History & Culture

Continuing an ugly tradition

Young Fox, Bekesbourne. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Last weekend a local hunt group continued at least some semblance of the tradition of fox-hunting with a meet in Bishopsbourne. In olden times the hunt was often regarded as an elegant, jolly affair, but from the distance of a different moral perspective, in the cold light of a grey February morning in 2017, this tradition just evokes feelings of sadness.

Hunting with hounds is an ugly relic of our barbaric past and it has no place in modern countryside management: it has little to do with controlling fox numbers in the Britain of today. Historically it was a sport of the landowning elite who, rather than actually trying to exterminate foxes, retained coverts of trees and shrubs across their land for foxes to inhabit so that they could be hunted for fun. The sport became so popular that during the 19th century foxes were imported from Europe and openly sold at London’s Leadenhall Market in order to stock the English countryside where hunting took place.

For many years, foxes were effectively protected specifically for the hunt, despite the pleas of tenant farmers, shepherds and pheasant farmers who wanted them efficiently eradicated, not preserved for the amusement of their landlords. Sometimes farmers secretly killed foxes, but bizarrely this so called ‘Vulpicide’ was regarded as immoral by the landowning gentry because it diminished the number of foxes left for hunting. Controversy raged until, eventually, a compromise was achieved and farmers were paid compensation for any birds and lambs lost to the fox. Of course the reports of damage done would have been grossly exaggerated in order to claim more compensation from the wealthy landowners.

Today foxes account for about 1% of all poultry (1) and 1-2% of lambs (2) lost in open fields. Annual (pre-slaughter) lamb mortality from all causes, including disease and hypothermia is “thought to be 15-20%” (3), a vastly higher figure, although precise data is not collected.

For our previous article on foxes search for ‘fox’ in our search box

(1) Game Conservancy Trust figure
(2) 1% Game Conservancy Trust; 2% The Burns Report. See:
http://www.ifaw.org/sites/default/files/is%20the%20fox%20a%20pest.pdf
(3) Sheep Health and Welfare Report 2016/17

 

Leylandii: planting menace in the mind

Cypress Leylandii (centre), Mill Lane, Bridge. Given space to grow, Leylandii is not unattractive in itself. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Leylandii, that notorious, rapid-growing, evergreen, furry monster which has blighted suburban gardens and caused domestic disputes across the country for decades: we all recognise it and despise it, don’t we? Well things are not quite what they seem…

Members of the Cypress tree family(1) are generally recognised by their evergreen, fern-like branches. Cypress Leylandii is a man-made hybrid within that family. It was created in Britain in about 1888 by arboriculturists who were sharing conifer seeds imported from America. It is not clear who actually produced the first tree of this particular hybrid but a certain Mr Leyland got the credit, or should we say blame? Leylandii is fast growing and can grow to 50ft in 15 years or so, and it will grow to 150 feet if left unpruned. It was created by crossing two North American trees, the Nootka Cypress from Alaska, which provides great hardiness, and the Monterey Cypress from California, which gives it rapid growth. In their natural setting, both of these trees are really quite beautiful and they would never have cross-pollinated naturally.

Leylandii became popular in modern British gardens when it was discovered that, planted in a close row, they quickly provide an effective tall screen to give privacy. However, pruned closely such hedging can appear overly severe, yet if not controlled at all, the trees rapidly outgrow their setting and become a nuisance.

Bridge Tennis Club. Strictly controlled conifer hedging can look overly severe, and hard pruning leaves ugly bare patches which may never recover. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Yet, surprisingly, people who complain about Leylandii in their neighbours’ gardens may not actually be seeing Leylandii at all, they may be looking at another similar tree in the Cypress family, the Lawson Cypress. Sometimes called a False Cypress, this tree is in fact a cedar, known in America as the Port Orford Cedar because it comes from that region of Oregon. It was introduced to Britain in the 1850s by the Lawson nursery in Edinburgh. It is often planted for hedging for similar reasons to Leylandii. Its flowers can make it a more attractive tree, but if left untended, it causes the same problems.

