2019 started with the very welcome news that the Charities Commission has confirmed that Thundridge Community Orchard Trust is now a registered charity. This is the goal that the trustees have been working towards for eighteen months and it marks the end of the first chapter in the story of Jean's Orchard. Trust chairman, Neil Bell, describes here how this point was reached and looks forward to what happens next.
Jean Hobbs, the resident owner of 32 Ermine Street, Thundridge, who sadly died in November 2016, was also the owner of the old orchard situated to the rear of her property that stretches down behind all the other terraced 'Hanbury' houses. Towards the end of her life she had been investigating ways in which she could give the orchard land to the village to be developed and managed as a community orchard. Although she had not got round to making provision for this in her will, her children, the beneficiaries of her will, were determined that her wishes in this matter would be honoured.
The family decided to let the idea be known to the community and asked for responses so that they could gauge local interest. It quickly became apparent that there was considerable enthusiasm for the idea, enough for the family to call an inaugural meeting to get the project started. This meeting took place in the Feathers Inn in June 2017, where, as well as general discussion of how the orchard project might move forward, a board of trustees was elected to manage the orchard on behalf of the community.
This being the start of the summer holiday season, it was not until August that the trustees managed to get together but this did not delay the start of work in the orchard. Over the summer keen volunteers set about restoring what had become a bit of a wilderness. Parts of the orchard had become inaccessible because of shoulder-high nettles and briars and the old fruit trees were overgrown and tangled and almost overwhelmed by ivy. In a couple of cases it was probably the weight of the ivy that had caused the trees to collapse but from the prostrate trunks had arisen new stems. We took this as symbolic of the new life we wanted for the whole orchard. People were generous not only with their time and energy but also with donations of money, tools, machinery, plants and benches. We had no trouble raising the money to order fourteen new fruit trees which we intended to plant in the following winter. These would be a mixture of apples, pears, plums and cherries, all heritage varieties native to Hertfordshire. A lot of work was to be done in the autumn period to prepare for tree planting in January 2018.
For the trustees the priority was to work out a strategy to reach our principal target: charitable status. For the Charities Commission an essential piece of information they required was our bank account details but without some formal evidence of our existence as a trust we could not open an account. Our starting point therefore was to apply to Companies House for registration as a limited company of which the trustees would be directors. We worked our way through what seemed like an inordinate amount of paperwork, consisting largely of irrelevant questions which nevertheless demanded answers, and submitted our application in September. On 2 November 2017, exactly a year after Jean's death, Thundridge Community Orchard Trust Limited was registered at Companies House. Jean's dream had become reality.
We were to discover that three months from start to finish of a bureaucratic process was as good as it was going to get. Setting up a bank account took longer, not helped by the fact that the bank lost all our paperwork halfway through the process and we had to start all over again. Our business account with Barclays Bank was eventually opened in March 2018. Now at last we could apply to the Charities Commission.
Back in the orchard all was going well. A record number of volunteers had turned up for the tree planting day in January 2018 and the trees were settling in nicely to their individual planting circles which had been cleared of grass. Later in the year we would plant the circles around the trees with bulbs to flower throughout the season from early spring to autumn. The existing flowerbed had been restored and a new one created near the entrance to provide a bit of welcoming colour. The summerhouse also had a refurb with new roofing felt and a coat of paint. Fencing was erected to define the boundary between the orchard and 32 Ermine Street. Constant work was now needed to keep the whole orchard tidy without destroying its natural character. Habitat was created for insects and hedgehogs and night cameras had already caught a wide range of wildlife, including bats. Classes from Thundridge Primary School visited the orchard and there are lots of ideas for their further involvement in environmental projects. Pleasing numbers of local residents attended open afternoons, even on a very wet spring day, to see for themselves what is happening in this beautiful green space.
By late summer 2018 it seemed that the sale of no.32 was approaching completion. This meant that we needed to clarify the position regarding access to the orchard, which can only be gained via the private driveway of no.32 to which we had enjoyed unfettered access for over a year. The compromise would have to protect the legal right of access to the orchard whilst respecting the privacy of the residents. The arrangement which currently applies and which seems to work reasonably well is that the orchard is open every Wednesday and Saturday between 9.00 and 2.00. Access at other times is possible by prior notice.
But what of the application to the Charities Commission? What had happened to that? From April to August the answer was nothing at all and then in August we had a response asking us to redraft large sections of our application by the end of the month or the application would be closed. Once we managed to get some dialogue with them it was clear that we needed to simplify our approach. In our eagerness to convince we had thrown at them every reason we could think of why we should be considered a charity but had succeeded only in confusing them. In particular, our references to educational purposes seemed to imply to them that we were starting some kind of school. On the advice of the Charities Commission we rewrote our purposes so that we existed primarily to "promote for the public benefit the conservation , protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment of the centre of Thundridge village as a green haven for wild flora and fauna". As if to reinforce this environmental emphasis, at this same time we learned that we had won the Hertfordshire "Environment" award from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, the first public recognition of the value of the work we were doing.
What was then needed was to have this change of purposes ratified at our annual general meeting in October and then ask Companies House to change their copy of our "objects" so that they were consistent with those held by the Charities Commission. After that we just had to wait for the bureaucratic wheels of the Charities Commission to slowly turn until our charitable status was finally confirmed.
In practical terms what this means is that now the deeds of the land can be transferred to the trust, as can the funds which Jean's family had set aside from her estate for the use of the trust. This will enable us to restore and convert the old garage to become our main secure storage. It needs a new roof and window and the door from the driveway will be blocked off and replaced by a new door opening into the orchard. We have a large water tank which will store water from the roof. Together with water butts on the summer house this should ensure a sufficient supply of water for the whole orchard, instead of relying on a water supply from a friendly neighbour as we did in the long hot summer of 2018. Other plans for the near future include fruiting hedges on the perimeter, more trees including nuts, a beehive and nesting boxes for birds.
The future of Jean's Orchard is now secure. With the continuing support of local people it will be a valuable asset to the community and our environment for generations to come.