Country diary: All that remains of a vast local industry

Nestled out of place among the fields and woods, next in a solid line after the church, manor house and farmhouse, is a derelict factory building. The cavernous shell of the main hall, with its high roof and part-open frontage, is redolent of an aircraft hangar, albeit one for a very small plane. A few desultory drums and barrels on the concrete floor testify to light use today as an agricultural store.

At the back, and down the left side, are doorways without doors. They lead into smaller rooms where there are light fittings without lights, benches unmanned, a fusebox unpowered, and window frames rimmed with icicles of grimy glass. A tick, tick, tick sounds from wall-mounted fans that catch in the lifting breeze, quickening as it rises, as if an unseen hand from decades ago had moved the dial – “Turn it up, Alf!”

I’m drawn towards this relic of working lives interrupted – just as strongly as I am the decorated medieval church – perhaps because for so long I puzzled over the factory’s purpose. The mystery especially resided in a Soviet-style block inscription on a lintel above a walled-up front door which reads “COPO 1936”.

For years, I toyed with the acronym, fancying it included the words “cooperative” and “production”. Fanciful it was too, for I recognised in the herringbone-patterned bricks the hallmark of HC Janes, a Bedfordshire construction company that built housing estates over south-east England during the interwar years.

The true story of the factory’s use was grubbed up from the surrounding fields nearly 50 years ago. COPO stands for cox’s orange pippin orchards, and here was the location for what was reputedly Europe’s largest orchard, with about 2m trees planted over 500 hectares after the Great Depression. The entrepreneurial owner, a Mr Whitehead, devised an ingenious scheme whereby about half a million people bought a stake. They were persuaded to become treeholders, investing in buds, blooms and fruit. Hard frosts and harsh economics led to the apple trees being rooted out within a few decades. Bricks and mortar are almost all that remains of this unusual enterprise.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary