Mapping orchards in the Quantock Hills – Project report

 

Orchards are integral to the Somerset landscape. The production and consumption of apples and cider has fed the local identity in addition to the local economy, and the cultivation of orchards has shaped the landscape, with fields of lined fruit trees characterising the Somerset levels.

Rising from the levels are the hills and coombes of the Quantock Hills, protected since 1956 as England’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. With open grassland on the Quantock plateau, and wooded valleys around the perimeter, the Hills are geographically distinct from the levels below and are a highly-prized natural and recreational landscape where people go for fresh air, open space, and spectacular views across the county. Inhabitants of the surrounding levels and nearby Taunton in particular value and use the AONB landscape.

Aerial view of part of the Quantock Hills and surrounding area. Photo: Quantock Hills AONB Service

After identifying several old and declining orchards on the hills, AONB staff wondered whether the link between the orchard-rich levels and the protected AONB landscape went further than most people thought.  Links with Bristol University Department of Historical Studies were established via a workshop in the AONB as part of the AHRC Landscape and Environment Research Network.  The opportunity for follow-on funding initiated this project, which sees Marianna Dudley, a postdoctoral researcher at Bristol, work alongside the Quantocks AONB service for 4 months mapping the existence, and decline, of traditional orchards on the Quantock Hills.

The project is primarily map-based analysis of land use in the Quantock Hills, using aerial photographs from 1946 and 2007, and OS maps, to identify current and former orchard sites and chart their decline over this period.  It has offered a welcome opportunity for Dudley, a historian by training, to work with MapInfo GIS technology, a resource usually available to geographers and landscape practitioners.  To date, analysis has revealed that orchards were a significant presence in the Quantocks landscape that have declined dramatically over the twentieth century, to the current state of a few remaining remnants of former orchards, and orchards that are declining due to lack of management.

 

Aerial photograph with overlay showing different types of orchard. Map: Marianna Dudley/MapInfo 2012.

Map overlay showing a range of orchard categories. Map provided by: Marianna Dudley/MapInfo 2012.

The next stage of the project is to introduce data from tithe records and maps from the mid-19thCentury, to the twentieth-century maps.  This will extend the time frame of the project by almost a century and will continue the working relationship between Bristol University History Department and Quantock Hills AONB service. The tithe records note the presence and size of every orchard in every parish, and provide coordinates for the orchards in the corresponding tithe maps.   Initial research has revealed that it was common for large farms to have a working orchard (with farm workers paid in part by cider), and often for cottage gardens to contain an orchard too.  Not only were orchards present: they were an integral part of the living landscape, the agricultural economy and working relationships of its inhabitants.

The maps and data compiled by Dudley will be kept by Quantock Hills AONB to inform future consideration of planning applications and land use, with a view to encourage the management of existing orchards and potentially the replanting of former orchards. With visual records of the extent of traditional orchards in the Quantock landscape to hand, the relationship between the Hills and the Levels is reinforced, and places the Quantocks within the surrounding Somerset landscape.

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