At Bridport Community Orchard (BCO), nature is preparing herself for the seasons ahead. It might look like nothing much is happening, but just below the surface every tree is waiting to burst into life, using the energy stored over the winter to produce leaf and flower buds that will open in April and May. Then, by September – sooner for some varieties – the first apples will be ripe for harvesting, ready to be eaten, cooked, or squeezed for delicious tangy juice.
BCO’s main site is St Mary’s Church Field, behind the parish church on South Street. It’s owned by Dorset Council and leased to Bridport Town Council. Way back several centuries ago this area was used for drying rope, then in the 1700s it belonged to the Priory Mill and was probably gardens or orchards. It later became allotments, then land for grazing animals, and finally fallow meadowland. Losing land like this to development is always a possibility, but early this century a building plan was rejected after local campaigners called for the site to be retained as a green space, and in 2006 this designation was enshrined in the Bridport Local Area Plan.
That’s when the idea first popped up for a community orchard in the town, inspired by the Symondsbury Apple Project and with help and advice from its organisers, David and Kim Squirrell. Talks between representatives from Bridport Town Council, the Bridport Environment Group and orchard advisers Treewise Cooperative resulted in the formation of the Bridport Community Orchard Group.
Planting began in January 2009 with 23 half standard trees, and a further 35 were added in February 2010. There are about 45 apple varieties plus three different pears, two gage fans, a black mulberry, a quince and most recently a damson. That early planting also included a 70-metre hedge of traditional native species to divide the orchard from the allotment area; by 2015 this hedge was sufficiently established to be laid in the ‘Southern Counties’ style.
The site is designed to be as wildlife-friendly as possible, and also now includes an enclosure with three beehives – one of the traditional type plus two ‘top bar’ hives – an impressive composting system and a pond. A triangular area of the orchard has been left to form a wildflower meadow and doesn’t get cut until the seeds have fallen, then it’s scythed in the traditional way. The species that grow here include yellow rattle, which parasites itself on to grass, keeping it to a minimum and giving other flowers a chance.
Not just fruit trees
Three of the adjacent allotment plots are run by BCO, too, and these are a valuable resource for people who want to learn how to grown vegetables and those who don’t have a garden of their own. There’s a polytunnel, put up at the beginning of last year, and a smart new shed for storing tools. Some of the money for these projects has come from community grants, including one from the West Bay Car Boot Fund, which supports groups in Bridport and Dorchester. BCO has recently applied for another grant from this fund to replace some of its raised beds.
All this takes quite a lot of looking after – particularly outside the dormant winter months – and that’s where the volunteers come in. “We’re always looking for volunteers,” says Jenn Baker, chair of BCO. “We have a pool of between 150 and 200 people, including a core of about 25 stalwarts who come most often, but we’d love to have more because there’s so much to do. Some volunteers have specific jobs – there’s a tree pruning team, for instance – but people can just turn up and they’ll be given a job. We have our own tools so people don’t need to bring any unless they want to.”
Orchard work parties are held on the second Sunday each month from 9am and are organised by Ian Bark, treasurer of BCO. Jenn runs the allotment sessions, which are held from 2 to 4pm on the first Thursday of the month during the winter (end of October to mid-March) and every Thursday during the rest of the year. There’s a small charge of 50p per person for the allotment sessions, which goes towards seeds, plants and compost – but volunteers do get tea and biscuits!
BCO has a second orchard, Jubilee Green, at the end of Park Road on the lower slopes of Allington Hill. The group has been looking after this site since 2012, the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (hence the name) and it has eight fruit trees, a large ash tree over a small copse, a range of native trees and shrubs including an established weeping lime, and some open grassland. Much of the planting here was funded by the Lions Club of Bridport as part of the Lions’ international tree planting project. There are four voluntary work party sessions each year at this site.
A social space
For several years BCO has held regular events at the St Mary’s Church Field orchard, and will hold its popular Mayfest ‘in the flesh’ this year after the Covid-enforced virtual festival in 2021. May Day has been celebrated across the UK for centuries, marking the arrival of spring and its longer, warmer days, and Mayfest is the perfect opportunity to see the BCO trees in full blossom as well as to enjoy traditional music, dancing, food and all-round merrymaking!
Looking less likely, however, is Apple Day. This national celebration of the fruit and its many uses was designated as 21 October by environmental group Common Ground in 1990, and BCO hold their Apple Day event – the group’s main fundraiser – on the closest Saturday. “That was cancelled in 2020 and 2021,” says Jenn, “and it doesn’t look like we’ll be holding it this year either. Some of our volunteers have drifted away during the pandemic and we need new committee members to help with running things and planning events. We do hope to hold the event again, though, in future years.
“However, we do still need to pick the apples, so we hold juicing sessions in the orchard around that time, where people can come and have a go at making juice. Last year we filled 200 bottles; one of our volunteers pasteurises the juice and we sell it on the market, where it’s always popular. We keep some back to use for hot mulled juice at our wassailing event in January, when we sing and recite poems to the trees to encourage a good harvest in the coming year.”
There’s more information about BCO and its events online at www.bridportcommunityorchard.org.uk and on the group’s Facebook page. If you want to volunteer for a work session, you can just turn up, or send a message through the website first if you prefer.
The orchard is a public amenity space and is available for use by other groups. In the past two years, yoga sessions, choir practice and school activities have taken place in the central circle. Please contact BCO via Facebook or the website, where there are more details under Policies & Management in the main menu.