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 thread into the late19th Century, but who knows beyond that?
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.
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 (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 with over-large equipment, which is widely felt to have caused damage to trunks of many of the trees, leaving widespread cankering from ground level up. There are clearly gaps left by either early failures or perhaps by the removal of the remaining older apples. Wirral Wildlife returned to the orchard in around 2007, starting a process of restoring and reshaping Brimstage as a traditional orchard with wildlife potential. 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 that provided a focal point for growing our membership as well as meeting individual needs for exercise and 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 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 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 and we have been refilling some of the gaps with appropriate wild species pollinators from stocks at Ness Gardens and local heritage varieties of apple and plum from specialist growers in Wirral, Cheshire and NorthEast Wales. Our current targets include keeping managed public access at Apple Days, Blossom Days, pruning/grafting/planting activities and sharing fruit with Women’s and Children’s refuges and Food Banks. We consider picking up some of the ideas which haven’t been part of the Estates’ priorities 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 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.
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 both Wirral Wildlife, Wirral Tree Wardens and Conservation Volunteers 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 out of the 100 plus trees currently there. We have an offer of additional land as well as remaining in an orchard which is also a car park, retaining 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 serious concerns about how any change can continue to sustain an orchard with wildlife value, whether the effects of car park use can be ameliorated to have a lesser contaminating impact on trees, fruit, lichens and other wildlife.
Figure 8: the current layout of the orchard in 2017
We have a task, to define what to us a viable orchard is. Yes, a viable, sustainable, traditional orchard, meeting the original goals and our understanding which we’ve developed over 5 years of consistent hard work It’s a way to demonstrate our case that we have landscape value in our orchard, so that the application is refused. It might also be a necessary way, if the Estate tries to convince the hearing that they have made us a reasonable offer, for us to be able to demonstrate how and if it falls short of remaining viable. It might also provide a reasonable way to compromise or to bargain with the Estate if they succeed in their application in which case we need to ensure that we have some more secure tenure of the orchard and conditions laid down by the planning hearing.
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 am sorry that I can be of such little help. I wish you all luck with your efforts,”