Perched on top of one of the southernmost ridges of the Chiltern hills, Flackwell Heath enjoys superb views on three sides; to the south over the Thames valley to the South Downs far beyond, and to the east and north over the Wye valley curving round from Wycombe through Wooburn to Bourne End.
Unlike these more ancient towns and villages, Flackwell Heath is modern, most of its houses dating back only to the post-war housing boom of the 1950s and '60s. Well into the twentieth century, Flackwell Heath comprised four distinct communities at Northern Woods, Sedgmoor, the Common, and Heath End. These settlements were separated by a patchwork of fields, meadows and cherry orchards.
The wild cherry, or gean (Prunus avium) is a native and well known tree in most Chiltern woods. It is thought that its cultivation as a fruit tree began around the beginning of the eighteenth century, and for two hundred years orchards flourished in this area. Originally the trees would have been native cherries, but as the techniques of grafting and budding were perfected, many cultivated variants growing on wild cherry rootstock were developed. These often had colourful names, such as Frognoor, Bigaroo, Blackheart, Mirella, Huny, River, Bastard Black, Reynold Heart, Casher, Nap.
The cherry industry was important to several Chiltern villages, for example Prestwood and Holmer Green. Whereas these two villages tended to have larger, commercial orchards, it was Flackwell Heath with its prettier mosaic of smaller fields and meadows that seems to have been generally regarded as the queen of the Chiltern cherry villages.
There were two main events that marked the cherry season. On Cherry Sunday, the Sunday in April that coincided most closely with the peak of the cherry blossom, visitors from Wycombe and surrounding villages would pack Flackwell Heath's narrow country lanes to admire the trees, before most likely fortifying themselves in one or other of the local pubs before the long walk back home again. To mark the completion of the cherry picking season in July there was the Cherry Fair, an occasion of revelry and celebration.
It is known that this was an established feature by 1788, because there still exists the record of a sermon preached by a visiting non-conformist minister that year denouncing the locals for their "vanity, riot, profaneness and sabbath-breaking" during the cherry season. With the demise of the orchards the Cherry Fair lapsed, but was revived in 2005 as Flackwell Heath village carnival and fete, and has been held every July since then.
Most local people would be involved in the cherry picking in one way or another. Men would take official or unofficial leave from their regular employment for a couple of weeks, as for this period an experienced cherry picker could earn two or three times the wage of a farm labourer or mill worker. Ladders up to 30 feet tall and with a wide base for stability were manipulated with ease and skill to reach the tops of the trees. Many children (playing truant?) would earn a few pence as "bird starvers", vying with each other to devise and construct rattles and other apparatus that would make as much noise as possible to try to scare blackbirds and starlings away from the rapidly ripening crop.
The last Flackwell Heath cherry orchard was planted in 1889, and none exists today, their sites having all been built on. Flackwell Heath's long cherry history is commemorated only in a few street names and in the name of "The Cherry Tree" pub in the village centre. The cherry is not a very long lived tree, typically around 120 years, so even if any of the original orchard trees survived the builders' bulldozers 50 years ago they are probably no longer alive today. None has been positively identified in the village (but if you know of one, please let the project know).
The tree pictured here is an old wild cherry, one of several growing in a hedgerow by the golf course. It is probably around 100 years old, and has a girth of 1.90m.
Sadly there is nothing left of these orchards to see.
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