Thursday, 8 June 2023

Cherry Orchards

Cherry Growing in Watford and surrounding areas

The growing of watercress in the local area, especially around Watford, is quite well documented, but perhaps not so cherry growing. A glance at old maps of Watford from an Anonymously Recorded History of Croxley Green - The Croxley Green History Project, it was noted in 1891 that ‘cherry growing has been a prominent, though diminishing industry in Croxley for some generations.  The choosing of a “Cherry Sunday” as being a suitable time for a mass picking of the crop is a custom that has lapsed, but it was a great and happy attraction to local people and to others from farther afield’.

Going back to earlier records (1608), it was noted that in the 200 acres of coppices in Abbots Langley, numerous oaks dominated the woods, but well grown ash and beech trees were also to be seen. At Harwoods Farm, Watford, there were not many large trees - only 7 elms and 2 oaks. At Pinchfield in Rickmansworth there was a profusion of oak, ash and elm apparently in equal numbers. Yet not all trees were for timber. Cherry trees were a notable landmark near Penman's Green and this fruit was thereafter consistently associated with Sarratt, Chipperfield and Kings Langley. 

Should you be able to go back to a similar time to get a glimpse of life in Watford during the reign of James I, you would find probably only 125 dwellings in and around the High Street. The population would have been no more than about 500 or 600 people. After crossing the 'great bridge' over the Colne and proceeding up the hill, you would soon pass the house and orchard of John Weedon, called the Saffron Garden. Once near the Vicarage, the houses would become closer together and there would be several inns to allay a thirst. But all around the town lay a pleasant scene of stables, barns, gardens, closes of pasture for horses and small orchards. Immediately beyond were the common arable fields and farms. 

An interesting glimpse of the district in William Penn’s time is contained in the famous diary of John Evelyn.  The entry for April 18th 1680 reads: “on the earnest invitation of the Earl of Essex I went with him to his house at Cashiobere in Hartfordshire”.  The estate is described in detail, and he also comments –  “The land about it is exceedingly addicted to wood, but the coldnesse of the place hinders the growth.  Black cherry trees prosper even to considerable timber, some being 80 foote long”.

And from General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire, Drawn up for the Consideration of the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement. Chapter IX Orchards.  p 143 – 144:
“In the south-west corner of the county, and particularly in the parishes of Rickmersworth, Sarret, King’s Langley and Abbot’s Langley, Flaunden, Bovingdon, and partly in Watford and Aldenham, there are many orchards: apples and cherries are their principal produce. Every farm has an orchard; but the larger the farm, the smaller the orchard. Orchards are found chiefly in farms from 20 to 50 acres. The apples are most profitable; but cherries very beneficial to the poor, in the quantity of employment which they require in gathering the crop, for which the poor are paid from 4d to 8d per dozen pounds. In ten years after planting, cherry-trees begin to bear: each tree should have nine square perches of land (a perch being equal to 16.5 feet). A full-grown tree will produce 50 dozen pounds in a good year; and from 10 to 20 years, six dozen: prices vary from 10d to 3s a dozen. The caroon and small black are the favourite sorts. The Kentish will not thrive here at all. None of the apples are for cyder; they sell for 1s. 6d. to 8s. the basket, or bushel: a tree produces from two to 25 bushels. The orchards, whether of cherries or apples, should be under glass and fed with sheep; mowing the hay is so bad for the trees, that some orchards which were very productive while fed, have produced nothing after a few years of mowing. For ten years after planting, great care should be taken to keep the trees from the sheep, as their rubbing injures them. No orchards are worth above 4?£ per acre. They rarely exceed four or five acres, as I am informed.”

