

Common Ground, the environmental group that has long fought for a proper appreciation of old orchards, has produced The Apple Broadcast, a 16-page newspaper of apple news, available ( pounds 2) from it at: 41 Shelton Street, London WC2H 9HJ. For 50p and a stamped, addressed envelope you will also receive a list of events celebrating Apple Day on 21 October.

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