I am indebted to Alice for her help in producing this ‘history’. The following information on the farm is taken from research she did on the farm with help from her parents, Ken & Rachel Garner. The photographs are from their own personal collection and I am very grateful for their permission to use them
Sarah Mead, May 2011
The Fruit Farm, Over, Cambridgeshire
The land on which The Fruit Farm stands was purchased in 1908 by Roger Cole Esq., of St Ives, Cambridgeshire. Amounting to 61 acres and lying between the village of Over and Willingham the land was planted with fruit trees and was a working fruit farm until 1991 when the remaining trees were grubbed-up and the land turned over to arable land and pasture.
1908 – 1917
In 1910 The Bungalow was built at the northern end of the plot for owner Roger Cole to live in (along with a maid) when he was visiting the farm, although initially he didn’t stay there until 1912. The plot had no services laid on and so they relied on water from a well and also from rainwater collected in butts. Connection to the water mains was not made until 1963.
The Bungalow had no electricity until 1950 and until that time the main rooms were lit by paraffin lamps and the bedrooms by candles.
The roadways on the land were unmade and so the road to The Bungalow was muddy and rutted by the horses and carts that made deliveries there.
Roger Cole was a wealthy man who owned a fruit & vegetable stall at Smithfield Market in London in addition to The Fruit Farm. He regularly travelled to Manchester where the bulk of his business dealings were. In Over, he employed a local boy, Walter Garner (12 years of age when he first started), to help on the farm. In addition to Walter, Roger Cole hired-in up to 12 additional men during the summer months.
The tree rows (ninety trees to a row) were dug by hand. Horses were used to pull the ploughs and cultivators. The trees were sprayed using a horse-drawn, 60 gallon sprayer. The sprayer was operated by two men, one of the labourers would push the sprayer’s pump handle up and down and the other would hold the spraying lance.
When the fruit was ready to be picked it was put into ‘cobs’ (hand-made baskets). The ‘cobs’ were collected up by horse and cart. The fruit was then packed into baskets with tight fitting lids, known as ‘sieves’. It was not until many years later that the cold-stores were built, though the fruit could be stored temporarily in one of the outdoor apple pits, and so the fruit was taken as soon as possible by horse and cart to Swavesey railway station from where it was transported to markets in northern England (Derby, Newcastle, Manchester & Liverpool).
In 1918 Walter Garner married Alice Turner. The Bungalow became their home (where they lived without a maid) and Walter continued working and running the farm.
In 1925 the first Fruit Show was set up at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge. A larger show was held at Wisbech. These shows were held in the early autumn of each year and were open for showing packs of apples and pears which were packed in ‘sieves’ and grape barrels.
In 1931 Walter came first in the show for the Best Kept Orchard. Over the years he won 12 trophies for the best fruit. During WWII the shows were not held. After the war the shows were held for five more years, the last one being held in 1950.
Walter and Alice’s son Ken was born in 1931. After passing the school certificate aged 16 at The Cambridge County High School for Boys, Ken decided that he wanted to work on the farm with his father. When he started work there his wage was three pounds & ten shillings a week.
During the late 1940s – early 1950s new farming methods were introduced to the farm. The old tractors were replaced by modern, more powerful ones and grass was sown between the tree rows to make fruit picking easier (it was also quicker to cut the grass rather than to plough the land).
In 1950 electricity was installed in the bungalow and the first item which ran by electricity was an electric cooker.
Roger Cole died in 1953 and, as he had no next of kin, the farm was put up for sale. Walter, Alice and Ken decided to buy the farm and together formed the partnership of W. Garner & Son.
In 1954 the first cold-store, able to store 50 tonnes of fruit, was built. At that time six acres of land was given over to growing flowers such as Pyrethrums and Peonies. The idea behind growing both fruit and flowers was to create a regular income throughout the year. The cold-store contributed to this plan as it enabled fruit to be stored for up to six months.
1960, the year Ken married his wife Rachel, was a very wet year and due to the water logging of part of the land 30 acres of trees were lost. This water logging occurred because the land was originally drained by hand. The pipes were small with no porous layer on the top which meant that the soil filtered straight through the pipes thus blocking the drains. The dead trees were pulled up. In 1961 five miles of drains were put in by machines. The drains were bigger and more efficient so would last longer than the original ones. This greatly improved the fertility of the soil.
Having drained the land, wheat was grown for one year and then the land was planted back to new varieties of top fruit. As the fruit trees got older and started to produce more fruit the acreage of flowers was decreased, with the result that less regular and casual labour was required.
Ken & Rachel’s daughter, Alice, was born a few years later.
1973 to 1981
Eventually, in 1979, due to the decline of the fruit canning industry and wholesale markets, 20 acres of trees – roughly one third of the farm – were ‘grubbed up’ (removed) and replaced by arable crops. The apple trees were reduced to just three types: Bramley’s, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Chivers Delight. All the remaining trees were pruned so that no ladders needed to be used to harvest the fruit which cut down on time and labour.
1982 – present day
The remaining trees were farmed until 1991 when, with the exception of 6 Victoria plum trees and 2 Bramley apple trees, they were grubbed-up. Ken & Rachel kept 5 acres of land as pasture around The Bungalow, and the remaining 56 acres were leased out to a local arable farmer.
Finally, in 2010 Ken & Rachel decided it was time to retire and to sell The Fruit Farm. The land and buildings were bought by Steve & Sarah Mead from nearby St Ives. Their plan is to restore the orchard and in addition to plant other cropping trees. Watch this space!