In summer 2010, the Occupational Therapy Department at Bethlem Royal Hospital, southeast London, began a collaborative project with the London Orchard Project (now The Orchard Project) with the aim of rejuvenating the psychiatric hospital’s old orchard. The aim was to engage staff and service users in the project to restore the trees and to make better use of the fruit in occupational therapy cooking groups and in the hospital canteen. The project was initiated under the leadership of head occupational therapist Peter O’Hare, and Bethlem has now joined the NHS Forest.

The old orchard beside the Denis Hill Unit had become completely overgrown and impenetrable, so the first step required was the clearing of the undergrowth. This was ably carried out by the Bethlem estates gardeners under Brian Ormond to give access to the area. Work began in earnest in November 2010 with practical workshops for service users and staff on how to renovate old apple trees. Four full-day workshops were run over the winter by apple expert, Bob Lever. By Christmas the old orchard had been cleared, the trees renovated and it began to look like a proper orchard once again.

Volunteers restoring Bethlem's orchard
Volunteers restoring the heritage orchard at Bethlem Royal Hospital. Photo: Bethlem Royal Hospital. All rights reserved.

In spring 2011, further restoration work was done and some new trees were planted to replace those that had died. New varieties were also grafted on to existing trees to increase the range of apples available in the orchard. Lots of apple blossom gave a good indication of the likely crop to come. In summer, the fruits started appearing and staff began looking forward to their first proper harvest. As spring had arrived so early this year, the apples ripened earlier than normal and the London Orchard Project staff returned to help with harvesting. Picking began in August and continued through September and October. A wide number of service users, staff and volunteers were involved in the harvesting activities.   

20 September 2011 was the first Bethlem Apple Harvest Day. Bob Lever returned to run guided tours of the orchards and identify all the varieties now growing on site. A dozen varieties were identified which wonderful names such as Laxton’s Fortune and Lane’s Prince Albert. The day also included pressing apples for fresh juice complemented by all sorts of apple dishes freshly baked in the occupational therapy kitchen. 

The apples are now used in the occupational therapy kitchen at Bethlem Royal Hospital, with excess fruit available for staff to buy. The Bramleys can be stored for many months and it is hoped they will be reintroduced into the staff canteen. Some surplus has also gone to FareShare, a charity which redistributes surplus food to people in need.

The project has been a great success and was featured in the Sunday Times. Bethlem Royal Hospital hopes to continue its collaboration with the London Orchard Project into the future, as the orchard will need continued care to ensure the trees remain healthy and provide an excellent crop for many years to come.

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