Male (red) and female (brown) flowers on this Lawson Cypress on Patrixbourne Road can make it an attractive tree in spring. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

However, this is not yet the full story: another group of similar looking trees in the Cypress family, also commonly used for tall hedging in Britain, are the Thujas. These are again cedars, notably the Western Red Cedar and the White Cedar from the Pacific coast of North America. While all these different possibilities make identification complex enough, the situation is further complicated by the fact that over the years all these trees have been further crossed and selectively bred to create size, growth habit and colour variations which range into the hundreds.

The distinctive cone of a Thuja growing in Bekesbourne churchyard. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In all the furore over Leylandii’s role in irresponsible hedge planting, conifers in general have gained a bad reputation which they do not really deserve. The original trees that created some of the most notorious hybrids were all selected because they were and are hansom trees in their own right. In the correct setting they make wonderful specimen trees and their wood is highly valued by craftsmen across the globe: the timber of Port Orford Cedar is used in America and Japan for making arrows and musical instruments; Thuja wood is very decorative, so it is often made into ornamental bowls and boxes; Nootka Cypress is considered one of the most useful timbers in the world, it is very resistant to rot and is often specified for the construction of wood cabins, decking and traditional small boats.

What a shame it is that, simply because of unsuitable placement in modern suburban British gardens, many conifers have been tarred by one common villainous appellation ‘Leylandii’, a name which arouses such contempt amongst the British public.

(1) In arboricultural circles there has been and remains a great deal of debate about which trees actually belong in the Cypress family and which should be placed into other groups. For the sake of simplicity here we have tried to cite commonly accepted classifications.

The myth of ‘The Balance of Nature’

Nature does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar. Little Egret, Bridge. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

“The idea of a balance of nature has been a dominant part of Western philosophy since before Aristotle, and it persists in the public imagination and even among some ecologists today. In fact Nature is not in balance, nor has it ever been at any stage in Earth’s history.”
John Kricher. ‘The Balance of Nature; ecology’s enduring myth.’

On 7 February 2017 we finally had to concede that the Nailbourne had dried up. Not a trickle ran in constant flow through Bridge. Since it is a bourne, an occasional stream, which leaks from fissures in the chalk beneath East Kent, this is not to be unexpected; but it spells disaster for our local wildlife and the precious ecosystem of a rare chalk stream. A rich and varied biodiversity nurtured by the cool springwater will be lost: a delicate, heirarchical food chain which was gradually establishing itself in the heart of our valley will break and fail. Many species will either die or move elsewhere.

It is a populist notion that such events are all part of what some people call the ‘Balance of Nature’. They are not. Balance implies a system of self-correction, a sustained position of equilibrium. This is not what happens in Nature. The natural world does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar; it reels and lurches from one disaster to another, like a confused boxer losing badly in a fight.

“Nature is not a balance, it is just one catastrophe after another!”
Professor Richard Dawkins

When a natural catastrophe occurs on a large scale in a meteor strike, a flood, a volcanic eruption, or, on a smaller scale, perhaps the drying up of a village pond or a local spring, there is destruction and there is death. This creates a vacuum in the natural world and Nature abhors a vacuum. Something, in a quest for survival, will fill it; this invariably will be some species of plant or creature which is more suited to the new environment. An opportunity arises, something seizes it, but this opportunism must not be confused with ‘balance’, for the state of things will now be different, the equilibrium has not somehow been restored. Things have changed and in consequence there may now be a new order in the food chain, a new king ruling the jungle. He will rule as long as the new conditions remain or until the next catastrophe arrives to topple him from his place. It’s a continuing struggle for survival in which each individual in each species fights for itself in the face of ever looming death. In the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, over 99% of all the species that ever lived here are thought to have become extinct, either because they just couldn’t live in the environment in which they found themselves, or because a new, more advanced or adapted species was able to out compete them. This is a process called ‘speciation’ and we modern humans may face it one day as did Neanderthal man who failed to compete with us.

Mother Nature is not of gentle mind, she is a violent and ruthless ruler in her empire of the sun. Her flowers bloom sublime, but don’t be confused by her apparent charm and her fondness for the young: she has no compassion. Her disasters appear random, but they are all a consequence of her brutal rule. There is an order in the chaos, but it is heartless, inequitable and cruel. Life on Earth staggers on, trying to navigate through constant adversity and change: ‘carpe diem’, seize the day and do your best to survive, but be assured your death will come and you won’t be calling it a balance when the reaper swings his scythe.

