Sceaux Estate Orchard Planting

Sceaux Estate, Camberwell 23rd August. On a sunny afternoon on the 3rd of July 2009 a fire broke out on the Sceaux Garden estates in Camberwell. Six people lost their lives (three of them young children) and many were left homeless and traumatized. People from the local community came together to help, donating clothes and other essential items to the temporarily housed residents who had lost everything. The South London Gallery played a pivotal role in the aftermath of the fire by setting up an area where the kids could play and the adults could get some respite and sit and have a cup of tea. They also became a drop off point for donations. It was through the South London Gallery and one of its patrons that Urban Orchards was able to become involved.

The idea of a memorial orchard came from the residents who had already participated in a project led by artist Andrea Mason (part of the ‘making play’ project), facilitated by the SLG. One aspect of this was planting vegetable beds and involving the locals in tending to the crops. The importance of these plants to both the children and the adults was illustrated by the fact that police cordons surrounding the vegetables (the beds were in very close proximity to the site of the fire) were broken in the night so that the plants could be watered. The orchard was an inspired plan, growing something that would eventually yield a harvest for the whole estate to enjoy whilst leaving a positive and beautiful memorial to those who had died.

It was decided that the planting would take place on the last weekend in August when the Estate and the SLG have a yearly outdoor fete. Merlyn Peter, Helen Starr (Fuse Arts) and myself (Urban Orchards) all went along to prepare the site on the Saturday. We were blessed with a beautiful day, there were lots of fun activities going on for the kids to enjoy – mural painting, singing, dancing, football and at our site digging (mainly for worms!) in preparation of the planting holes.

The area chosen for the orchard is a beautiful nook on the estate, an extra bonus is that the garden is a conservation area so the fruit trees will be protected and will hopefully be there for years to come. It is also the site of a burial ground from the time when it used to be a nunnery. We were told that the children love playing around the site, a sure sign that it is the perfect spot for a community orchard!

The trees were planted as a memorial, so it was important to the residents that there was some acknowledgement of this. The gallery made small wooden placards on which children and adults could write or draw remembrance messages. Two artists taking part in the ‘making play’ project (Jess Thomas and Orly Orbach) had set up a peaceful spot for people to do this. The placards were then planted around the trees. It made the memorial visually striking and it was very poignant to read the messages of love, anger, sadness and hope.

The children were really excited about the trees and the prospect of being able to pick and eat their own fruit. Merlyn brought down his apple press on both days and this was also a great success with the kids. On Sunday afternoon the actual trees were planted. Merlyn provided the trees of which he had grafted himself, they included pear, apple, plum and cherry. Everyone helped with planting and after it was completed we had a minutes silence and a song from one of the young residents. Although there was sadness on the day the whole weekend was a really positive experience. We hope that this orchard will become a beloved part of the estate as a place for people to sit, play, eat and be.