Apprentice House Garden, Cheshire

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Introduction
A 19th-century sanctuary
Progress of the Apprentice House Garden project since 1981
Long-lost varieties
Traditional gardening
A treat for visitors
Organic gardening rules OK
It’s an education
Not only for show – crops in demand
A brief history of Quarry Bank Mill (apprentices’ workplace)
Sources of old varieties grown in the Apprentice House Garden

Apprentice House Garden


Introduction
In a quiet wooded valley just a mile or so from all things modern at Manchester Airport, there’s a fascinating place that’ll transport you back to the turn of the century – the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, that is.

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A 19th-century sanctuary

The garden around the home of apprentices working at the nearby Quarry Bank cotton mill, south of Manchester, is historic for two reasons. Begun in 1981 as one of the first of a number of vegetable sanctuaries proposed by Lawrence Hills (the founder of the organic-growing organisation now known as Garden Organic), it also demonstrates self sufficiency, 19th-century style.

Owned by the National Trust, the garden is now complete with orchard, soft fruit and poultry. Envisaged as what might have been in the 1830s, the garden interests and educates young and old alike.

With no designs or plans surviving (if they ever existed), the garden has been set out in straightforward plots. The emphasis is on common edible plants, especially locally bred and grown varieties, plus plants that cottagers of the time would have either grown or collected from the countryside to supplement their diet, treat illnesses, repel insects or dye cloth.

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Progress of the Apprentice House Garden project since 1981

Dorothy Wilson (head gardener here since December 1999 update: she has now retired) showed us around and explained the background to the garden. ‘The Mill and associated buildings became a museum in 1976, and the director, David Sekers, wanted to re-create a typical worker’s allotment garden of the time, using this space.’

Dorothy continued, ‘The information on the food grown then came from old reports and records that included seed lists, and an inventory of the garden. As a result of David’s friendship with Lawrence Hills, who was not only interested in organic growing but in maintaining old varieties for future gardeners, a vegetable sanctuary was established here.’

When the allotment strip was begun, in 1981, the Apprentice House was tenanted, but a few years later it was able to be restored and opened to the public. At this stage, the whole of the Apprentice House garden was re-designed to create more authentic surroundings. During this period, an organic gardener, the late Pat Brittan, was employed as head gardener, and tackled the research and re-construction with great passion.

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Long-lost varieties

The project was ambitious, with transformation from a mainly ornamental garden to a productive site re-creating the atmosphere of those long-gone days. The detective work proved exciting, especially when identifying various old apple trees in the village gardens. The Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit Identification Service (available to members) proved invaluable in this respect, but was downbeat about sourcing Withington Welter, a well remembered and popular cooking apple from the Cheshire village of Lower Withington. ‘Long lost’, was the answer, but not for that long, as several trees were subsequently found growing locally. Budwood taken from a Styal tree for grafting has resulted in four trees in the Apprentice House garden, including an espalier.

Gooseberries were also a very popular fruit that many cottagers grew competitively for the heaviest berry. These amateur breeders created numerous cultivars that have survived to the present day in the National Collections of gooseberries. Records of the competition winners also survive, so it was possible to select some representative fruit bushes for the garden. And the rhubarb? It had to be Timperley Early, once grown by the acre in the nearby village of Timperley to supply the Manchester markets, and still popular today.

Specific vegetables from the early 1800s have been more difficult to track down, due to general references rather than variety names. And where varieties are mentioned, they haven’t all survived the centuries. So although the Apprentice House is a snapshot of 1830s life, and the fruit, herbs and wild flowers are in keeping with this, the vegetables don’t necessarily date back this far. The cut-off date is 1900, which increases the scope to fill the plots with slightly less historic, but nonetheless interesting, vegetable varieties known to previous kitchen gardeners.

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Traditional gardening

It’s been easier to research gardening methods, using the wealth of gardening journals and publications from the 19th century. Generally, methods haven’t changed that much anyway, only the materials, with our modern array of off-the-shelf pesticides and fertilisers. So Dorothy uses the familiar 4-year rotation to prevent build up of pests and diseases, with lime applied to the brassica bed. Fertility is maintained with organic matter in the form of well-rotted cattle manure from the adjoining farm, composted garden waste and poultry bedding, and leaf mould. Dorothy also feeds plants with blood and bonemeal, plus seaweed meal, although she doubts that this was available here, some distance from the coast.

