Back in the late 90’s, what would become the Community Orchard of around 0.35 hectares, once occupied by Stanner House (demolished in the 1970’s), was little more than a tangle of brambles and undergrowth. A group of four elder villagers, Tony Tynan, Bob Mather, Gordon McKenzie and Joan Knight hatched a plan to turn this scrubland into a Community Orchard, as a Millennium project to be completed before the end of 2000.
Having sought majority approval from other residents, the ‘Orchard team’ set about obtaining a lease from Gateshead Council, surveying the site (including soil sampling), and most importantly, acquiring funding for the estimated cost of nearly £6,000. A friendly Environment Agency officer pointed the Orchard team in the direction of Help the Aged (now Age UK) which had a pot of money from the Millennium Commission specifically for community projects aimed at older people. A grant was awarded and added to money from a local landfill scheme – the project was off the ground.
Once perimeter fencing was in place, two Tamworth pigs, to be followed by Kentish Blacks, were loaned from Bill Quay Community Farm to clear the land of undergrowth. They effectively ploughed, weeded and fertilised the ground and proved very popular with the villagers; Bob Mather in particular gave much of his time tending to them. The late summer of 1999 was hot and there was concern that the pigs were overheating. A request to the local fire brigade led to a fire tender arriving and firemen enthusiastically provided a muddy wallow for the hard working, ground clearing pigs from a nearby hydrant. This feel-good story even made it to the TV news.
Having done their work, the pigs went away and contractors moved in with machinery to landscape the site and dig a central path trench, before people from the village de-stoned the ground prior to planting in March 2000. Around 18 varieties of apple were planted, chosen for their suitability for the area but not for local provenance. Cordons and espaliers have also been grown along the fence lines. Some blackcurrants and crab apples were added to give additional variety and colour.
The success of the Orchard project lay with the enthusiasm, not just of the Orchard team, but of the many residents of Clara Vale who got behind the scheme and took part in the regeneration of this disused land into a community resource. Tony Tynan, one of the organisers at the time, commented that “the idea had cut across all the various interest and age groups in the village. Virtual strangers suddenly became friends.”