A bitter wind sweeps down the roof, ruffles up a pair of courting pigeons, carries off a faded crisp packet before dumping a pile of leaves over my muddy boots. Rain feels imminent, but the sky isn’t always the best assurance, like this wind now, hurrying the mood above onto some place else, undermining the hour-by-hour calculations of weather stations and the long and complicated televised forecasts, wondrously adhered to as bulletins. The thick, fog-grey ceiling engulfs much of Sussex, shutting out the sun while turning everything below into an open-air fridge. This impressive, if demoralising shift occurred in the last hour, where mauve and scalding-red had seeped across the land like blood through fabric. The country roads soon retracted to a tightrope, forging a delicate balance of watching the fields, hedgerows, and houses magically light up and keeping the vehicle on the road.
For the moment, the weather is cast aside as I slip into the cavernous gloom of the barn. It’s another world inside and almost another era. I always pass this way before accessing the orchard on the other side, slipping into waterproofs and exchanging a shabby pair of trainers for Wellington boots in alignment for the days work. I can’t help but run my gaze across the interior; noting something new, like rummaging around in an attic or basement, that comes up for discovery. A blue Triumph bicycle leaning against a six-high stack of wooden picking bins. I’m impressed how Artur, the ‘hands-on’ manager, has stacked them up with Tetris- accuracy. Higher still, somewhere in the rafters, comes the energetic birdsong of thrushes and sparrows, underscored in their feathered opera by cooing pigeons who consistently mess on the driving seat of the red McCormick tractor. Spread across the ledge below, where breeze-block meets corrugated panelling is a curious assortment of objects: a broken set of scales, a trailing extension chord, a family of empty spray-cans, broom-head, paintbrushes, a crumbling bath-sponge, an up-right tennis racket and a clump of sea-blue netting.
Pruning the long regimental lines of Conference and Comice pears will take a back seat for the next couple of days, for the harder, sweatier work of planting. A large delivery of Braeburn trees has finally arrived from Italy, held up for several weeks by changing pandemic restrictions. No one knew for certain whether post-Brexit cross-channel bureaucracy would add to the delay, slotting the drivers into the miserable line of waiting freight. The two Slovakian drivers had unloaded the last batch of trees as I arrived, with Artur manoeuvring the forklift truck with the speed of a racing driver and the agility of an acrobat, exchanging the palettes for wooden bins to ensure safe passage to the planting site.
On the barn’s far-right, beyond the reach of sunlight, hanging from rusty nails scored into a horizontal plank, are a line of wood-handled tools: rakes, forks, trowels, forged-hoes, spades, 1-way shovel or drainer, and a hefty two-prong fork. Most of these would shortly end up transported with the Braeburns and several hundred cherry trees, the latter being the main focus of today’s objective. Aside from the gleaming cherry-red McCormick shuttling the trees from barn to plot, everything else, like a Hardy novel, would be fashioned by sweat and muscle. A method, perhaps romantic to some, that wielded a moment of trepidation of the draining physical exertion necessary to get the job done. Just like those cross-country runs, where school would turn you out to stumble and gasp across fields and woodland during the bleak mid-winter. I turned my back on the other instruments, the coiled hose-pipes, saws, wonky spirit-level, grazed headphones, and chains fit for a ship, just as the barn shuddered from another hammering of wind.
The track passed several old caravans, slowly turning green like mouldy bread, as time and abeyance pulled on an algae skin. Over the fence and across the slope on the right, several locals organised themselves within their neat allotments, putting down steaming cups of tea to pull up withered cabbages and jaundice-yellow sprouts. All the accumulated debris from weeding, pruning, mowing, and sweeping-up came back down the slope to a growing hill of rot between the caravans, eating itself into compost, before returning up the slope to line the bed of the growing. *Once upon a time, those orderly teak-stained sheds and polytunnels, just like the horse stables behind, had been part of the orchards acreage until Graham Love, the owner, decided to downsize.
Forty acres and roughly twenty-eight thousand trees felt considerable. Every tree required pruning during the late winter months—cutting and nipping back branches and buds where every action yielded consequences. Nature was more forgiving, over-coming my amateurish use of the saw and secateurs, like those injured seamen during Medieval battles under-going impromptu operations, numbed with just a few swigs of rum. I sometimes wondered if the trees were conscious of it all, as a stranger passed by hacking off limb and fingers under a capitalist strategy to encourage the ideal crop of fruit.
Of course, pruning was visionary, looking far ahead across the seasons when harvest time acknowledged your work. Over-cutting bore less fruit while too many buds produced under-sized fruit, an issue the supermarkets took umbrage with. The goal was to obtain one bin (350kg) of apples from roughly six trees, which covered labour (both pruning and picking), spraying, and the cost of time. As the tree advanced in years, the necessity of greater pruning diminished some of its return. But there was no way around it; fruit trees needed pruning, all twenty-eight thousand, and by hand.
