Fruits in season at Whittingham

THERE are not many orchards left in the north of England which can boast the healthy number of trees as those currently comprising the one at Whittingham Hospital...but there is a growing number of people like Phil Rainford who are making sure old English apple varieties survive here and in other localities.

With the help of The Northern Fruit Group, volunteers and county council grants, he is also making sure that Lancashire apples are replacing those that die out at Whittingham...here he looks at the orchard's background and gives an update on progress so far.

THE Whittingham orchard was saved from destruction a few years ago when the whole area of the former psychiatric hospital was facing massive changes.

Originally a regular source of fruit for the self-supporting hospital, it was also a therapeutic outlet for the patients and, now situated next to the new medium secure unit in the grounds at Whittingham, it is one of a few examples left of a once flourishing tradition.

Because of its importance in what was a waning market, it was taken in hand and given its first professional pruning for a long time under the guidance of Phil Rainford - 'an addictive pomologist' as he terms himself - fellow NFG members helped by Lancaster Conservation Volunteers and with financial help from a Green Partnership award of 400, plus a 100 grant from John Moores University.

Old and dead trees were grubbed up, seven new ones of the Lancashire variety, Golden Spire, were planted and two rare Early Portugal pear trees, discovered in the orchard when it was first surveyed before its restoration, had several grafts taken from them which have been circulated to interested parties to ensure the variety's survival.

The Early Portugals head a list of pear trees including Pitmarston, Conference, Williams, Duchesse, Bon Chretien and Catillac...but it's the apples, particularly those native to Lancashire, which are currently being promoted and planted by the NFG and other groups.

Phil explained "Filling gaps at Whittingham, we've planted 14 new trees so far in two rows of seven - the Golden Spire mentioned plus Keswick Codlin and next winter we'll add Scotch Bridget.

"Lancashire county council has been very supportive with this project," he adds. "We've been given grants of 400 under the Green Partnership Award for the past four years.

"And last year the Environment Directorate introduced and funded an Apple Project - now in its second year - in partnership with the NFG, Lancaster Seedsavers and the Middlewood Trust

"We grafted Lancashire apple varieties in March at a weekend seminar and they will be on sale in February next year in Lancaster - hopefully it'll match last year's sell-out! - and phased planting of northern varieties is taking place in Williamson Park. Lancaster."

Preston-born and a former Preston Grammar School pupil - he lived in Longridge for his first four years - Phil left the area as a student, taught in Cambridgeshire, London and Over Wyre (plus enjoying a short spell with Northwich Victoria FC) before returning to Preston in 1994.

"I had an early interest in gardening," recalls Phil, who went on to gain distinction in his National Certificate of Horticulture in 1990, adding to a much earlier BA degree and a certificaet in preliminary football coaching.

"And then a special newspaper offer in the 1970's for old English apple varieties with exotic names such as Rosemary Russet and Pitmaston Pineapple stimulated my interest," he adds.

"I bought a huge book - The Apple Register - compiled by Muriel Smith for the Ministry of Agriculture in 1971, containing thousands of world apple varieties.

"I found that many of them were extinct or missing, including over 20 Lancashire apples - so this set me off on the apple trail."

Once smitten, he then found himself going off on strange missions - "like meeting Albert Harris from Milton Keynes at Poulton-le-Fylde station to swap Hargreave's Greensweet apple (an old Lancaster variety) for Lady's Finger of Bledington - and Albert's next stop on a simiar mission was Carlisle!"

Phil joined the NFG at Harlow Car in the late 1990's, and is now north west representative on the committee, determined to push forward its aim of preserving such a strong local diversity and heritage.

"My anorak pursuit as a schoolboy was trainspotting," he laughs."In adulthood, I discovered the edible anorak pursuit of trying to locate and identify missing apple and pear varieties in old orchards, propagate and re-introduce them.

"Much use of old maps, records, catalogues and anecdotal information is used in these searches...and," he warns "time is running out in the case of apples - pears live longer."

But the increasingly strong and widely-held interest in the subject - and the fact that Lancashire used to be well known as an apple-growing area - means there is lots of positive activity going ahead.

Phil - who gives talks, identifies fruits and provides fruit tree maintenance advice - is surveying orchards in the AONB area of Arnside and Silverdale and writing a booklet, out in the autumn, on two rediscovered lost apples - including, for more variety, tales of various dogs and a horse called Pontius Pilate!

The walled garden at Astley Hall in Chorley will have local apples and pears planted in it, and the recently-formed Eccleston Fruit Group has surveyed orchards there, in Bretherton and Croston - an area once known as 'the Evesham of the North.'

The NFG will be busy at Apple Days during October in Lancaster, Harlow Carr, Harrogate, Acorn Bank, Temple Sowerby near Penrith...and during harvest time at the Whttingham orchard later in the year, there may be opportunities to purchase some of the local fruit - Phil says watch this space for details!

*AN episode of the popular family drama 'Born and Bred' was filmed locally for BBC One - in the Whittingham orchard.

The producers of the series needed a traditional orchard to capture episode five in the story's fourth series - and the best one they found was that at Whittingham..

Entitled 'Apple Days' one feature that could not be produced in time was a harvest of ripening apples on the branches - "so we had to bring in the necessary fruit and wire it to the branches to make everything look authentic!" said the BBC's drama publicist, Louise Brimmell.

**

THE former Garden Centre at Whttingham Hospital moved to Preston to become Grange Park. Its open day in May showcased the work of the Grange Horticulture Therapy Unit, which aims to provide a range of activities to improve the wellbeing of people suffering from mental health problems.

These activities include horticulture workshops, where green fingered gardening experts show people how to grow plants, shrubs and flowers, and there are also ICT training sessions and classes where people learn CV writing and other job

search skills.