Bethlem Royal Hospital is a psychiatric hospital near Beckenham, in southeast London’s leafy suburbs, and part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM). It was founded in central London in the 13th century and moved to its current site in the 1930s; an orchard was planted in its extensive grounds in the following decade, when city dwellers were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’. As time went on the orchard fell into disuse and was slowly swallowed up by the encroaching woodland.

Buried treasure

More than 60 years later, someone spotted an apple peeking out from impenetrable brambles and realised what might be hidden there. This is when the Orchard Project (previously the London Orchard Project) got involved, in collaboration with the hospital’s Occupational Therapy department. In 2010, the estates’ gardeners began clearing away the dense undergrowth, while the Orchard Project’s apple expert Bob Lever ran full-day workshops for staff and service users on how to restore old trees. By Christmas, the site finally resembled an orchard again; the trees standing in neat lines, with dead or sickly branches pruned back.

Volunteers restoring Bethlem's orchard
Volunteers restoring the heritage orchard at Bethlem Royal Hospital. Photo: Bethlem Royal Hospital. All rights reserved.
Preserves made with fruit from the Bethlem orchard
Preserves made with fruit from the Bethlem orchard. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The hard work quickly paid off as the trees began to blossom and bear fruit. As the apples ripened, Lever identified several varieties and new strains were grafted on to increase the range. Bethlem held its first Apple Harvest Day in September 2011, joined by service users, staff and local volunteers. Lever ran orchard tours, volunteers harvested and juiced the fruit, and the cooking apples were turned into tasty baked goods in the OT kitchen. The site now has its own apple press, built by service users in the woodwork studio, to squeeze pulped fruit into juice.

New apple trees have been planted to replace those that could not be saved, and to lengthen the harvest with different varieties. The fruiting season – which now includes plums and greengages – lasts from August to November. The orchards at Bethlem span some two acres; the smaller site of 55 trees includes Monarch cooking apples, Cox’s orange pippins, Discovery and Laxton’s, amongst others. There are 150 trees in the larger orchard, mostly Bramley’s which are used in the kitchen, but other apple varieties here include the golden-coloured Pitmason pineapple, named for its unusual tropical flavour.

The orchard plays a key role in occupational therapy at Bethlem. There are multiple uses for the apples: some are cooked in the OT kitchen, others are juiced, and some are dried and packaged, to be sold as part of veg boxes and in the Bethlem Gallery shop. There are jars of apple sauce alongside the jams and preserves made from fruit from the Walled Garden, also sold to the local community. The hospital still works closely with the Orchard Project, who turn surplus fruit into ‘London Apple Juice’ with a longer shelf life, and have even used it to produce craft cider.

Benefits for all

The orchards themselves are tranquil spaces, offering pleasant shade in summer, and close enough to the hospital buildings to provide an easy spot for staff to sit for a brief break, while still feeling secluded.

Importantly, the links built with the local community through these activities have helped break down the stigma attached to the psychiatric hospital and its patients. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the hospital’s grounds were open to the public, including its orchard, meadows and woodland, via waymarked walking trails. There is recognition that Bethlem’s orchard and wider green spaces can benefit the mental and physical health of all.

Peter O’Hare, SLaM’s Head of Occupational Therapy, has been the driving force behind the orchard and other green space initiatives on the site. He acknowledges that finding funding is a continual challenge – particularly for ongoing work such as the orchard, rather than higher profile ‘one off’ projects – but that this can foster greater engagement with outside organisations.

We constantly have to keep looking for other donations or other collaborations, it’s an ongoing issue. But there are some positives that come with that, because we’ve had to publicise ourselves and [ensure] that people know about us… So that has helped spread the word.

Peter O’Hare Head of Occupational Therapy, SLaM

Two garden instructors, each employed four days a week, spend most of their time in Bethlem’s Walled Garden, but also look after the orchard and organise the production of preserves and dried fruit in the OT Kitchen. The Orchard Project supplies volunteers and assists with maintenance tasks through the year.

Bethlem’s traditional orchards are wonderful for wildlife. Apple and pear trees don’t take as long as other trees to become ‘veteran trees’ meaning they hollow out and become covered with lichen and moss, providing a valuable habitat for fungi, birds and insects, including endangered species.

Bethlem’s Orchard Trail leaflet

A natural haven

Although the trees stand in rigid rows and are surrounded by neatly trimmed lawns, the orchard bursts with unruly biodiversity. With most trees well over half a century old, their gnarled bark is covered in lichen and fungus, providing a haven for bugs. Some trunks are punctured with woodpecker holes, and you’re bound to spot a noisy south London parakeet swooping out from the branches.

More than 60 percent of the UK’s orchards have been lost since the 1960s, particularly in rapidly growing suburban areas, where trees were cleared to make way for housing.  Hospital estates such as Bethlem are one of the last bastions of these traditional orchards, and can play a significant role in preserving them.

