Figure 1 Brimstage Hall, showing an old pear tree in the garden to the east of the current orchard
Brimstage Hall has a history which is recorded in uneven patches – it was built at some time between 1100 and 1300. Early records have Sir Roger de Domville, the seventh Lord of Oxton and third Lord of Brimstage, with a mention of his home at “Brunstath” in 1288. The first mention of anyone actually being in residence there was of the Hulses, who lived there from 1378 with Sir Hugh Hulse and his wife being granted the right to construct a chapel in 1398. Over subsequent years, the buildings altered with the tower being the only clear survival from those early days. Local, but unsubstantiated, legend has part of the old hall being under the current orchard. More than likely there were other orchards from the earliest times, but we certainly have a documented thread back into the late 19th Century, but can only guess at the earlier heritage, back to mediaeval times?
The current orchard has become an important part of my life over the last 5 years and I’ll pick up its story in the late 1990’s.
A Countryside Stewardship scheme, including the plans for new trees to be planted, recorded in 1998/ 1999:
Wirral Wildlife Trust’s Apple Day walks included looking at old trees. No apples of that age are visible in the current orchard, but old pear, damson and cherry trees are still growing there and an old plum tree survived until winter 2016. The same document from records two orchards being there, one serving the neighbouring house, the Grange, presumed to be adjoining a vegetable plot.
I’ve not yet found the site photograph, but a contemporary plan is intriguing in representing the layout of trees, presumably of the older and newer trees:
The plan was to plant additional new trees, as advised by John Magee and others at Wirral Wildlife Trust: “I was asked for advice on planting. I submitted a planting plan of old varieties and cross pollinators which I thought suitable for the site. I made a suggestion that some Cob nut were planted. The Orchard was planted by the estate workers, ..”
John mentioned that the orchard was funded by a grant, “All I can say is that it was planted with the aid of grant money, I have a vague memory of it from the Countryside stewardship, but I am not positive. The short answer is that they did receive grant money. And there was a plan – this plan will be in the hands of the Leaverhume Estate. I did not keep copy as I did not think that I would be further involved.
The purpose was clear:
and the intended way of doing it involved retaining old trees, coppicing hedgerows and new plantings, using WWT expertise:
But it did not go according to expectations. Estate workers told me that the late Lord Leverhulme wanted more hazels planted to provide sticks for the beaters for driven game shoots. The Land Agent recalled that the better lengths were used to fashion sticks (walking sticks?) and the more brushy ones for beating the game out of coverts, etc.
John recalled his disappointment at coming back to view the orchard:“..The following year I was approached again and asked to look after the orchard. I agreed on condition that the estate would cut the grass at least once a year. All was well; I looked forward to the orchard developing. On my first visit I was bitterly disappointed: Very few of the recommended varieties had been planted. All the Cobnut had been planted amongst the apple trees making cultivation difficult. I reported to the Wirral committee that an opportunity had been lost.”
The estate workers and tenants at the time recall that the Estate tried to get the biggest trees possible. Some were more successful than others. Many of the trees ordered were different from those specified, some of those supplied were substitutes even for those ordered and not suited to the terrain or the purpose.
There were some losses and the new orchard was initially neglected. At some stage, the orchard was mown by outside contractors who used over-large equipment, too close to the trees, cutting into the trunks of many of the trees, leaving lesions which became widespread cankering from ground level up. Unpruned branches broke under the weight of fruit or developed lesions as branches crossed and abraded.
Trees were growing rampantly but losing shape and vigour. There are clearly gaps left by either early failures or perhaps by the removal of the remaining older apple trees. Wirral Wildlife returned to the orchard in around 2007, but it was a heavy task for overstretched volunteers with many other programmes and projects. They passed the responsibility to Wirral Tree Wardens, where I and others were keen to take on a regular activity there. It provided a focal point for growing our membership as well as meeting our individual needs for exercise in the outdoors. It helped us grow expertise and skills in restoring and maintaining a traditional orchard in traditional ways which support wildlife and sustainability.
Many of us undertook courses at the orchards at Erddig, Norton Priory, Brogdale and Rees Heath with Cheshire Landscape Trust, RHS, and others, with visits and skill sessions at Burton Manor, other National Trust, Orchard Network, commercial and traditional orchard sites. This growing expertise contributes not just to Brimstage, but also to community and traditional orchards at 9 other sites in the Wirral.
We now have a viable orchard, with all of the trees either having restorative pruning and on-going shaping for health and fertility or a full management plan for wildlife, multi-grafting or replacement where the variety is not appropriate. As it’s a traditional orchard, we have kept some of the decaying, challenged or damaged trees, with minimum of interventions where there are wildlife considerations. We keep learning.
Some of the apple trees in the middle of the orchard have not grown as well as those on the outside. It is now felt that this lower growth was a combination of them being supplied on inappropriate dwarfing stocks that do not work as well in an orchard with grass growing up to the trunks, with mower damage, compaction by vehicles plus a lack of management of near-by horse chestnuts, sycamores and hazels which have swamped them. Previously it was put down to the assumption that it was a result of waterlogging/ dry ground/shallow-soil-depth over the stonework from the hall, which has not been verified. Very recently, it has been possible to formulate a new regime for supporting these trees.
