In this part of the world Burnham is not a wood that moves, as in Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, but Burham-on-Sea, a charming little resort on the coast nearby. Even so, Transition City Bristol reversed the usual flow last Saturday and brought trees to the city. If you looked very closely you could even see them moving.
Over 600 fruit trees were planted in gardens across Bristol – probably the largest number of fruit trees ever planted in a city on a single day. In a bid to create a ‘virtual’ orchard, hundreds of local people joined a project to improve their access to fresh fruit, lower food miles and increase biodiversity. Transition City Bristol offered low-cost trees by buying in bulk from a local nursery and passing on the saving. ‘Transition Neighbourhoods’ then staged simultaneous local events where people could collect their trees, get advice, see a demonstration on planting and care, then take their trees home with them.
So I turn up in Easton - one of the city’s less glamorous but more vibrant neighbourhoods. A cycle track on a disused railway line between Bristol and Bath runs through Easton and already attracts a fair amount of ‘passing trade’ from the city’s fitter citizens. But there are plans to run buses along it, and there is local uproar. As cyclists know to their cost, buses hate bicycles.
The Pickle Factory is on All Hallows Road, opposite a neo-Gothic church. Even a 90-year-old neighbour is said to be unsure why the building has this name, since she has never seen a pickle leaving the premises in her lifetime. The place is now being converted into the Boggator ‘action learning’ centre for young people – and, as the media in Britain descend into yet another ritual ‘youth-of-today’ bating bout, this feels like an especially useful initiative.
There’s a cultivated garden out the back and, propped along the wall of what was once a garage, dozens of baby fruit trees wait patiently to be planted. I disentangle the trees I have ordered and receive very thorough instructions on how to make sure they stay happy and grow.
Back home I’m confronted by a familiar problem. In the middle of the wood on the hillside there’s a clearing of uncultivated land. I have just six apple and pear trees. Where to put them? Where’s my ‘design’? What am I trying to do?
I think back to permaculture and draw a diagram on a piece of paper. Climbing to the site, I find my design is useless – there are large and small gradients to consider, the trajectory of the sun, shade from overhanging trees, a nearby chicken coup, variations in the type of soil. My head begins to spin as I lay the tiny trees, with their bare roots, out on what suddenly seems like a vast, intimidating space. I know that the decisions I’m making now will dictate almost anything I try to do from now on. Torn between a square, a triangle and a circle, I finally settle for a faintly sickle-shaped semi-circle.
The planting itself goes well; the red soil turns easily with a spade, I hammer in stakes to save my offspring from ‘wind stress’, wrap their little trunks in a protective covering to defend them against passing deer or rabbits, dig in some food for their roots, water them with a can filled from the river, back-fill the holes, tread in the earth, and within a few hours I have finished.
Roughly in the centre of my semi-circle is the ‘no-dig’ raised bed I began almost a year ago, though now a little less raised than once it was, since the scaffolding planks had to be requisition during the floods. My habitual fear of the undetected flaw in any plan I care to make subsides beneath a sense of gratification that the fruit trees have in some way propelled me a little bit further forwards, even if that eventually turns out to have been in a misguided direction.
My positive outlook even survives an encounter with Extreme Dave, who is out walking the last of his latest batch of ponies – no lover of horses, even I have to admit that she is remarkably fetching. But Dave launches into an account of the gelding of the males – a spectacle to which the vet brings his entire family, complete with picnic. It is hard to know which might be more lurid, the spectacle itself or the language with which Extreme Dave describes it.
For myself, I much prefer fruit trees.