Sometimes we think we see Mother Nature as a beauty, dancing elegantly to illuminate our lives in the darkness of her universe. Her beauty, her dancing and even the colours of her dress are mere mirage; but the miracle, the sublime, spectacular miracle, is that she ever manages to stand at all. We must hope we never live long enough to know when she finally collapses and her empire turns to dust.

 

 

A world made in pictures

Blue Tit, Bridge Meadows. Unlike the fleeting glimpses of wildlife we catch in the real world, in photographs nature pauses, poses, and stands still to let us look at it, but we are creating an imaginary world. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Out in the countryside around Bridge it seems an increasing number of people are taking photographs. It is wonderful that residents have an appreciation of our landscape, but we must remember that, however much a photograph seems to capture the beauty of the scenery, it isn’t as important or as valuable as the real thing, and photography is not conservation.

For BridgeNature.org, creating and presenting pictures is not, and must not be our main objective. Conservation of our real, living, breathing wildlife and countryside is our essential purpose, not some pretty representation of it in photographic images. Can the same be said of the beautifully filmed natural history programmes we see on television week after week, and of the perfectly produced photographs we see in magazines, online sites and exhibitions? Well, many certainly appear genuine in their intentions, but, whatever the motives of their producers, conservationists fear a real danger that, in presenting films and photographs, the images themselves achieve a profile and value in the public mind, sometimes merely an entertainment value, that casts the pictures’ subjects, our real landscape and wildlife, into the shade. However sublime the photographs may be in their own right, this is cause for concern.

The issue lies within the very essence of the photographic image: capturing and re-presenting a visual likeness of something. Once we have accepted this medium as a way of seeing the world around us, a picture seems real. A film seems even more real, because it moves and captures sound. But both are real only as entities in themselves: the animals, trees and landscapes portrayed within them only exist as coloured dots, or pixels on a screen, the sounds they emit are electronic, made by a loudspeaker.

In public understanding, the old notion that ‘the camera never lies’ still persists to this day, yet it is in itself a lie. At best the photograph only tells us part of the truth, often it is a manipulated deception and, in the very act of switching our attention from the real object to the picture, the real object ceases to have form and substance as it is discarded in favour of a man-made image. We learn to accept this carefully manufactured representation, which, unlike the views of Nature we see in our real imperfect world, pauses, postures and poses to let us look at it until, in effect, the picture or film becomes more real, impressive and permanent than the real thing. To the conservationist this is alarming, because all the while these carefully selected images present a perfect vision of Nature, people assume everything is fine in our countryside: but it isn’t!

Picture this: protected fields north of Conyngham Lane, Bridge, under threat from development. In a few years’ time, will we just be left with pretty images as mementos of our countryside? Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Today, our wildlife and countryside are under threat as never before. They are not as valued or as protected as we might hope they are. In recent years large tracts of our AONBs have been lost to housing development. Even specially protected Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest have been neglected: in 2011 only 26 out of 710 ASSIs and SSSIs on enclosed farmland were in favourable condition (1). Our farmland birds have declined by 56% since 1970 (2); woodland butterflies have declined by 51% since 1990 (3); 728 wildlife species are at risk of extinction from Great Britain (4). We need to decide what it is we want to value, treasure and protect: is it all the wonderful photographs and films we see of our wildlife? Or is it the real thing? If we make the wrong choices now, all that will be left are some pretty pictures to remind our grandchildren of what we squandered.

(1) UK National Ecosystem Assessment 2011
(2) BTO Farmland Bird Indicator 2016
(3) Woodland Butterfly Indicator 2016
(4) State of Nature Report 2016

Vermin over the hill

Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This week wild rabbits were culled using ferrets to unearth them on Star Hill in Bridge. “Quite right too,” some locals said, “they’re just vermin!”.

We often hear the term ‘vermin’ cast casually and disparagingly at certain animals, which are regarded with disdain, while others are treated with favour. So, what exactly is the definition of vermin, and what does it mean in consequential terms?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines vermin as “Mammals and birds injurious to game, crops etc., e.g. foxes, weasels, rats, mice, moles, owls; noxious insects e.g. fleas, bugs, lice; parasitic worms or insects; (fig) vile persons”. It’s a very vague definition, which seems open to the inclusion of any creature which eats the crops in our fields, kills game birds before they can be shot in sport, or irritates us in some other way.

