Walk down Walbottle Road on the western fringes of Newcastle and, in a gap in a stone wall close to Dene Terrace, you’ll spot an ornate gate eye-catchingly decorated with woodland animals.
The name above the arch declares this to be the entrance to Walbottle Community Orchard.
Planted in 1998 by residents in the village – which can trace its roots back to at least Roman times – this small orchard with its mix of apple, plum, pear and hazelnut trees and soft fruit is a tranquil oasis just yards from what is a busy main road.
Birds flit between the trees and the half-hectare area is home to a fox. Deer also regularly visit.
The trees that were laden with fruit just a short while ago are now nearly bare. Only the crab apples are still hanging heavy on the branches.
The locals have been in and harvested nature’s annual bounty. But that’s the point of the orchard. In season, residents are encouraged to pick the raspberries, plums, pears, apples and gooseberries or just to visit and enjoy the peace and the birdsong.
The orchard sits on what was Walbottle Brickworks, now a grassed area that is a haven for birds, insects and blackberries. A bridleway runs through the site and, if you climb to the highest part, you are rewarded with good views of Knop Law Hill to the east and the beautiful Tyne Valley to the west.
The orchard is looked after by volunteers and Newcastle City Council ranger Gillian Brown, who has been involved with the project since its inception.
Before being transformed into the orchard, Gillian says the area was grazed by horses “but we thought we could get a better use out of it”.
In consultation with Walbottle householders and businesses, a community orchard that could be enjoyed by all, including the area’s schools, came out as the preferred option.
Indeed, it was local school children who designed and painted the wild animals that feature on the metal gates, and to this day youngsters from the area regularly visit on nature trips and to collect fruit to take back to class to cook up into tasty treats.
The orchard, which was part-funded by a grant from the Forestry Commission, is home to a number of what are euphemistically called heritage fruit varieties (old-fashioned, unusual and near-extinct types that once flourished in the UK), including a distinctive local strain called Mrs Lakeman’s Seedling.
A large, firm, crisp multi-purpose dessert and cooking apple, it is believed to have been raised in Stocksfield in Northumberland around 1900.
There are Spartan apples, Korshinksy pears, Lisset and Golden Hornet crab apples and cherry and Victoria plums alongside the soft fruit and hazelnuts.
The orchard started quite literally bearing fruit within its first year and has now matured into a well-loved and used community space in the heart of an urban area.
While the North East, due to its climate, has never been an orchard hotspot in the same way that areas such as Kent, the Welsh Borders and the West Country have been, Gillian says, in the past, south-facing slopes in the Tyne Valley were used for growing apples and pears.
Even now there are still places where you can see old, gnarled trees.
Which is one of the reasons why October 21 was declared Apple Day. Launched in 1990 by a group called Common Ground, the aim was to encourage the British public to fall back in love with our own home-grown, native varieties.
Apples are a key part of our culture, and orchards filled with russet, green and golden selections have traditionally been as characteristic a part of our countryside as vineyards are in France, Italy and some parts of Germany.
But orchards are, sadly, becoming an endangered sight.
There has been a scandalous decline in the UK’s established fruit trees. In the last six decades, an unbelievable 60% of England’s traditional orchards alone have disappeared – bulldozed to make way for housing estates and other developments, or just simply neglected and left to die.
A further 30% have switched to intensive management, leaving just 10% that can now be classed as a “traditional” orchard.
Such is the rate of decline that there is a real danger this classic feature of the English landscape could be lost, along with heritage fruit varieties and unique wildlife habitats.
Community orchards such as that at Walbottle go some way to helping redress the balance. But there is still a long way to go.
And the fight to save them isn’t helped by the lack of apple choices now offered to consumers.
It’s a sad reflection of just how divorced the majority of society has become from the food chain that the UK market is now dominated by just a handful of commercially grown apples – Granny Smith, Braeburn, Gala, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Golden Delicious, and the Bramley cooker.
Even worse, most of these are imported from places such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, having been grown from trees that were, ironically, first sent out across what was the British Empire from these very shores. It’s hardly surprising that the number of UK orchards has dwindled. And even small back garden orchards have been grubbed out in favour of easy maintenance paving and decking.
Estimates vary as to how many apple varieties there are in the UK, but it’s thought to be somewhere in the region of 2,500, of which around 2,000 are held at the National Collection of Fruit Trees at Brogdale near Faversham, Kent.
All would have been popular at some time in the past, but are either not suited to modern tastes or commercial production, where appearance and size are now everything.
How many people have heard of the century’s old North East varieties such as Mrs Lakesman’s Seedling, Barnard’s Baker, Gateshead Lemon Pippin, Hebburn Red and Teesdale Nonpareil?
Having once graced gardens, plantations and hedgerows across the region, these names have now all but withered on the stalk.
But hopefully the tide is turning.
Environmental worries about food miles; the growing number of food scandals which has reawakened people’s interest in UK-sourced, fully traceable produce; the ongoing recession which is encouraging consumers to look closer to home, and a desire from growers to move with the times which has seen an increase in the length of the traditional season with varieties now available in April and May, is sparking a revival in the English apple industry.
According to English Apples and Pears – which acts as a trade association to organise, develop and promote the industry – home-grown apples have increased their share of the total market from a low point of 23% in 2003 to 38%.
Some supermarkets have begun growing their own heritage apple trees with historic strains, and apple juice and cider is now becoming more popular.
There is still a long way to go, however, and it is unlikely that the UK will return to the heady days of the Victorian and Edwardian eras when gardeners competed for cups for the biggest or tastiest apple, and horticultural shows boomed.
That’s why Apple Day and community orchards such as the one at Walbottle are so important, to not only raise awareness but provide a vital amenity for both people and wildlife.
As Gillian Brown, says: “Walbottle Community Orchard is only 100 yards from front to back, but because of the trees and the wildlife you could be miles away from anywhere. It’s a wonderful spot to get away from it and to also take advantage of what nature has to offer.
“Successful orchards are worth their weight in gold, not just for the fruit they produce but as precious wildlife habitats.”
Of course, you don’t have to plant your own orchard. Dwarf fruit trees can be successfully grown in even small gardens. Gillian has a crisp, sharp-tasting Discovery that she has trained to grow flat along a wall, and which she gets a sizeable crop from each year.
She is passionate about supporting British. “There should be UK apples that should be available for most of the year.
“It’s great that there does now seem to be a definite groundswell of people who are becoming interested in growing their own, foraging and are concerned about where their food is coming from, and that is to be encouraged.
“I think that is where Apple Day has been successful in raising that level of awareness.”