That Kent is able to call itself The Garden of England is down to two men – King Henry VIII and John Harrys (alternative Harris), an entrepreneurial farmer whose business acumen and effort were to catapult him into the role of Royal fruiterer.
Born in Conyer, a hamlet of Teynham, Harrys heard of the king’s liking for apples and cherries, which Henry had tasted when he had visited France.
This gave Harrys, a businessman, the idea that he could fetch ‘out of France a great store of graftes, especially pippins’, and out of the ‘Lowe countries, cherrie grafts and Pear grafts of diverse sorts’.
Returning with his finds he planted trees on some land at Teynham. So impressed was King Henry with the initial crops that he gave Harrys more land so the market-gardener had a total of 105 acres – at Oziers Farm and New Gardens – and by the end of the 16th century, Teynham was home to England’s first large fruit collection. It came to be known as ‘The chief mother of all other orchards in England’.
Harrys prospered, not least because when the King split from Rome he used every means at his disposal to proclaim his power and exalt the monarchy. Orchards, and fine gardens replete with fruit trees, were high on the list of palatial additions Henry financed out of the immense wealth he derived from the dissolution of the monasteries.
The Kent Downs, with its characteristic chalk on the scarp covered with good brick earth, are good for fruit growing, and today, less than five miles east of Harrys’s first orchards (now sadly covered in new housing estates) is Brogdale Farm, originally a government research station, but now home to the National Fruit Collections, the largest collection of fruit trees and plants in the world.
There are more than 2,300 different types of apple, 350 of plum, 550 of pear, 320 of bush fruits, 220 of cherry, as well as smaller collections of vines and nuts grown in orchards covering 150 acres.
Brogdale runs orchard tours and there are a plenty of special events throughout the year: these include Blossom Walks in the spring; a Cider and Perry Festival in late August through early September; and an Apple Day in October.
Hundreds of varieties of apples, plums, pears, cherries, quince, and medlar as well as apple juice is available from the shop.
It probably goes without saying, but The Strollers love fruit, especially apples, pears and cherries.
As long as we dogs don’t eat the core, the seeds (which can contain arsenic!), the stems or the leaves, fruits like these aid our digestion, provide antioxidants, boost our immunity, improve our eye sight, while also giving us healthier skin and hair.
It’s great now that we live in Gravesend that we are surrounded by traditional orchards that have been adding to the beauty of the Kent Downs since Harrys planted his first graftes more than 400 years ago.
Here, in Mid Kent’s chalk downland, where villages nestle in hidden dry valleys with a network of hedgerows and wooded hilltops surrounding the area’s farmland, it is the traditional orchards that stand majestic.
We have discovered orchards thriving in villages like Sheldwich, Milstead, and Stockbury. These are hubs for their communities and have impressive heritages.
Many are recreations of an all-too-often lost past. One, that was planted in Spring 2008 on the top of the Kent Downs’s scarp at Lenham celebrates Grant’s Morella Cherry Brandy, which was once produced in the village from the thousands of Morello cherry trees in and around the village.
These traditional orchards are a haven for wildlife including owls, bee orchids and butterflies. There is thankfully a healthy movement to reinvigorate Kent’s orchards.
One, in the old grounds of what was once the Darenth Park Hospital (founded in 1873 as the Darenth School for Imbecile Children – see map), is called Chapel Orchard. It was replanted in 2000 on the site of the now demolished hospital’s orchard. It boasts over 150 varieties of local apple, pear, plum, cherry and cob nut trees.
Now part of Darenth Country Park we started our walk in the car park. To follow in our footsteps you need to go past the pond (dug in 2008) and turn up the long concrete road known as Chapel Path.
You will soon pass by the privet hedge of one of two cemeteries on site – Darenth Rest. This holds the bodies of children who were hospitalised here in the early 20th century. The School was one of the largest establishments of its kind.
The Gothic-style buildings had cost £88,750 and could accommodate 580 children. The central administrative block had the kitchens and laundry behind; on its west side were the schoolrooms and chapel and, on its east side, the dining and recreation rooms.
The children were taught elementary skills, including how to tell the time and how to handle money. Deaf and dumb children learned sign language. The School also had workshops where manual and industrial skills were taught – boys learned printing, carpentry and boot-making; girls did needlework and learned domestic skills.
As the children approached 16, the School found it difficult to place them back in the community. It also didn’t want to lose the labour force it had created. Thus, the Darenth Asylum for Imbeciles was built as adult accommodation in 1880, east of the School. Those considered ‘improvable’ received more workshop training, while the severely mentally handicapped adults lived in a separate part of the Asylum.
Paths leading off this road can be explored for longer walks leading to higher fields, but for now continue up the road and you will stumble upon the new orchard.
This is not only one of just three sites in Kent where Watling Street Thistle, Ergrigium Campestre (see right) can be found, but it includes 150 examples of most fruit found in the county.
The lower end has examples of plums, cherries and pears. Travelling further up the road you will find a timeline of apple trees from small modern varieties at the bottom (such as Discovery and Red Devil) to the old larger varieties at the top of the hill (with names like Kentish Fillbasket of 1820 – see below – and Golden Pippin of 1629 – see above).
Other fruits to be found here include the apples Beauty of Kent, Falstaff, Fiesta, Flower of Kent, Greensleeves, Jupiter, Lamb Abbey Pearmain, Michaelmas Red, Sunset, Suntan, Tydeman’s Early Worcester and Tydeman’s Late Orange and Warner’s King as well as Concorde pear, Farleigh damson and Kent Bush plum.
Watch out because there are horse grazing paddocks here.