Across Britain that small OED list of so-called vermin has, at one time or another, been stretched to include: magpies, seagulls, crows, rooks, stoats, kingfishers, house sparrows, rabbits, deer, red squirrels, grey squirrels, pigeons, snakes, woodpigeons, kites, buzzards, frogs, eagles, geese, wild cats, domestic cats caught poaching, collared doves, ducks, jackdaws, rooks, jays, curlews, pole cats, lapwings, oystercatchers, choughs, dippers, water voles, hedgehogs, wolves, hawks, otters, bullfinches, hares, green woodpeckers, badgers and many other animals which today we would call wildlife.

A few of these creatures, like the wolf, the flea and the adder were obvious candidates for extermination in the survival instincts of our ancient ancestors, but many of the names on the list come from the Preservation of Grain Act of 1532, which ordered the public to take part in a mass killing of rural wildlife for the sake of preserving farm produce. Some animals, like woodpigeons, rats and rabbits clearly were legitimate threats to farm crops, but many others like lapwings, water voles and hedgehogs were killed simply because of ignorance about their lifestyles. In some cases the law was used as a cover for killing animals for superstitious reasons rather than for any real threat they posed to agriculture, and millions of other creatures were killed under the law because they were good to eat rather than because they caused any nuisance.

Masquerading as the eradication of vermin, this killing frenzy went on across Britain for many decades until, in the mid 18th century, it was stopped because of general alarm at the massive devastation done to our wildlife and countryside. By then, it was too late for some animals, and to this day their numbers have never recovered. However, a century later, with the burgeoning popularity of ‘country sports’ like hunting, shooting, fishing, badger baiting and hare coursing, the mass killing of so-called vermin had escalated again, and by the mid 19th century it was once more being conducted on an enormous scale until a series of animal protection acts were brought in to reduce the slaughter.

Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

In British law there is no legal definition of vermin: it is not written in stone. Today, many of the animals which were once persecuted are now treasured and encouraged for the biodiversity they bring to our countryside. Even now this considered approach has its detractors. A lot of rural folk still have a list of vermin held firmly in mind and they seem to take a certain relish in having these creatures killed, but, before casually condoning the slaughter, everyone should know the answer to this question: how did these animals get onto their list of vermin? Was it because they pose a genuine threat to farming and social welfare; or because they spoil the fun of ‘country sports’; or because killing them is the fun of country sports; or because of tradition, confusion, ignorance and superstition?

Whatever our views on wildlife there is one creature which, over the centuries, has caused far more destruction and nuisance in our countryside than all the others put together: and we all know who it is…

*This article takes some general references from ‘Man and the Natural World: changing attitudes in England 1500-1800’, a seminal work by the author Keith Thomas; but we do not suggest any views or opinions expressed herein are necessarily shared by that author.

The Sussex in Kent

Sussex cattle, Bourne Park, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Their 'mahogany red' colour glows in the evening sunlight. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Sussex cattle, Bourne Park, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Their ‘mahogany red’ colour glows in the evening sunlight. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

If, in the last six months or more, you have taken a stroll along Bourne Park Road heading from Bridge towards Bishopsbourne, you may have noticed some reddish coloured cattle in a field off to the right between the road and the Nailbourne. These are Sussex cattle, one of the most famous and reputable breeds of cattle in the world: their colour is described historically as mahogany red.

The Sussex originated on the Weald of Sussex, Surrey and Kent and it is directly descended from a breed of cattle which roamed in Anderida, the huge forest which stretched over those counties before and at the time of the Norman conquest in 1066. These cattle were of course a source of food, but through the centuries as they were farmed and bred they became notable also as a draught breed for ploughing and pulling carts and they were used extensively for that purpose. Today we may think of the horse as the primary working animal of our ancient past, but this is not so, for centuries it was the ox, and the ox of choice would, without doubt, have been a Sussex. On the Weald, the steep terrain meant that the use of oxen as the main draught animal continued much longer than in some other parts of the country. In his travelogue ‘A Tour of Great Britain’ written in 1724, Daniel Defoe tells us of an old lady on the Weald being driven to church in a carriage hauled by six Sussex oxen.