A solitary magpie took flight, launching into the soft winds from a wooden post nearby. Somewhere in the bordering woodland, the call of a pheasant rang out, sounding like a vintage car horn. I moved off the track that cut the orchard in half and onto a long rectangle of ploughed earth. Recently the strip had been grubbed, up-rooting old cherry trees for new, the next generation where just like humans, the future meant youth. Until the official site, further north, underwent a second plough to fold in tonnes of manure, this cherry plot would be a holding centre.
Guided by the central tread-marks from the tractor that had canvassed the plot the day before, I started to dig a long but shallow trench, no more than two-foot wide. The physical demand soon induced a warmth to combat the morning chill. The tractor’s low grumble bemoaned its load, holding up two wooden bins of Braeburn’s, forty groupings of ten trees, four-hundred in total. The first of three batches, enough to agitate the mind.
Perhaps Graham could be seen from space -a bright dot-like a star given bearing by his phosphorus-yellow waterproofs, trudging across crumbled soil cradling the first bunch of trees with the tired reverence of Christ bearing his cross. In his mid-seventies, Graham still possessed enough energy to outlast workers half his age, often performing tasks into the fading hour of twilight. With the onset of Spring, the lengthening daylight provided opportunities to get more done. ‘Seize the light’ could be Graham’s ‘Carp Diem’, a golden flame reclaiming the darkness of Winter. A rule benefitting his work ethic ever since he took over the fruit farm his father had established seventy years ago, in 1951. Initially centred on growing a select variety of apples and pears, but since since then, it has diversified to include twenty-two varieties of apple, nine varieties of cherry, ten types of plums, rhubarb, currants, gooseberries, quince and asparagus.
‘Friendly bacteria’, shouted Graham, noticing my curiosity as Artur submerged each bunch into a hefty barrel of liquorice-black insecticide. Immediately I thought of Yakult, those little pots of Japanese yoghurt. A bacterial remedy will help protect and strengthen the roots, increasing their odds of survival against insects, fungus, and excessive rain. This is paramount when the infant trees are vulnerable, stressed from uprooting, moved thousands of kilometres before grounded in a foreign climate. In those terms, humans would be no different.
The weight of each bunch increases in proportion to mounting fatigue. The winds no longer offer a pleasant reprieve, failing to air-dry the perspiration that hangs like sticky bunting across my forehead. My glasses are fogged, blurring Graham’s waterproofs into a single dollop of custard-yellow, merged with the white sky he looks like a trifle. Each cluster of trees is placed into the trench and pushed up against the preceding one, forming a Braeburn hedge. The trench is gradually refilled with soil, and using the heel of our boots; it’s compressed and covered again around the trunks base. In less than three hours, all one thousand and one hundred trees stand in the holding plot. Marked by a brief smile in honour of our accomplishment, the priority now shifts towards a few hundred Regina and Kordia cherry trees. But these will absorb the remainder of the day.
Instead of a single trench holding them all, the cherry trees are permanent, requiring individual holes to be dug at equal measures along a guideline. Every hole must be at the correct depth to consume the roots and allow the topsoil to sit two inches below the grafting knot. Often, digging unearths old roots which have bored down considerable distances, becoming an effort to extract by hand. But the more removed ensures a better establishment for the new plantings. A handful of fertiliser lines the hole to ensure the trees have a stronger chance of survival, and in the next couple of days, wooden steaks will support them as well. By planting one variety close to the other will ensure pollination, spread by bees and the wind. The work is physically taxing, but good organisation and a team effort carry the task to a speedy conclusion. By late afternoon, leaning across a pitched spade, grubby, but elated, I run my eye up and down the rows of infantile trees, hardly more than matchstick figures, confident they’ll offer up years of bounty and easily out-live myself.
The sun is low, obscured by a cloud resembling the outline of Australia. Five geese fly overhead, and a barking dog is far ahead of its owner. Artur passes to my left, guiding the tractor back to the barn, as he returns the tools and the blue barrel, that wobbles like a giant egg in its box. Moments before, Graham’s glowing yellow form had disappeared down the low hill towards the end of the orchard, commencing one last inspection of today’s work. I gather my flask and lunchbox from under a tree, remove a muddy pair of gloves and wearily follow the track out.
Tomorrow will be another day, back to the pears before the enormous challenge of properly fixing the Braeburn’s. Then, the plums will require pruning, the cherries as well, hammering in steaks, chopping up wood, and picking the asparagus. There’s always something turning into its next phase, a perennial journey from bud to flower to harvest to dormancy, every season crucial. Though I’m done for the day, nature will continue her front-line work, doing her best to fill the shelves in her own Greenway.
In The Know
A right of access passes through the middle of Greenway Fruit Farm and onto the adjoining dirt road, making it popular with dog walkers, ramblers, joggers and horse riders. Families with young children benefit from the absence of traffic, affording reassurance as their little ones take flight. Please note that this is a working farm where staff would appreciate handlers clearing up after their dogs.
Visitors can find the orchard on the Western perimeter of Herstmonceux, East Sussex, located at Stunts Green, a few miles north of Hailsham. Google GreenWay – BN27 4PP for an overview.
During Summer and Autumn, Graham sells his seasonal produce at a series of farmer’s markets, *(as well as) alongside (from) an ‘honesty’ stall at the front of his house (on the right side of the farm’s entrance).