Seconds later, wriggling and affectionate Labradors poured out of the front door as a young man invited me in. He went off again and returned with the man whose face had greeted me from the window. So this is the man that owns the Orchard, I thought to myself. I thought a few other things too, in a split second, things which continue to take me by surprise. We had a cup of tea, and finally Pat turned up, so we all headed off to Lutton.
It was still raining, had already been raining, it was altogether very wet. Pat, Marcus and I made for the orchard, and had to squirm through a gate that had been tethered permanently to the entrance. Once on the other side we were there, a large, sloping paddock, tree-lined and untouched for years. Only one apple tree remained from the Victorian orchard marked on the old map, but sharing the paddock with this solitary reminder were willow and hawthorn, and the trees lining the riverbank, and the biggest most ancient oak I had ever seen. It was as though the oak was on an outcrop of rock, there being Dartmoor boulders planted, presumably by God, here and there across the field. Hidden from view, under the oak, awaits my office – a shed with a bed and a kettle.
That was three weeks ago. I returned to the orchard last week, with Marcus, my son Meredydd, and a local and well-respected botanist Peter Reay. It turns out that this meadow has never had a tractor on it, never been treated in any way, simply grazed by a small herd of cows every now and then. Peter and Meredydd went off to search for plants. Marcus and I talked through our ideas. Marcus feels strongly that privately owned land is increasingly off-limits to the general public, a trend he wants to buck, and so turning this two acres back into an orchard, for community use and enjoyment, allows him to satisfy that sentiment. As the Woodland and Wildflowers lead for Sustainable South Brent (SSB) I am keen to encourage community use of the great outdoors, be that for leisure or for education. The proposal is that SSB take a long lease on the land, and work to turn it into a community orchard and wildflower meadow. Whilst at the moment it has only one sad little fruit tree remaining, when Peter and Meredydd eventually returned from their surveying they reported finding 151 species of wildflower and grass, so this little tree is not quite alone.
The idea is at the conversation stage, and there are lots of conversations to be had. Coming soon is an open community meeting, a big conversation which will help guide us through. Later in the week we will be talking with the Woodland Trust, who own the 23 acres of mixed woodland on the other side of the river. All parties want a bridge to link the two, to create a circular walk that connects South Brent with Shipley Bridge without the need to go on any roads. So then we’ll start conversations with the National Park, the Environment Agency, the various councils, and with members of other communities who have successfully set up such a venture themselves.
Eventually we will have wassails and May Queens and Summer picnics. And in the meantime I think I’m going to listen to those thoughts which took me by surprise, and find out where they take me.