Ghost of England’s ‘lost’ blossom endures through street and place names, according to new research

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Cherry Street in central Birmingham - telling the story of our 'lost blossom' | © National Trust Images

With the National Trust’s Blossom Week blooming this week (20-28th April), new research published by the charity has revealed the significance of historic blossom in all its different guises in influencing the street and place names that still exist today.

By analysing modern and historic maps, and matching these results to the orchards research undertaken by the Trust using artificial intelligence in 2022, the new research has been able to paint a picture of blossom over time across more than 90% of England and 30% of Wales.

The detailed analysis of place names found that the number of place names associated with blossom has doubled from 3% (23,000 of the 700,000 place names examined) in 1900 compared to 6% (51,000 of the 912,000 place names examined) in 2023 – despite the loss of blossom from our landscapes.

This pattern was reflected broadly when comparing place names in cities and rural locations.

One of the strongest correlations observed was the link between declining areas of traditional orchards and increases in place names associated with blossom. Across all counties surveyed, over 70% evidenced an increase in blossom-related place names alongside a decline in the presence of traditional orchards; and for cities the figure was even higher, with over 80% following this pattern.

Professor Matthew Heard, Head of Environmental Research & Data at the National Trust says:

“Over the last century, blossom has been disappearing from our landscapes.

“Since 1900, half of our traditional orchards – and their blossoming trees – have been lost across England and Wales. But despite this, we clearly haven’t lost our connection to them – their memory is something we seem to want to keep alive.

“How many of us know of an Orchard Close, or a Chestnut Avenue in our towns and cities? Place names can point to our values, beliefs and shared stories – they help us navigate cultural memory as much as they do the landscape itself. They can also provide us with clues about the changing nature of the world around us.”

‘Blossom related’ place names – results in more detail

Counties with the biggest declines in proportion of place names associated with blossom were Berkshire (12% of all place names in 1900 to 9% in 2023) and Hampshire (16% in 1900 to 11% in 2023).

Regionally, London and the South-East was the only region with a proportional decline in ‘blossom-related’ place names since 1900, from 7.2% (the highest of any region or country) to 6.7%. Despite this proportional decline, the region has still seen an overall doubling of place names linked to blossom (from 7,754 in 1900 to 13,682 in 2023) and is second only to the South-West where 7.1% of all place names today (7,896) are associated with blossom.

Wales was found to have the smallest proportion of place names linked to blossom today at just 3.2%, with the biggest proportional regional increases in the West Midlands (2.3% in 1900 to 6.3% today) and the North-East where the lowest representation of any region or country in 1900 (just 0.7% of place names) has increased substantially to 5%.

Moreover, when considering modern city boundaries which have a far greater footprint today than in 1900 – the presence of blossom in place names has literally bloomed. For instance, Hartlepool (1.2% in 1900 to 14.5% in 2023) and Stockton-on-Tees (0.7% in 1900 to 11.3% in 2023). But, on the flip side, cities in the South-East like Reading and Crawley have seen declines in the use of names linked with blossom from around 8% in 1900 to just 3% today.

Setting aside these few exceptions, it appears that despite the declines in the presence of blossom in our landscapes, the use of words linked to blossom in our place names has increased.

‘Orchard related’ place names

The increase in current place names adopting ‘orchard-related’ terms has increased despite a loss orchards of 56%, with just 4,017Ha left growing today – equivalent to an area slightly larger than the Isle of Wight.

The relationship between ‘orchard-related’ place names and orchards was established by placing a 500 meter buffer around the orchards’ datasets (showing orchards present in 1900, lost since 1900 and present today) produced as part of the research in 2022.

Matt continued: “What’s especially interesting is that 52% of current place names with the word ‘orchard’ in them are within 500 metres of an orchard that has been lost since 1900, but are more than 500 metres from an existing one. In other words, these names are acting as ‘fossil blossom’ – they are like imprints of the past.

“This ‘fossil blossom’ is an important part of our cultural memory – and might point the way for action to bring back blossom.”

When digging deeper into the more regional and country variations of place names in 1900 compared to today, there appears to be a dilution in the more individual characteristics of certain types of blossom across the regions.

Tom Dommett, Head of Historic Environment at the National Trust said: “When analysing the ‘orchard-related’ terms in place names today compared to 1900, it appears that our blossoming landscape – or at least the way we name it – has become more homogenous, less distinctive and less diverse – with less use of specific varieties as part of these naming conventions, such as Perry in the South West and West Midlands – and less use of vine and pear in the East Midlands.

“It’s possible that the proliferation of more generic orchard related terms in current place names reflects a combination of the perceived importance of historic blossom sites, and simultaneously a loss of local history and character.”

Looking particularly at Wales, there are far fewer Welsh language names today. In 1900 Welsh language ‘blossom-related’ place names accounted for three quarters (74%) of all blossom-related terms and just under 2% of all place names in the country. By contrast in 2023, Welsh language ‘blossom-related’ terms place names made up less than a third (31%) of all ‘blossom-related’ terms, and only 1% of place names.

Tom concluded: “The results in Wales resonate with ongoing concerns by campaigners that Welsh place names are being lost with our research revealing a halving of Welsh blossom-related place names between 1900 and 2023.

“These findings are very likely linked to the prevalence of Welsh speakers as a whole – given that there were far more Welsh speakers in 1900, compared to today, with a 42% decrease in people able to speak Welsh which also corresponds with the loss of Welsh place names.”

Annie Reilly, Programme Manager for the National Trust said: “As part of this year’s Blossom Week celebrations – supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery – we want to encourage more people to just start to notice and consider the places names that surround them and how these names could be rooted into the cultural history of the area.

“Through our Blossom programme, our aim to bring blossom back to as many cities as possible through various projects including the blossom gardens in London, Plymouth, Newcastle and Nottingham.

“We’re aiming to incorporate 4 million blossom trees as part of our ambitions to plant and establish 20 million trees across England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 2030.

“Where we can, we want these plantings to reflect the cultural history of the area through the use of traditional varieties, helping the connection between people, blossom and place to endure, as well as benefitting nature.

“As well as bringing blossom back to urban areas this research will be helpful in those places where we might want to emphasise the connection more strongly – but in a way that suits the particular needs of the site today. For example, we have a woodland site at Dunham Massey which is going to be planted with blossoming trees such as blackthorn, hawthorne and crab apples to reflect that it was once an orchard.”

There are hundreds of opportunities to get involved with blossom themed events happening at National Trust places and in towns and cities across the country during Blossom Week including a picnic in the orchard at Crook Hall Gardens in Durham, discover blossom trees by following Manchester’s Bloomtown trail, the immersive Blossom themed display at the Outernet in central London and a blossom procession ‘Gwel an Bleujenn’ (view of the flowers) at Cotehele in Cornwall with poetry and dancing. The Trust’s Blossom campaign is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, with the Manchester events supported by CJ Wildlife.

Laura Chow, Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said: “Our players have raised more than £6.5 million, helping to support the invaluable work of the National Trust.

“I hope lots of people get involved in the many events taking place over Blossom Week, to help them connect with nature and mark the arrival of spring.”

Source: National Trust

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