Glimpses of Girton: The Orchard

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A sunny Sunday morning breakfast in the Orchard in 1916. None of the students have been identified. The photographer is unknown but the image comes from an album belonging to Nelly Margaret Scott, who came up to Girton in 1915, and later became Lady Walton. Archive reference: GCPH 10/8/14.

Elizabeth Welsh, Mistress of Girton from 1885-1903, is credited with the first planting of an orchard at Girton. Tradition has it that she climbed The Tower in order to survey the College grounds and plan the layout of new gardens, including the orchard, which were eventually completed in 1893. Elizabeth Welsh’s orchard was filled with many different varieties of fruit trees. It soon became an important part of College life. Photographs held by the Archive show groups of students having a Sunday morning breakfast in the Orchard in 1916 (archive reference: GCPH 10/8/14) and afternoon tea in 1917 (archive reference: GCPH 10/8/50).

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Students sit under the trees in the Orchard enjoying a tea party in 1917. The students are unidentified. Archive reference: GCPH 10/8/50.

By the 1930s, many of the trees in the orchard were ageing: a report by the Garden Committee in 1934 indicates that several trees had to be removed due to disease (archive reference: GCAR 10/1/1/8). Fortunately, Chrystabel Procter came to Girton as Garden Steward in 1932 and did much to revitalise the College grounds during her tenure. Her photograph album, containing beautiful shots of the College grounds throughout the seasons, survives in the Archive (archive reference: GCPH 10/20).

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Three gardeners stand in the Orchard with a handcart and holding basketfuls of fruit. The photograph was taken by Chrystabel Procter in the Autumn of 1937. The gardeners were identified by David Whitehead, Head Groundsman at Girton until 1977, as 'Reacher [or Reader]’, ‘W Cole [or Coe]’, and ‘WW [or EM] Collery'. Archive reference: GCPH 10/20/33.

A photograph dating to the Autumn of 1937,  taken by Chrystabel Procter, captures the annual bounty produced by the orchard as three gardeners pose with basketfuls of ripe fruit (archive reference: GCPH 10/20/33). In 1943, Girton’s orchard and gardens inspired a student to pen a sonnet, which was published in the Easter term issue of the Girton Review, the College magazine (archive reference: GCCP 2/1/3).

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The apple harvest stored on wooden shelves in the Autumn of 1937. The photograph was taken by Chrystabel Procter. David Whitehead, Head Groundsman at Girton, identified the location as the top floor of Grange Cottage . Archive reference: 10/20/36.

The 1940s also saw the planting of the New Orchard behind Grange Cottage, leading to Elizabeth Welsh’s original orchard becoming known as the Old Orchard. Both orchards flourished under the care of William Stringer, who spent several decades tending Girton’s gardens, eventually becoming Head Gardener. Mr Stringer lists the many apple varieties planted in New Orchard in 1948 in his booklet,  A Garden Walk, a copy of which is held in the Archive (archive reference: GCAR 10/5/3).

 

The orchards were William Stringer’s pride and joy. He proudly exhibited Girton’s apples at fairs and shows around the county, regularly winning prizes throughout the 1960s and 70s, and establishing the fame of Girton’s orchards. A plan of the College made for the 1967 prospectus shows the Old Orchard in this period (archive reference: GCAR 10/3/7).  A newspaper article from The Times dated November 1979, preserved in Girton Archive (archive reference: GCAR 10/5/2), declares that “Girton College virtually swept the board in the late apple and pear competition, taking many of the first prizes!”

 

The “Blenheim Orange” was one of the most successful of the prize-winning apple varieties found in the orchard. Stephen Beasley, who was Head Gardener in the 1980s, writes in his A Short History of the Orchards (archive reference: GCAR 10/5/5) that the College’s “Blenheim Orange” trees are reputed to have been purchased directly from Woodstock, the original source of the apple variety (archive reference: GCAR 10/5/3). By the 1980s, they were well over 90 years old!

 

The College’s Garden Committee made a commitment to conserve the Old Orchard in the 1980s and revitalise the New Orchard. As part of this, Stephen Beasley introduced a wildflower meadow among the roots of the trees in Old Orchard. A list of seeds purchased for the meadow in 1983 gives a sense of the variety of flowers which were planned, including the well-named “Crested dog’s tail grass”, “Cat’s ear”, “Goat’s-beard” and “Fleabane” (archive reference: GCAR 10/3/6). The Archive also holds plans and planting lists from 1983 for New Orchard, also carried out under Stephen Beasley’s stewardship, showing the diversity of trees at Girton (archive reference: GCAR 10/3/5).

 

Girton’s orchards continue to flourish to this day. The spring blossom and autumn bounty of the trees provide a rich legacy for the many expert hands that have tended the orchards for well over a hundred years. 


Published: 23 June 2017