A few months ago, I heard the strange tale of an oak tree in Ealing which marks the spot where an elephant is buried. My interest increased when one of my Twitter friends, a former gardener, told me she had uncovered a huge bone while doing some work nearby. I realised it was the duty of any tree-regarder worth their salt to investigate, so off to Ealing, ‘Queen of the Suburbs’, I went…
Back in the days when any self-respecting circus had a menagerie of badly-treated animals as part of its entertainment, great processions of clowns, acrobats, caged tigers, feather-adorned horses and semi-comatose elephants would progress slowly through towns and cities drumming up business before they pitched their big top in the local park. And so it was back in 1889, as a circus was trooping down Ealing’s Castlebar Road, when one of its four-legged stars expired. Being of such bulk, the deceased animal was buried, presumably with little ceremony, on the spot it fell: the junction with Carlton Road. Such a memorably macabre event must have impressed those who witnessed it, the fact that the story circulates to this day is testament to that.
Today, an old and rather battered oak tree grows in the middle of Carlton Road just near that fateful junction with Castlebar Road. But was it planted as an elephant memorial?
The tree is a local landmark and, judging by its appearance, something of an obstacle too. Its trunk shows signs of having been whitewashed in the past, no doubt in an attempt to make it more conspicuous to speeding motorists, some of whom, it seems, may have had a tussle with the tree, which sports a few battle scars.
The Elephant Tree, or the ‘Carlton Road Oak’, is actually one of four trees – three other oaks on the verge just across the road are in much better shape – forming a row suggesting they mark a boundary, now long forgotten. They are clearly old, maybe veterans of several centuries. So, the Elephant Tree must have been here when the circus was passing all those years ago, and the death of a hulking great pachyderm on an Ealing street has been conflated with an equally memorable tree that also happens to grow in the middle of an Ealing street, into a single super animal-arboreal memorial.
But how did the tree, elephantine in appearance, come to be in the middle of the road? If it is part of a boundary row, it could be that a lane always went past it, and even forked at the grassy triangle known as Tortoise Green (what might be buried here I wonder?), but perhaps in the past the tree was not dislocated from the Green. It’s likely that road widening over the years has resulted in its isolation, along with its rather diminished canopy and swollen and battered trunk. It is remarkable that the tree has survived in this position, not only because of the knocks it has sustained, but also because of the pollution and the compaction of the ground around it.
Roadblock: Explore Carlton Road on Google Maps to get a closer look at the tree and to see how the local environment might be improved by shutting off the street
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the road could be narrowed to a single fork at this junction? Or, better still, blocked altogether – the residents of Carlton Road would surely appreciate the lower levels of traffic that would result in it becoming a cul-de-sac?
Circus elephant image from Alison Marchant on Flickr.
The Carlton Road Oak features in my new book, London Tree Walks, to be published in late September 2020.