Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans sits in the heart of the Wye Valley, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that straddles the English/Welsh border. It’s a rural idyll, little changed in centuries. Beneath the big skies, the River Wye gently snakes its way through gently rolling hills. Every day my spirits are lifted living here.
Guests will be familiar with the approach to the glampsite via Church Lane, turning left into Mad Dogs. Opposite the entrance is a 7 acre orchard, which we were thrilled to acquire five years ago. Steve, the upcycling guru who built the Summer Kitchen and Showershack, remembers fruit being collected many years ago but it has long been neglected. Last planted between the wars, the boughs of the veteran cider apple and perry pear trees were heaving with mistletoe and diseased wood. Approaching the end of their natural lives, trees were collapsing in numbers due to the series of ferocious winter storms that we all endure because of our changed climate. The last of the perry trees, now an endangered species, fell in January 2022. Our hearts hit the ground with it.
The Rectory was built in 1800 on top of a parsonage, so I searched through the house records in the Bishop’s Palace at Hereford Cathedral and found an early 19th century map that marks the use of this adjoining field as an orchard. Village folklore however, insists it has been a cider apple and perry pear orchard for eons and walking through it there is an implicit sense of history and time immemorial.
Our mission was clear: replant cider apples and perry pear trees and return the space to its original use. Glampers love their cider (and Herefordshire cider at that: flat, strong, actually tastes of apples, no additives whatsoever and bears repeat quaffing). Traditional orchards are unique places and we were keen to plant species of trees that have always been grown in this part of the country and do so in the distinctive quincunx pattern with trees 30 foot apart and rows 35 foot apart, as was always the way. There is a predictable recent trend for intensive tightly spaced trees planted by the ultra commercial household cider brands (naming no names but you can probably guess). This February we planted 120 new trees and built guards to protect the maiden trees from rabbits and my neighbour Andy’s sheep that graze the field.
There are still 44 standing and recumbent veteran trees. We were able to map out a planting pattern that dovetailed the 120 new trees’ positions with these veterans. Pomologist John Edwards then got to work using hand tools on the old trees, removing decades of mistletoe and diseased wood. This will give them an Indian summer and help bring on the newly planted trees. Dead wood was left for its habitat and bugtastic nature value. Nettles will not be sprayed, butterflies ahoy! Hares will box again. The fallen trees and old stumps talk to us about the history of the field and those that have walked and worked here.
If our village has a heart, Rectory orchard is it, surrounded as it is on all four sides by housing. The field is totemic for our community. Three footpaths run across the field, passing a pond and through an area where from the undulation we presume stone was once quarried and carted off. Time moves at a different pace as you journey through, birdsong becomes prevalent, it is still and serene. I replaced the last remaining stile with a kissing gate to enable older villagers to better access the field and we celebrated the completion of the Rectory Orchard Renewal with a community day. The last five Yarlington Mill trees were planted by neighbours who wanted to do so, I read Mary Oliver’s ‘When I Am Among The Trees’ to wend them on their way. We then repaired to the church to drink mulled cider and listen to two fascinating talks from James Marsden, environmentalist and local cider making don, and Ben Taylor-Davies, my neighbour and the originator of regenerative farming theory, an inspirational movement seeking to improve soil health that meets the needs of our times. Glampers know ‘Regen Ben’ from the excellent honesty grocery store and other fun things they get involved with at Townsend Farm next door. Next year we’ll be wassailing, the pagan blessing of the trees. In time, we will make a community cider (called Olde Wrecktory). Blessed be!
I was exhilarated when we finished, I’ve enjoyed the sense of job satisfaction before, but this felt completely different. It was as if we were doing some ancient earth God’s bidding. It felt important and lasting, that we were leaving a legacy for future generations to enjoy. It’s a beacon of hope. It gives continuity and connection between local people here and this incredible trad habitat and it will do so for another 100 years. We’re hugely grateful to the team at the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty office, whose management of our Farming in Protected Landscapes (Fipl) grant application demystified the process and made it both straightforward and flexible when necessary. They also did so in an enthusiastic and engaging manner, their grant contributed greatly to making this orchard renewal possible. With eternal thanks to my dream team for the hard work: Steve, Jacob, Mick the punk, Yves (he’s a Brazilian boxer and had a baby half way through, top man!) and John Edwards (he plays a mean banjo). Not forgetting our new Mad Dog, Miggsy the Frenchie puppy, who contributed to our bonhomie as only puppies can.
The February mornings were cold, often with deep frosts, but clear and bright. We felt alive and were happy as we worked. We planted:
- Dabinett cider apples
- Harry Masters Jersey cider apples
- Herefordshire Redstreak cider apples
- Chisel jersey cider apples
- Browns cider apples
- Kingstone Black cider apples
- Stoke Red cider apples
- Somerset Redstreak cider apples
- Yarlington Mill cider apples
- Brandy perry pears
- Butt perry pears
- Thorn perry pears
- Barnet perry pears
- Blakeney Red perry pears
WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES, by Mary Oliver.
When I am among the trees,
Especially the willows and the honey locust,
Equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
They give off such hints of gladness.
I would say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
In which I have goodness, and discernment,
And never hurry through the world
But walk slowly, and now often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
And call out, “stay awhile”.
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple”, they say,
“And you too have come
Into this world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
With light, and to shine”.