While not being slaves to authenticity, the spirit of the 1800s is maintained. Compost bins and plant supports are rather rustic, relying on available materials, and, naturally enough for a cotton mill garden, cotton is used for tying up plants and keeping off birds, in preference to synthetic upstarts. But practicalities have to be faced, so the paths are no doubt wider and more durable than originally, in order to cope with many visitors. And working in period clothing is particulary awkward for the women gardeners who find themselves forking through their skirts rather than the soil. The mainly free-draining soil also means lots of watering, which is when the watering cans come out. But Dorothy also admits to resorting to a hosepipe when absolutely essential, especially if dry spells in spring threaten seedlings. ‘I haven’t got a supply of apprentices to carry water, and that’s my excuse’.

It’s possible that the garden was once overseen by the mill-owner’s gardener, and certain that the children provided most of the labour, but nowadays it’s planned and cared for by Dorothy and a dedicated team of half a dozen volunteers. When we visited, Beryl was engrossed in tidying an overgrown area, and Phil was busy barrowing manure.

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A treat for visitors

The garden acts as a waiting room for timed-ticket visits to the Apprentice House, and is also used as part of the living history days laid on for visiting schools. On these days, members of staff take on the roles of the superintendent and his wife, and children sample the apprentice’s domestic life, including the basic food and education. They also work in the garden, either in the main plots or in the apprentice’s own plots. These plots were mentioned in inspectors’ reports as being available for boys (gardening wasn’t girls’ work then) to grow what they liked, although in between mill-work, Apprentice House chores, school and church, it’s difficult to imagine when they could have tended their own plots.

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Organic gardening rules OK

Organic growing methods rule here, so Dorothy is in her element. ‘I first became interested in organic gardening when I had my children. We’ve a responsibility for their health and their future, and I became interested in the food I was providing for them. Organic growing embraces the needs of the soil, ourselves and other life, so is a wholesome idea. I particularly like the education side of this job, especially for those youngsters who have no idea where their food comes from. Some of them really do think food starts off in plastic bags, and don’t realise that carrots are dug out of the ground.’

What about pests and diseases? ‘We get few slugs here, perhaps because most of the ground is free-draining, except for a clayey strip running through the middle of the main vegetable plot. The chickens may have an effect too, although at one point I had to ban them because of them doing more harm than good. Usually I resort to sticks to protect seedbeds and young plants from the chickens and the cats,’ explained Dorothy. ‘Potato blight can also be a problem with some of the varieties we grow, so if it takes hold, we cut the foliage down to the ground and dispose of it, before the disease spreads to the tubers.’

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It’s an education

Whatever she does, Dorothy keeps in mind the main aim of providing an interesting and educational backdrop to the Apprentice House. Hence the scarecrows for fun as well as to deter the pigeons, the explanatory labels by dandelions and other ‘weeds’ so that visitors discover how important they were, the geese in the orchard, not forgetting mousers Lottie, Willow and Wisp (the last two gaining their names when kittens after disappearing for weeks). And there are events such as Apple Day in October to celebrate apples and orchards, highlighting the varieties in Styal, most of which were raised in Cheshire. Unfortunately, themed weeks (such as cookery and housework) are no longer run.

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Not only for show – crops in demand

This is no exhibition garden though. Until recently, the plants grown here were made full use of, with sales helping to finance the garden. ‘We used to supply the restaurant with produce, and it was satisfying walking down to the Mill with my trug of freshly-picked supplies. The chef asked for fruit, vegetables or herbs, depending on the season,’ explained Dorothy. ‘We also sell produce to the visitors, and of course try some ourselves. It’s interesting to compare flavours with modern varieties, and sometimes the tastes come as quite a shock. For example, I grew celtuce one year, which is a type of lettuce grown years ago for its leaves and for its celery-like midrib. But it is incredibly bitter. I wonder how much our tastebuds have changed over the years, because I’ve noticed other things being bitter. Perhaps we’ve got used to mostly bland flavours, or maybe these vegetables were cooked differently to nowadays?’

