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It Starts With Apples

The story starts and continues with apples. Peace Oak stemmed from Green TEA, Transition Eynsham Area, which is another CAG based here. When we got going, we decided focusing on apples was a good way of involving the community. Eynsham was an apple-growing area, and there was a famous orchard run by the Wasty family, between the 1930s and ‘50s, that sort of time. They developed a number of Eynsham varieties. The apples were a bit like a sort of Trojan horse, a way of getting in to do other things. So Green TEA started planting new trees around the village, out along the bridleways and footpaths, and our annual event focused around an apple festival.

Through that, we met Jonathan Ferrier, who was living in the big house there. We have apple enthusiasm in common. He started talking about his land here, wanting to make it more socially useful. He was interested, initially, in finding people who'd like to cultivate some of it. So six or seven people were invited to come and have growing plots. That group worked really well, and then in 2017, Jonathan said that he had the intention of handing this land over for community use. He would move into the stable cottage, and hand the big house and the land over to his son. He was applying for planning permission for a strip of housing, to get some money so he could give away this other parcel of land for an orchard. He was hoping we would be able to work at bringing back the old varieties, plant more and more, and discover more apple trees. And that’s what we've done.

Jonathan wanted to give the land to an organisation, so Peace Oak actually owns this land. Therefore we needed to be separate from Green TEA, but there's a lot of overlap in terms of the people, our values and what we’re trying to do. So Peace Oak as an organisation set up in 2017. We went to see a couple of other CAG projects, Barracks Lane, and Stone Hill and a couple of others. We very much used the CAG network to help inform how we were going to go forward. In December 2017, we joined the CAG network, having set ourselves up, got our constitution and those kinds of things. Our first public event was in January 2018, a wassailing event – we have a very active Morris Group here in Eynsham. The idea is that you're enticing the good spirits to give you a good harvest of apples. So the first thing we did was to have the Morris with all and sundry, out here on an evening in midwinter. You drive out the spirits with noise, and then you entice the good spirits back in with cider and bread. It was a whale of a time, it was really good!

Around that time, again through Green TEA, we met Frank Wasty, an elderly gentleman who was the grandson of the original family. He had quite a lot of the Wasty apples still. So we said, ‘Would you like to give them to Peace Oak? We’ll be able to put them into a secure field and look after them, and continue with grafting and creating more.’ He was over the moon about that. He donated his collection of trees, beautifully grafted and well looked after and much more advanced. Some of them are here – 12 were varieties that we hadn't previously got. That became the focus for our official opening later that year. Frank, who by now was not very well, came and cut the ribbon. It absolutely tipped it down! We have photos of 30 or 40 people down there with umbrellas.

The first achievement was to get the land given to us in this amazing way, and then also to be able to set up the first sort of repository, or protective place for the apple trees. What we also had of course was an active group of people who were local growers, on the first plots that were donated. What's happened here over time is new things grow: new ways of involving people and new ways of inviting people in to enjoy it. Back in 2018, we began grafting. We had our first pruning training from Jonathan. We had an Easter egg painting and an egg hunt. We made a link with the Scouts, we started the early work on the compost loo, we recruited more plot holders, we had a midsummer party and barbecue, and then we had the formal opening. We've had four events each year, there's been a little subcommittee organising them. Andy came with his willow working. He’s very active, teaching people, and now we've got a willow fence around our new pond, and what we're calling the cathedral – which was a temporary structure, but seems to be becoming permanent by default! Our latest thing is Craft Club, which meets on Thursdays. They light a fire at the end of the evening and sit round it. It's all to do with using natural materials and sharing ideas about how you might, you know, weave something or whittle something. People just say, ‘I'd like to do that,’ and make it happen. We do have a committee of Trustees, we try and make sure that everything is discussed and agreed, but there's an energy about the people around us.

The place is named for the Peace Oak. That tree is beautiful – it’s huge, it's magnificent. It’s like an iconic picture of a tree. It was planted after the Armistice by the family who was currently living here. There’s a plaque on it, reading ‘Peace Oak, 1919.’ There are various stories, and we're not quite sure what the truth is, but we know that the son of the family was badly injured in the war. It’s a beautiful tree and it's got a lovely kind of symbolism about it. It's been looking after its own biodiversity and natural environment for 100 years. It feels like that's what we're doing, too, so for the tree's 100th birthday, we decided to have another party. That was October 2019, again a big bash with lots of things on show, and we planted another tree to last 100 years - a sweet chestnut.

In 2020 we started the year with a big bounce. We had the wassailing, we had a bird box bash, and we had a hedgehog talk in the village, which was packed. We had a plan for the year, with the usual punctuation marks of Easter, Midsummer and Autumn. And we cancelled one after the other after the other because of Covid, so we didn't have any. But, during that year, in ones and twos, or occasionally six, we managed to finish the pond, put the willow around the pond, finish putting in the grapevines. In addition to the Covid, we had a late frost, and then a drought, so some of our things had quite a tough year, we lost some of the vines. And we had to do some extra watering of the trees. The water ran out, the pond was dry, and out of that came a very Peace Oakey response: ‘Let's see if we can dig a well.’ Exploration started, we found water, we applied to TOE (Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment) for a grant, and now it’s finished. The well has a solar-powered pump, and it’s working, there's water!

We also went from not having a pond at all to having a fairly sizable one. It was only filled with water sort of this time last year, and we're already seeing the insects that come in, the dragonflies, the frogs. It's created a whole different area of biodiversity that wouldn't have been here before. We also released some stag beetle larvae here, and they were spotted because one went into the neighbour's bedroom. We were out looking at the time of year when they fly, and a woman in one of the nearby houses said, ‘Oh yeah, we had one of those in the house, it was on my son's pillow!’

Eynsham is being threatened or challenged all around, the amount of development in the area is disproportionate. But the Peace Oak Orchard has now got village green status in the local plan, and it belongs to the charity, which is not allowed to do anything with it apart from money for its original purposes. So this is actually the most protected bit of green space for miles around! This place has moved from being a lovely spot in the village, but which belonged to one family alone, to something that is for all our members, and for the community as a whole. That creates a huge sense of achievement. It required the opportunity of being given the land in the first place, of course. If we were starting from scratch creating a community orchard, we might have ended up with something much smaller, less ambitious, but this sudden opportunity enabled us to think big from the start. So it's the opportunity, but then also the people. The people who had the ambition, the vision, and got on with it. It required a bit of courage. But there's something special about that kind of custodianship, looking after something, taking it all for the long term. That tree's been there for 100 years, and this place will be here in 100 years, we really hope.

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