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Gardening: Apple turnover

PUBLISHED: 13:21 20 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:10 20 February 2013

Apple trees have been pruned to a goblet shape to let air circulate

Apple trees have been pruned to a goblet shape to let air circulate

The legacy of fruit king Thomas Rivers lives on at the site of his once grand orchard in Sawbridgeworth as Philippa Pearson discovers one autumn afternoon...

As I make my way through a clearing in some shrubs in the grounds of a hospital in Sawbridgeworth, its hard to imagine that the rows of gnarled apple trees I find were once part of one of the most important fruit nurseries in the UK. Thomas Rivers, born in Sawbridgeworth in1798, consolidated the reputation of the nursery that his grandfather had founded by focusing on new fruit introductions and was responsible for over 75 new varieties including plum, cherry, apple, apricot, peach, nectarine and pear. The nurserys most famous introduction was the Conference Pear, exhibited by his son Thomas Francis Rivers at in 1885 when he was chairman of the International Fruit Conference. Other familiar introductions include his plums Early Rivers, Early Favourite, Czar and Early Transparent Gage.

Thomas Rivers enjoyed breeding and introducing new fruit. The family nursery like many others in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries supplied ornamental plants and fruit trees to country houses, orchards and amateur gardeners. With Thomass enthusiasm for new fruit, the Rivers Nursery excelled from 1835 as a major front runner in offering new types of fruit trees for sale. In 1850 the window tax was abolished creating opportunities for glasshouse growing. Trees in pots in glasshouses accelerated the fruiting and Rivers were instrumental in developing and offering trained plants for this environment. Thomas travelled widely in France and Belgium, bringing back interesting apples, pears, figs, peaches and grapes which the nursery trialled then developed trained plants for glasshouses; he also wrote about how to grow fruit. In 1851 The Orchard House or the Cultivation of Fruit Trees in Pots under Glass, was published was to raise funds for Gt. St. Marys Church in Sawbridgeworth.

Generations of the Rivers family followed in Thomass footsteps and further developed the nursery, once covering 360 acres, but the changing demands of gardeners meant that the nursery closed towards the end of the 1980s with some of the land being sold off for development: the Rivers Medical Centre today occupies the site of the former nursery. Small parcels of land with neglected and overgrown fruit trees remained and, with the help of East Hertfordshire District Council, in the early 1990s the Rivers Nursery Site and Orchard Group were formed to help reclaim and preserve the remaining historic orchard and green space. This group of volunteers have cleared away decades of brambles and weeds to reveal rows of apples, pears, plums, cherries and other fruit trees, and after some skillfull restorative pruning now produce an abundance of fruit each year. More importantly, the work of the group preserves and maintains a living and historic archive collection for the Rivers Nursery.

The Rivers orchard is now the most important fruit site after the Brogdale Collection in Kent and experts from the RHS and East of England Apples & Orchards Project have identified over 100 different varieties of fruit on this five acre orchard set within the remaining 20 acres of land. Other areas still need to be cleared with more fruit trees waiting to be discovered as Joseph Fitzgerald, Assistant Chair of the Group explains: there are over 700 fruit trees on the whole site, he says, but only 400 are in the orchard area so the potential to find further old varieties is promising. Wildlife thrives in the orchard, butterfly studies take place annually and a moss and lichen survey has been done, and beehives which help with pollination are placed between the now elegantly-shaped fruit trees. Each year In October, Apple Days take place where the public can come to help harvest the crop and join in with other activities. Other events throughout the year include a Blossom Breakfast in May and a Wassail in January. More volunteers are needed to help with this historic living orchard, a worthwhile and satisfying project and a chance to discover the treasures of this corner of Hertfordshire.

Garden designer and RHS Silver-Gilt medal winner Philippa Pearson was awarded Peoples Choice Award for Best Show Garden at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2010. Visit or contact her on 01767 651253

Visit the Rivers Nursery Site and Orchard

The Rivers Nursery site is private land owned by East Herts District Council. Access to the site is by invitation of the District Council as landowner and no public rights of access are implied.

Telephone: 0788 7763258
Location: Entrance through gates at Brook End/The Crest

Apple Day Events

Sunday 2nd Oct 2011
10.30am - 1.30pmcommunity apple picking

Saturday 15th October
Apple Day at the orchard, see website for further details


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