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Apprentice House Garden, Quarry Bank Mill, British Gardens

copyright (c) Alec & Val Scaresbrook

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.

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.

Dorothy Wilson, head gardener here since December 1999, 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.'

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.

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.

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
(contact details at the end).

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 the her at the Apprentice
House.

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