Shipton Gorge Heritage first project was the purchase of a quarter acre of derelict land below the Church in the centre of the village. This land was once an old apple orchard but had become overgrown and unmanaged over a number of years. As an open space it allows the Parish Church of St Martin’s, which stands on a hill, to be viewed from the main street of the village. It has a public footpath leading from Brook Street to the Church and residents felt it was important that the view be retained for the benefit of the residents and the public. The land had been the subject of two contentious applications for development over the preceding 20 years. The community felt strongly that the land should be preserved as an open area, so when it became available for purchase in 2006, villagers raised the purchase price and were able to acquire it.
The village community had tried to purchase this land in the past and there had been a desire for the village to own it for many years. When the land came onto the market it was the catalyst for the formation of Shipton Gorge Ltd, as a body was needed to hold the land on the village’s behalf in perpetuity. As a result, The Orchard is owned by the community through the charity.
A small group of residents had initially got together to see if it was feasible to raise the funds to purchase the land for the community and general support grew for the project over the months. This enabled the land to be purchased and the company formed to own it on behalf of the community. Support came in the form of donations, loans, grants, offers of help with maintenance, research into its past use, etc. Those involved include both full-time and part-time residents.
The village hall was packed at the first public meeting about the project and residents voiced a great deal of support, including backing from the chairman of the Parish Council and the rector of St. Martin’s Church, which adjoins the land. Residents were asked how they would like to see the land used for the future and the idea of restoring the land as an orchard, with old varieties of apples, had the overwhelming support of villagers, as historical records showed that it had been an apple orchard for at least 100 years until the 1940s.
In 2006/7 the land was cleared and re-seeded with grass. In 2008 the first apple trees were planted, a local “Dorset” style gate erected, a dog waste bin put in and further tree planting took place in 2009. With advice and help from the Dorset Wildlife Fund, a conservation plan was put in place to ensure the land attracted wildlife and native wild plants were established on the lower and upper borders of the land. Supporters carried out research into the history of the land, with old documents, photographs and letters being collated as a record for the future. These are displayed at events and kept for posterity.
Through the hard work of villagers and supporters the land is almost fully restored as an orchard and the first apples appeared on the trees in 2009. Final planting of trees is due to take place in the winter of 2010/11.
The success of this project has ensured that the view of the Church from the main street of the village is preserved and the land is an open area for residents and visitors to enjoy. In the 2009 Village Appraisal nearly 50% of respondents said they used The Orchard regularly for walking and recreation, which is a great measure of its success as a village amenity. Importantly also, the future use of the land will always be in accordance with the wishes of residents and it now cannot be developed or used in any way that village residents themselves do not want.
Maintenance of the orchard is an ongoing responsibility, and for a small village of little more than 200 properties, this will be a commitment for the future that will require continual fund-raising.