Bethlem Royal Hospital is a psychiatric hospital near Beckenham, in southeast London’s leafy suburbs, and part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM). It was founded in central London in the 13th century and moved to its current site in the 1930s; an orchard was planted in its extensive grounds in the following decade, when city dwellers were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’. As time went on the orchard fell into disuse and was slowly swallowed up by the encroaching woodland.

Buried treasure

More than 60 years later, someone spotted an apple peeking out from impenetrable brambles and realised what might be hidden there. This is when the Orchard Project (previously the London Orchard Project) got involved, in collaboration with the hospital’s Occupational Therapy department. In 2010, the estates’ gardeners began clearing away the dense undergrowth, while the Orchard Project’s apple expert Bob Lever ran full-day workshops for staff and service users on how to restore old trees. By Christmas, the site finally resembled an orchard again; the trees standing in neat lines, with dead or sickly branches pruned back.

The hard work quickly paid off as the trees began to blossom and bear fruit. As the apples ripened, Lever identified several varieties and new strains were grafted on to increase the range. Bethlem held its first Apple Harvest Day in September 2011, joined by service users, staff and local volunteers. Lever ran orchard tours, volunteers harvested and juiced the fruit, and the cooking apples were turned into tasty baked goods in the OT kitchen. The site now has its own apple press, built by service users in the woodwork studio, to squeeze pulped fruit into juice.

Volunteers restoring the heritage orchard at Bethlem Royal Hospital. Photo: Bethlem Royal Hospital
Volunteers restoring the heritage orchard at Bethlem Royal Hospital. Photo: Bethlem Royal Hospital. All rights reserved.
The apple press at Bethlem Royal Hospital
The apple press at Bethlem Royal Hospital. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

New apple trees have been planted to replace those that could not be saved, and to lengthen the harvest with different varieties. The fruiting season – which now includes plums and greengages – lasts from August to November. The orchards at Bethlem span some two acres; the smaller site of 55 trees includes Monarch cooking apples, Cox’s orange pippins, Discovery and Laxton’s, amongst others. There are 150 trees in the larger orchard, mostly Bramley’s which are used in the kitchen, but other apple varieties here include the golden-coloured Pitmason pineapple, named for its unusual tropical flavour.

Benefits for all

The orchard plays a key role in occupational therapy at Bethlem. There are multiple uses for the apples: some are cooked in the OT kitchen, others are juiced, and some are dried and packaged, to be sold as part of veg boxes and in the Bethlem Gallery shop. There are jars of apple sauce alongside the jams and preserves made from fruit from the Walled Garden, also sold to the local community. The hospital still works closely with the Orchard Project, who turn surplus fruit into ‘London Apple Juice’ with a longer shelf life, and have even used it to produce craft cider.

The orchards themselves are tranquil spaces, offering pleasant shade in summer, and close enough to the hospital buildings to provide an easy spot for staff to sit for a brief break, while still feeling secluded.

Apples on a tree in Bethlem Royal Hospital's orchard
Apples on a tree in Bethlem Royal Hospital’s orchard. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Orchard demonstration session at Bethlem Royal Hospital
Orchard demonstration session at Bethlem Royal Hospital. Photo: Bethlem Royal Hospital

Importantly, the links built with the local community through these activities have helped break down the stigma attached to the psychiatric hospital and its patients. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the hospital’s grounds were open to the public, including its orchard, meadows and woodland, via waymarked walking trails. There is recognition that Bethlem’s orchard and wider green spaces can benefit the mental and physical health of all.

Peter O’Hare, SLaM’s Head of Occupational Therapy, has been the driving force behind the orchard and other green space initiatives on the site. He acknowledges that finding funding is a continual challenge – particularly for ongoing work such as the orchard, rather than higher profile ‘one off’ projects – but that this can foster greater engagement with outside organisations.

We constantly have to keep looking for other donations or other collaborations, it’s an ongoing issue. But there are some positives that come with that, because we’ve had to publicise ourselves and [ensure] that people know about us… So that has helped spread the word.

Peter O’Hare Head of Occupational Therapy, SLaM

Two garden instructors, each employed four days a week, spend most of their time in Bethlem’s Walled Garden, but also look after the orchard and organise the production of preserves and dried fruit in the OT Kitchen. The Orchard Project supplies volunteers and assists with maintenance tasks through the year.

Bethlem’s traditional orchards are wonderful for wildlife. Apple and pear trees don’t take as long as other trees to become ‘veteran trees’ meaning they hollow out and become covered with lichen and moss, providing a valuable habitat for fungi, birds and insects, including endangered species.

Bethlem’s Orchard Trail leaflet

A natural haven

Although the trees stand in rigid rows and are surrounded by neatly trimmed lawns, the orchard bursts with unruly biodiversity. With most trees well over half a century old, their gnarled bark is covered in lichen and fungus, providing a haven for bugs. Some trunks are punctured with woodpecker holes, and you’re bound to spot a noisy south London parakeet swooping out from the branches.

More than 60 percent of the UK’s orchards have been lost since the 1960s, particularly in rapidly growing suburban areas, where trees were cleared to make way for housing.  Hospital estates such as Bethlem are one of the last bastions of these traditional orchards, and can play a significant role in preserving them.