Sussex cattle, showing characteristic colour and shape with higher rear end than shoulders and a white switch to the tail. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Sussex cattle, showing characteristic colour and shape with higher rear end than shoulders and a white switch to the tail. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

We do not think of the Kent and Sussex Weald as a forest area today because the woodland was felled in the early 18th century to provide timber for iron manufacturing during the industrial revolution. Sussex oxen were used as draught animals working in the forest and, to give an idea of the numbers of animals involved, Defoe, who was travelling through the area at the time, records teams of 22 Sussex oxen pulling each lumber cart.

The escarpments of the Weald meant that, once the forest had gone, large tracts of the land were not suitable for ploughing, so much of it was left as pasture. The Sussex continued to be prominent, primarily for beef production, although records show that in some parts of the Weald they were still used to haul ploughs right into the early 20th century.

In the last few days the Sussex cattle have been moved out of the field off Bourne Park Road; we do not know where they have gone to, although being beef cattle, we do know their ultimate fate.

A harvest of Hops

Bringing in the hop harvest, Bishopsbourne 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Bringing in the hop harvest, Bishopsbourne 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This week was harvesting week at the Hop farm near Flint Cottages. While in the past this was an event which would have seen hundreds of people employed in many of the fields around the area, today there just remains this one Hop farm of about 10 acres in our locality. It is recorded that Hop growing in Kent began in the area between Canterbury, Bishopsbourne and Lower Hardres so this is possibly one of the oldest Hop fields in the county. The harvesting was achieved by the hard work of a small group of people working by hand from the back of a tractor and trailer.

Gathering the hop harvest, Bishopsbourne 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Gathering the hop harvest, Bishopsbourne 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Hops were introduced to Britain by the Romans, not as an ingredient of beer, but as a supply of Hop shoots which were, and still are, considered a culinary delicacy. Hop farming for beer making began in earnest in Kent in the 1520s to provide the ingredients (only the Hop flowers are used) for a burgeoning beer industry and, as it turned out, the ‘terroir’ (conditions of land and climate) of the area proved perfect for the crop. By the late 1600s Hop growing had become a major agricultural activity in this county and the industry continued to grow until it reached its peak in the late 1800s. Thus, for over 300 years, vast numbers of tall stands of Hops growing on wired poles gave much of Kent’s agricultural landscape a unique and distinctive appearance. However, since its peak, changes in drinking habits, global free trade and taxes on alcohol have caused Hop growing in Kent and the rest of Britain to dwindle to a fraction of its former size.

Hop flowers, Bishopsbourne, Sept. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Hop flowers, Bishopsbourne, Sept. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Although some of the shoots from our Bishopsbourne Hops are served in London’s up-market restaurants, most of the flowers are exported to America for specialist beer brewing. Varieties to be seen growing on the farm include ‘Challenger’ and the world famous ‘East Kent Goldings’ variety which was developed from the Canterbury Whitebine Hop in the late 1700s. We understand the farm won first prize for their own crop of East Kent Goldings at the English National Hop Competition in 2011 and we wish them continued success!

 

Land of plenty

'Land of plenty' Sheep in Bourne Park, June 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org

‘Land of plenty’ Sheep in Bourne Park, June 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org

As we stand a moment on the downs and contemplate the beauty of our Nailbourne Valley, shall we pause to spare a thought for those poor refugees, or economic migrants if you will, who strive to steal into this country, at any cost, from the ruined and war torn countries of the Middle East and far beyond? Let us consider the horror of their situation and wonder what those who make it across the white cliff border line of Dover, by fair means or foul, would think of this rural idyll.

To them every aspect of our local scenery must suggest a land of wealth; a lush green paradise dotted with farms and elegant country homes, the stately manors of the rich. We have gentle pasture land in green, buttercups in yellow, forget-me-nots in blue and a tangled kindle of woodland full of timber. We have a patchwork of fields full of crops: wheat for making bread, and golden barley, which, in ancient times, was more the favourite in the Middle East. We have fields of field beans which we feed to our livestock or export for staple dishes right across North Africa and the deserts beyond, and we have orchards filled with row upon row of trees laden with delicious fruits. For those genteel garden parties on our English summer lawns we have plastic tunnels so full of strawberries that we cannot begin to count them, and we have lines of hops for making beer: the very essence of the English pub, indolent leisure and the westerners’ love for having a good time.