Stones Orchard

"In Hertfordshire at Croxley GreenStone's Community Orchard is a 1.4 hectare relic of an orchard once nearly 4 times as large. Such orchards formed an important element of the local economy a century ago. Cherry Sundays were fairs held in July in many orcharding villages in south-west Hertfordshire and combined picking, sales and picking in local orchards including Stone's. Today, new saplings of the dark Carroon (Kerroon) and Hertfordshire Black cherries, as well as local apple varieties and plums, stand among the still flowering ancient giants which Walter Stone may have planted"
(From the Common Ground Book of Orchards, 2000)

Orchards, Trees & Orchard Produce - Hertfordshire information

Stones Cherry Orchard at Croxley Green, (Stone’s Community Orchard) named after Walter Stone, a former tenant farmer, is a 1.4-hectare remnant of an orchard once nearly four times as large owned by the District Council. It has tall cherry trees of Caroon cherries (or Kerroon) and Hertfordshire Black Cherries, and some apple trees including the Hertfordshire cooker Lane’s Prince Albert plus Bramleys, King of the Pippins, Laxton’s Superb and Worcester Pearmain. There are also pears, walnuts and Victoria and Kirkes Blue plums, once grown for Covent Garden market. It was well known within the village for its cherries, but apples, pears, plums and cobnuts were also grown. Such orchards formed an important element of the local economy a century ago. ‘Cherry Sundays’ were fairs held in July in many orcharding villages in south-west Hertfordshire and combined picking, sales and picnicking in local orchards including Stone’s. In the 1970s many of the orchards in the area were lost to housing but Stones was refused planning permission in 1983 and sold to the local authority for £1. It is now part of the village conservation area, managed by the Parish Council. Today, new saplings of the dark Carroon and Hertfordshire Black cherries, as well as local apple varieties and plums, stand among the still flowering ancient giants which Walter Stone may have planted. A survey in 1993/4 recorded sixteen grasses and 60 wildflower species including Black Medick, foxglove, ox-eye daisy, celandine and prickly sedge. There is full public access to the orchard, reached from the village green through a kissing gate. The fruit is available for local people to pick although much is left for wildlife. There are plans to reinstate Cherry Sunday on the green in time. 

Cherry Pickers at Stones Orchard, Croxley Green c1915

Courtesy Croxley Green History Project

Situated just off The Green and originally just over 12 acres, the orchard was part of Parrotts Farm and leased to George Stone who came from Sarratt in the late 1880's. When George passed away his nephew Walter Stone took over the tenancy. In addition to the orchard area there was a large meadow where dairy cattle were grazed. This would have contributed to the income for Walter and his family as he provided a daily supply of fresh milk for local villagers. The orchard had an extensive variety of fruit trees, and as the village expanded the orchard became very popular with local residents especially when the cherries were available during June and July. Families would make a special day of it to visit the orchard on so-called 'Cherry Sundays' Having bought a good portion of the plump ripe juicy cherries from the stall set up outside the orchard entrance the families would have a 'cherry picnic.' Maybe father would walk across The Green to the Coach and Horses or The Artichoke for some refreshment too! On this side of The Green the cherry orchards, some attached to the public houses, were known mainly for the cooking varieties.

During the 'cherry ripe time' it was the custom for an organised group/contractor of 'pickers' to bring their cherry ladders to local orchards to pick the fruit for owners or tenant farmers. The trees were very high and the men would climb into the tops of the trees to gather all the juicy fruit. These special ladders were wide at the bottom, and narrow at the top and were designed just for cherry picking, enabling the men to reach the treetops in safety (see above photograph).

'....... returning to my subject of Cherry Sundays I have been speaking to some friends who have lived by the green for most of their lives - Mrs. Grace Brown, and Mrs. Doris Woods granddaughter of Wally Stone who was the chief purveyor of Cherries on the green. He had splendid orchards and sold several varieties of cherries at Rose Cottage where the family lived. There were actually three Cherry Sundays, the second, third and fourth Sundays in July. There was no formal organisation but a great many people congregated on the Green outside the Orchards, the children in their Sunday Clothes. They sat around enjoying the cherries and chatting to their friends. The cherries cost only a few pence, the children paying one penny for a handful. The Coach and Horses sold cherries with their drinks'.

Kay Ragget - The Resident No 160, 1990 Croxley Green History Project

Unfortunately, the cherry orchards of bygone days are no longer with us, although many ornamental cherries have been planted in the Watford area and surrounding districts and old specimens can still be found in the local woods, although I doubt the '80 foote long black cherry timber' referred to by the diarist John Evelyn on the estate of the Earl of Essex. 

Research - Lynda Bullock

References - The Croxley Green History Project  -
an invaluable source of local history

Common Ground Book of Orchards, 2000

General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire, Drawn up for the Consideration of the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement. Chapter IX Orchards.  p 143 – 144

The Diary of John Evelyn

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