We have been refilling some of the gaps with appropriate wild species pollinators from stocks at Ness Gardens and local heritage varieties of apple from specialist growers in Wirral, Cheshire and local grafted trees, plus heritage plums from just over the Dee in NorthEast Wales.
Our current targets include keeping managed public access at Apple Days, Blossom Days and pruning/grafting/planting activities. We consider picking up some of the Estates’ original priorities which haven’t been realised, such as access for schools and grazing orchard spaces with livestock.
So we have a viable living traditional orchard. As such it is a priority area for biodiversity, recognised by the PTES which supports the Orchard Network and the register of traditional orchards in the country.
But on 7th January, 2017, we heard that the Estate, without consultation or any notification to us, had submitted plans for a change of use on the Brimstage Complex, siting a car park in the orchard. The plans refer to a “redundant orchard.” The plans refer to an orchard of little value or landscape significance. We couldn’t recognise our orchard in that description.
Figure 7 the new plan showing 10 orchard trees remaining and 6 new ones put in place of a wildlife and species rich hedge
It ignores 10 years of well-informed restoration and harvesting by tree wardens and wildlife trust members, which has helped other orchards and projects, ranging from community gardens with fruit trees to a social enterprise making fruit juices and cider. The plans give passing mention of new plantings, and a plan which at first glance shows that as 6 extra trees added to the 10 remaining. Plus some further “street trees” between the cars. It looks like a loss of up to 90 of the trees currently there and 16 spaces that we’d reserved for additional planting of heritage trees this Spring. The Estate suggests that we could retain a high proportion of the trees we identify as priority, as rarities of local heritage value or necessary components of an orchard as pollinators or sources of material for grafting. We have an offer of additional land which will house 48 – 60 extra trees as well as an unchecked offer of retaining many more than 10 trees in an orchard which is also a car park, a net loss of at least 40 trees and more likely up to 60 trees and tree spaces if the Estate is to meet its target for 95 parking spaces.
We have serious concerns about how any sharing the space with a car park will sustain an orchard with wildlife value.
Concerns whether the effects of car park use can be ameliorated to have a lesser contaminating impact on trees, fruit, lichens and other wildlife. We are getting advice from the Landscape Institute, Conservation bodies and National Trust to identify any good practice in orchard car parks. We have had very good help in this from Peter Gommon, from Glyn Smith at Erddig, Katherine Alker at Croome, Rebecca Bevan who researches for the National Trust’s – Best Practice Guides for Gardens and Parks and from Steve Oram, the Orchard Biodiversity Officer of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, which is the charity which supports the national network of traditional orchards. Most of the advice was that orchard car parks need much bigger spaces around trees, that those which succeed have established parking spaces before trees are planted, so there is less compaction and root disturbance, and that parking use is kept to occasional use as an overflow area, as at Croome. A researcher in orchard mycorrhizas pointed out that the top 3 inches of soil are crucial to the resilience to drought and disease and to the promotion of healthy growth of endotrophic (arbuscular) mycorrhizal colonies. These support nutrient absorbing in apple, pear and plum, and that this, more than the physical roots of the trees, shows the greatest impact of compaction of soils which is not mitigated by use of plastic meshes. The experience of orchards with heavier use was that plastic meshes eventually had to be replaced with concrete and removal of more of the orchard trees. The public reaction to trees in car parks was mostly negative and highly critical.
This is the orchard currently, with olive green squares showing the gaps which were due to be filled with heritage species which have been grafted from locally grown scions:
Figure 8: the current layout of the orchard in 2017
We have a task, to define what to us a viable orchard is. That is a viable, sustainable, traditional orchard, meeting the original goals and our understanding which we’ve developed over 10 years of consistent hard work by tree warden and wildlife volunteers. Defining why the orchard is viable is a way to demonstrate our case that the orchard has amenity and landscape value so that the application in its present form is refused. Many Tree Wardens have voiced very strong opposition even to discussing matters with the Estate, but should the Estate be able to convince the hearing that they have made us a reasonable offer, we need to be reasonable in looking at the offer and judge whether and in what way the offer falls short of remaining viable. The formulation of viability might also provide a reasonable way to compromise or to bargain with the Estate if they succeed in their application. Included in that is the case that we need to ensure that we have some more secure tenure of the orchard and the planning hearing builds any undertakings and offers into the planning conditions for the longer term. This orchard has taken 18 years to become part of an older orchard ecosystem with some trees planted as 3 year olds on a much older site.
So we need to collect everyone’s memories of the orchard, describe the value, the worth and the significance of it, in a way that provides a basis for going forward and sustaining a viable orchard, either here or on another site. Please help us by sharing your thoughts.
John’s final point, “The news about the Brimstage Orchard is a shocker. I wish you all luck with your efforts.”
More about the orchard: it was included, together with the cider made from the apples there in a Wirral Council guide to local good food: http://www.betterfoodwirral.uk/wirral-sunday-roast/