Flocks of fattened sheep meander lazily across grassed chalky downs, and muscled beef cows chew the juicy cud in pleasant water meadows under the dappled shade of ancient ash and oak. We have such store of food, that even the fishes in our lakes and the wild birds like the little egret, the honking greylag goose, and the white mute swan, so good for eating, are left to live their lives in peace and plump prosperity.

And think upon those suffering souls in other parts who walk for miles each day to pull some dirty water from a rusting pump, that they may drink or wash their children: how would they view the crystal water of our little trickling stream? What music would they hear in its soft chatter?

How perfect must our own lives seem to those who look with hungry eyes upon our happy valley, in this, our land of plenty.

Sidney Cooper’s cows

Cattle in the Nailbourne. July/August 2014. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Cattle in the Nailbourne. July/August 2014. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

The recent sunny weather has, at times, made it rather hot for walking about in the fields, but one way of cooling down is to have a paddle in the Nailbourne as it flows through the meadows. The picture above, taken this same week in the summer of 2014, shows our local cows paddling near the pond. Watching cattle in our dreamy local landscape, some of us may be reminded of the paintings of Thomas Sidney Cooper.

Sidney Cooper, as he become known, was a local lad, born in Canterbury in 1803. After showing promise as a youngster with his paintings and drawings from nature in the local area, he studied at the Royal Academy in London. He became famous for what were at the time considered truthful, realistic pictures of cattle and sheep and this reputation earned him the nickname ‘Cow Cooper’, an epithet of which he may possibly not have been particularly proud; although he became very successful in his field, so it apparently did him no great harm.

It is well recorded that he painted farm animals within the Canterbury District, particularly along the Great Stour, and it is not too far fetched to imagine that he may also have visited Bridge with his paints and his canvas and an old wooden easel. However, despite his prowess at painting animals, Sidney often called in an associate called Frederick Richard Lee to paint the landscape within which his animals were set. This scenery was often of a rather ethereal and romantic nature, in contrast to the supposed truth of Cooper’s portrayal of the animals themselves.

In Canterbury, Cooper set up a small art school which was known as the Canterbury Sidney Cooper School of Art. His great nephew William Sidney Cooper attended the school and followed the same path painting farm animals and landscapes, also with great success. Another of the school’s students was a certain Mary Tourtel who became famous for her stories of Rupert Bear.

Many of Sidney Cooper’s paintings of cows and sheep are now owned by the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, but the largest collection is in the Beaney Institute in Canterbury.

The Kentish Apricot

Apricots growing in the Bridge area, July 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Apricots growing in the Bridge area, July 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This month thousands of Apricots have been ripening on trees in the Bridge area. That may come as a surprise to many people but, ironically, even more so to those who are most knowledgeable about fruit growing, because for centuries it has been considered virtually impossible to grow Apricots commercially in Britain. A few gardeners have managed to grow them as a novelty in special conditions, but generally our summers were considered too wet, our winters too variable and our spring frosts too unpredictable for growing these demanding fruits on a large scale. The trees flower very early in spring, so the risk of just one late frost destroying an entire crop was too high for Apricots to be a viable option for British fruit growers.

However, in recent years all this has changed as new cultivars have been developed specially to suit the British climate. Today Apricots are grown in abundance on various farms across Kent, including one within Bridge parish. Apricots plucked fresh from the tree provide a delicious and entirely different taste experience from the bland supermarket imports we British are used to, and our new home grown varieties are now considered amongst the tastiest to be found anywhere. Additionally they are rich in vitamins A and C together with potassium, copper and fibre. Surprisingly, Apricot kernels are often used on the continent to supplement almond flavouring, typically in Amaretti biscuits and the well known liqueur Amaretto.

Tradition has it that the Apricot comes from Armenia, a small country to the East of Turkey (the Apricot’s Latin name Prunus Armeniaca actually means ‘Armenian Plum’), but historians dispute this, arguing that evidence shows the fruit has been in cultivation in China, India and Persia since ancient times.

An Apricot tree laden with fruit is a beautiful thing to see in its own right and it is a delight to have these new exotic immigrants in our traditional fruit growing landscape, but they are still a relatively rare and valuable crop, so we do not disclose their location. Those who may think to go in search of them should be advised that they fruit early and this year’s harvest has already been picked.