Some crops are left to run to seed before drying in the attic, ready to sow the following year. Herbs are cut and dried indoors to show visitors how they would be used, for example, to repel bed bugs. And dye plants are grown to show visitors what woad, weld and madder (the sources of blue, yellow and red dyes) look like (they also provided the raw material for harvesting by the participants of textile workshops that were once held at the Mill).

This completeness of purpose pleases Dorothy, who also wonders if she’s gone full circle herself. ‘The records show that one of the apprentices that ran away had the same name as my grandfather. Was he a descendant, and have I returned to my roots?’

Whatever your connections, this place provides an eye-opening introduction to the practice of kitchen gardening, 19th-century style.

Have you any heirloom varieties?

If you have seed saved down the generations, then the Heritage Seed Library at Ryton Organic Gardens in Coventry would be interested to hear from you.

And if you have old gardening books and catalogues that detail varieties of the era, or indeed have local connections and information about cottage gardening and plants for home, health and kitchen in the mid 1800s, then Dorothy would love to hear from you. Just write to her at the Apprentice House.

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A brief history of Quarry Bank Mill (the apprentices’ workplace)

From the 1750s onwards, the industrial revolution was moving workers out of their cottages and into purpose-built places of work, with the cotton industry at the forefront of change. Entrepreneur Samuel Greg saw the potential for water power in the Bollin Valley, and Quarry Bank Mill was established in 1784. Later, in the 1820s, terraced houses, complete with allotment gardens, were built in Styal village for the workers. For his young pauper workers (so-called apprentices) harvested from the workhouse, he built an apprentice house. Up to 100 youngsters, aged nine and upwards, were housed here under the eyes of a superintendent and his wife.

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Sources of old varieties grown in the Apprentice House Garden

In order to regulate the seed trade in Britain, in particular the problem of synonyms and dubious claims about crop yields, laws were introduced to trial all crop cultivars (cultivar = cultivated variety) and compare their characteristics. Distinct cultivars were placed on a list, and only those on the list could be sold. Originally the testing and listing was free to seed companies, but gradually costs crept in, and up, effectively reducing the cultivars submitted to a limited number of commercially viable ones. So certain cultivars that small-scale growers and gardeners had favoured, perhaps due to flavour, long harvesting period, or suitability to local soil and weather conditions, were lost.

Although a vegetable gene bank exists, this doesn’t provide access to amateur gardeners, so Lawrence Hills (the founder of Garden Organic, an association for nurturing natural growing methods before they were forgotten, and research new techniques) came up with an ingenious solution. It was only illegal to sell unlisted cultivars, not give them away, so why not have a seed library? The Heritage Seed Library was born, made up of many cultivars no longer on sale, with a catalogue for library members to dip into. Old seed can die, so it’s important to keep sowing, growing and harvesting to keep the cultivar alive for future generations. To maintain supplies, crops for seed saving are grown by Garden Organic and by Seed Guardians around the country.

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Commercial suppliers of old varieties:

Thomas Etty, Somerset (heritage seedsman and bulb merchant)
Tel: 01963 359202

Organic Gardening Catalogue, Chase Organics, Surrey (organically grown, sundries, discount for Garden Organic and RHS members)
Tel: 01932 253666

Edwin Tucker & Sons Ltd, Devon (seeds and seed potatoes)
Tel: 01364 652233

12. Visiting details for the Apprentice House Garden

The Apprentice House Garden is open at the same times as the Apprentice House (and the Mill itself). If you want to see the Apprentice House itself, there are guided tours with timed tickets only, available from the ticket office (early arrival advised). However, visits to its garden are free (don’t confuse this garden with the ornamental garden associated with the mill-owner’s house – there is an admission charge for this garden). Discounted combined rail, bus and entry tickets are available – enquire at your local station.

For opening times and admission fees, tel: 01625 527468 or see Quarry Bank Mill’s website, although the Apprentice House Garden is not always given prominence.

For lots more details, contact 

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