Retired Wrexham man Ken Matthews has spent the past four years rewilding the site of the former Brymbo Steelworks with heritage Welsh apple and pear trees, some of which have weird and wonderful names.

“Some of them have Welsh names, like Pig yr Wydd, but others have names like Pig Snout, Ten Commandments and Slap My Girdle," says Ken, who, with the help of a team of enthusiastic volunteers, has planted hundreds of trees, which have helped to transform the defunct industrial site into something green and fruitful.

The Brymbo Heritage Orchard Project has also produced thousands of litres of juice, cider and vinegar in the process.

“We started off looking at ways to rejuvenate the old steelworks, which was dilapidated. We needed to do something positive with it," says Ken, who began the project with 83 trees 

“We planted them all around the site, and at the same time we worked to prepare the rest of the land to take even more.

“The volunteers give up their time to do all of this, and the small profit that we make from selling cider goes back into maintaining the orchards and planting more trees.”

The original works at Brymbo churned out iron. The ironworks were founded by the industrialist John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson in 1796, who pioneered the manufacture of cast iron during the Industrial Revolution. The surrounding land at Brymbo was rich in the coal and iron ore that the ironworks required and a boom followed, which led to steel production beginning in 1885.

In 1967, the steelworks were nationalised along with the rest of the industry. However industrial decline in the two decades after saw Brymbo suffer heavy economic losses. Eventually production ceased in 1990, putting 1125 people out of work and leaving the site derelict.

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The work to revitalise the steelworks began in the early 2000s and a lot of time and hard work by volunteers has gone into its transformation. The orchard has become just one part of what promises to be a world class museum experience, fossil forest and visitors’ centre. Last year it was awarded £4.1 million by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and the Brymbo Heritage Trust hopes that the attraction will open its doors to visitors in 2023.

Not only has the Brymbo Heritage Orchard made good use of what was abandoned and ramshackle land, but it is also helping to save multiple varieties of Welsh apples and pears for future generations.

Getting local schools involved in orchard planting and harvesting has become a priority for the group, who are keen to pass on their knowledge to younger generations. The group now has multiple orchards planted across the county, which the school students help maintain.

“Brynteg County Primary School had an old orchard that had gone into disrepair so we took it over for them and planted 40 trees. That’s been very successful and they now have a woodland area of about 5 acres for their school as well.

“This year we planted another 72 trees at Gwersyllt County Primary School and 40 at Ysgol Clywedog.

"What we do is to train people up so that they know how to look after the trees and that includes getting the kids involved. Our volunteers will never put an orchard in and walk away from it.”

Wales has a rich history when it comes to the humble apple. The fruit features in the mythology of the Mabinogi, while the laws of Hywel Dda in the 10th Century asserted that an apple tree was worth the same as 15 pigs or 60 lambs.

Centuries later, the rise in industrialism criss-crossed with the decline in Welsh orchard heritage. Thanks to the work of a handful of growers though, just enough was done to hold on to the valuable tree varieties of the past.

The Welsh Perry and Cider Society, alongside scientists at Aberystwyth University, has spent years saving endangered varieties of apples and pears for future generations by planting a ‘living museum’ at the Gogerddan Campus.

The purpose is to ensure that scientists and growers have access to a genetic resource for all of Wales’ ancient varieties, protecting important historic species from extinction.

Wales has around 100 varieties of native apples still in existence today with names as random as Frederick, Goose’s Arse and Cummy Norman. Despite the distinctive titles t people are unlikely to recognise them, since supermarkets only sell a limited number of varieties, such as Gala and Braeburn, both of which are from New Zealand. 

Chris Charters is the Society’s chair and says that orchards are vital to understanding Wales’ past, as well as enriching its future.

"Farmers used to club together and help to get the hay in. Everybody would join in from the area to get involved. So if it was Fred Jones’ hay, everyone would pile over to his farm, gather the hay, and at the end of the day’s harvesting, you would all enjoy cider and cheese together.

"Then after you finished with Fred’s farm, you’d move on to John’s farm and repeat the work and the cider celebrations. It was a community thing.”

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Chris (79), says that the Brymbo Heritage Orchard Project is an excellent example of what can be done to return old industrial sites to nature, protecting heritage Welsh apple and pear varieties, while strengthening community spirit at the same time.

“If somebody approached us from one of the old mining valleys saying that they’d like to plant an orchard then we would only be too happy to help.

“Trees could well help to stabilise some of the old waste tips. It’s a good way for farms to diversify as well. The beauty of planting an orchard is that sheep can still graze in and around the trees.”

For Ken Matthews and the rest of the team at Brymbo, their orchards have provided a focus during the pandemic, and the work to plant more fruit trees in the area is far from over. 

“It has been a lifeline for us during the coronavirus to be outside in the orchards. The volunteers continued to give their time as usual. The only difference was that we were social distancing and wearing masks.

“I would certainly encourage other run-down, industrial areas around Wales to set something similar up. It’s a use of the land, and a healthy one at that.

“The work to do the planting, the grafting, the maintenance and the harvesting outdoors… these are the sorts of things in life that help to keep people going.”