Orchards - a significant part of Colwall's heritage
From early settlement in the area they were an integral part of the rural landscape providing a vital domestic source of fruit, cider and perry for the farms and homesteads. The oldest known farmstead orchard in the village, at Cummins Farm, dates back to at least 1577 when the farm was part of the estate of the Bishop of Herefordshire. The Bishop's 1577 survey includes an entry for the farm.
In 1840 there were about 77 orchards shown on the Tithe map, although the many field names incorporating the name orchard, but then shown and arable or pasture, suggest they were more numerous in the past.
This all changed after 1861, when Colwall Station was opened after Stephen Ballard drove the railway tunnel under the Malvern Hills, finally linking Colwall to markets in Birmingham and London. Once the railway arrived the focus of activity in the village moved from Colwall Green to the area around the station at Colwall Stone. Stephen Ballard and several other members of his family settled in Colwall and set up large fruit enterprises. They built several fine houses, re-defined the road system and installed narrow-gauge railways to key focal sites around the village. Their houses, gardens and lodges now form the core of the Conservation Area in Colwall Village. They also planted the fine avenues of lime which are so characteristic of the village, to attract the bees which they needed to pollinate the orchards. Between them, the Ballards planted 350 acres of orchards across the village, as well as further orchards and soft fruit in the adjacent parishes of West Malvern and Mathon.
These new orchards required nurseries to grow on plants; carpenters and coopers to construct the apple boxes and barrels; blacksmiths to shoe the horses and a large labour force to plant, prune, tend and harvest the orchards and process the fruit. The varieties planted in the orchards were selected to give a prolonged harvest period, producing a steady flow of fruit into the processing factory. Fruit was sorted, graded, packed and weighed in the Apple Packing Sheds. Top class fruit went direct by train to markets in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Chesterfield and Bristol. The second class fruit was canned, using newly installed steam and gas-driven engines, fuelled from a new gas works. The remaining fruit was sulphured or pulped and stored in barrels for processing later in the year.
Glacé cherries, pulped fruit and juices went to Pascal’s and Cadbury’s sweet factories and to the HP factory for sauce. Some fruit was processed into vinegar and the by-products were used to feed pigs in the Model Piggery. When all the fruit had been processed, the factory girls went out to pick and bunch up Snowdrops for the flower markets and the sterilising tanks were used to force Forsythia. They also grew Daffodils in rows under the orchard trees.
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People came into Colwall to work from far and wide. A key element of the workforce was the travelling families, particularly at harvest times. The children got up early to scare the birds off the cherries, whilst the adults came to harvest the fruit. At least two families still living in the village are settled travellers and their descendants, at least two of whom were born in our orchard.
Gas Orchard was part of the estate of Park Farm Trust, owned by a branch of the Ballard family. In its latter years, it was rented by Geoffrey Knight, a descendent of Thomas Andrew Knight. Thomas Knight was the first Chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society, wrote a scientific treatise on varieties of apples and pears, invented the 'methode champenoise' and revolutionised the British cider industry. Geoffrey Knight was also very interested in fruit and brought several Colwall varieties into commercial cultivation, including the Captain Tom apple and the Golden Glow apricot.
Geoffrey Knight took on Gas Orchard when the Ballard’s closed the Grovesend Fruit Farm and set up business as Geoffrey Knight Grovesend Sales. He rented several of the Apple Packing Sheds that used to be on Stone Drive, as well as Gas Orchard. There is some suggestion that our Apple Packing Shed may have been moved from Stone Drive to Gas Orchard at about this time, but we have no definite proof of this. He marketed fruit to wholesalers such as Glover and Burley in Birmingham, but also used to sell fresh fruit and vegetables from the Apple Packing Shed in a forerunner of a farmers’ market. His chalk board, with prices still dimly visible on it, was still in the Shed when we bought it.
The Apple Packing Shed
The Apple Packing Shed is a traditional vernacular pole barn, the last remaining example of a type of barn that was once an integral part of the orchard heritage in Colwall. It is clad in corrugated iron and beautifully weathered vertical chestnut boarding, with a corrugated iron roof.
Colwall Orchard Group (COG) purchased the Gas Orchard including the shed in May 2011. The shed had not been used for its original purpose since the 1960’s and between times it had been used as a lambing shed, with minimal care and maintenance. When COG purchased the Gas Orchard the shed was half overgrown with brambles and about two feet deep in sheep muck and old straw. We cleared it out for immediate use as a community base and storage area for COG and the Colwall Allotment Association. In 2016 we successfully completed renovation of the Apple Packing Shed which included creating a classroom and meeting room complete with kitchen area and wood burner in one half of the building.