In August last year I walked through Epping Forest from Epping tube station to Chingford. It’s an amazing walk with incredible beech pollards and prehistoric earthworks, musclebound hornbeams and rare wild crab apple trees to be seen along the way. It’s just a section from one of the trails through London, from the greenbelt to the inner city, I describe in my new book, ‘London is a Forest‘, published by Quadrille Books on 2nd May.
As well as Epping to London Fields (its eventual destination), I walked five other urban forest trails, High Barnet to Barbican, Erith to Canary Wharf, Richmond Park to Westminster, Croydon to Deptford and Tower Bridge to Heathrow.
GPS coordinates for dozens of landmarks and fascinating individual trees have been included in each trail, allowing them to be plotted. I hope this book will hold as much appeal for intrepid explorers armed with phone, map and compass, as for those who prefer the comfort of an armchair or a seat on the tube. Along the trails, I attempt to outline what the forest is and how it takes the form that it does. I explore the rich diversity and interdependence of species through the fragile and entangled relationships between places, plants and animals, including us humans.
Of course, today’s urban forest has been shaped over many centuries, and I have included insights and anecdotes about the history, heritage, ideas and people that have influenced it too.
The trails have been turned into beautiful graphics by Fieldwork Facility, and feature as the end papers from the book, and each landmark has been plotted on a Google Map. In the book, these appear as GPS coordinates in the margin, so the truly adventurous might follow the trails independently. And here’s the map:
Want to read more? You’ll have to wait until 2nd May when the book will be published, but you can pre-order it now on Amazon or Waterstones.
I’m thrilled to announce, on Valentine’s Day, that my new book ‘London is a Forest’ will be published on 2nd May!
It’s a book about Urban Nature, and, I hope, a new way to look at London.
There’s lots of great nature books out there, but this one’s a little different, it’s about the plants and animals that live in the city, especially the trees.
Rather than taking myself off to some remote rural idyll, I tramped the pavements, paths and byways of the capital in order to examine the non-human life that calls London home as well as our relationship with it.
My deep interest in the city’s plants; be they native, non-native or alien species, guided me to locations throughout London to discover the fascinating nature living on my doorstep. I hope this book tells a revealing story about the urban ecosystem and our role in shaping the surprising and diverse habitats to be found among the glass, steel and concrete.
This is the post I’ve been thinking about for months. Yep, the one about how they’re cutting down all the street trees in Sheffield.
Until now I didn’t feel I could quite do it justice, but a few days ago I went to Sheffield to meet the campaigners and to see for myself what was going on. I was impressed and appalled in equal measure; impressed by the beautiful canopy that does still grace the city, impressed by the determination and positivity of the protestors and their very worthy cause, and appalled by the reckless actions of the city council and their contractor, Amey.
Sheffield is one of the greenest cities in the UK, it is home to 4.5 million trees, a fact provided by the city council (retrieved 01/10/2018), whose veracity on arboreal matters may, at times, appear wanting. This huge figure has been deployed in the propaganda war around the street trees, of which, we are told there are 36,000, and so to lose some of these is not unreasonable, surely? And again, according to the council the losses will amount to just 0.3% of the total tree canopy – a mere trifle. But 0.3% of 4.5 million is 13,500. That’s more than a third of the city’s street trees! And if that’s not bad enough, campaigners eventually managed to get the contract between the council and Amey into the public domain in which it stated 17,500 trees would be cut down.
Our group of sixty street tree admirers – something of a record for me, even in the urban arboretum of Hackney I’ve only had 25 – walked the streets of Nether Edge on a route that I was doing ‘blind’. I wasn’t disappointed: the street tree canopy here is soaring, verdant and in fine fettle. It’s easy to understand why Sheffield residents feel so strongly. Nether Edge was laid out as broad avenues of large stone villas lined predominantly, but by no means exclusively, with common limes or lindens (Tilia x europaea). Many trees must date from the area’s original development, so most are well over a century old. These vigorous hybrid trees do well in Sheffield and are in their prime, with many decades, or even centuries of service left in them. The splendid boulevards of Nether Edge have survived world wars, industrial pollution and post-industrial decline, but among their number, arbitrarily, individual trees are now destined for the chainsaw. The protestors have attached yellow ribbons to the trees earmarked for felling and wandering down one of these streets it is shocking to see how many, and how randomly they have been selected. It’s not just limes, other trees have been condemned including London planes, horse chestnuts, sycamores, oaks and, most cruelly, a towering elm on Chelsea Road. The elm, a Huntingdon (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’), is enormous and may well be the only one of its kind left in Sheffield having somehow managed to survive the ravages of Dutch elm disease. Not only is this individual tree worthy of veneration and preservation – who knows, it could be an important source of disease resistant genes – it also hosts rare white-letter hairstreak butterflies, a species that feeds only on elms.
So why are the trees being cut down? This frequently asked question does not appear on the council’s website or indeed on that of its ‘infrastructure support service provider’, Amey plc, the recipient of the multi-billion pound Streets Ahead contract to ‘upgrade’ the city’s streets.
The council argue that the the city’s street tree stock is mature or over mature – code for ‘too old’ – and therefore needs replacing. This very tenuous assertion simply doesn’t stack up. Yes, many trees are mature, but they are also in rude health, so why cut them down and replace them with ten-year-old saplings?
Maybe the motivations for felling trees are more depressing than that. In the murky world of cash strapped local authorities and opaque PFI contracts it’s easy to imagine the types of discussions being had. Picture the boardroom at Amey’s discrete Oxford head office and a question being posed along the lines of, “how do we increase our margins on the Sheffield street tree management contract?” It doesn’t take a very creative bean counter to deduce that a reduction in the number of mature and over mature assets will reduce exposure to costs associated with managing those very same large and tall assets. Kiss my face! (With apologies to Alan Partridge).
But however it was arrived at, a policy amounting to civic vandalism is being wrought by the city council and Amey plc. Thousands of perfectly healthy street trees across the city have been felled, and thousands more are on death row as part of what appears to be a supremely short-termist cost saving exercise. Sure, trees are going to be replanted, but that’s not the point – how can you replace the history, grandeur and joy that towering, consistent avenues of mature trees bring? And, of course, you don’t need me to bang on about the ecosystem services, mental and physical wellbeing, and traffic calming benefits they bring too…
If you’re interested in reading more about the Sheffield situation, the Sheffield Tree Action Groups website is a good place to start. But there’s lots more too. Perhaps because the protests are so righteous, the council and contractors (not to mention South Yorkshire Police) have been so belligerent and the whole David and Goliath story is so quintessentially English, reams of media articles have been written about it:
If you’ve got this far, here’s something to restore your faith in humankind:
The Heartwood Community Choir’s first public streetside performance of ‘Heartwood’, written especially for the Sheffield tree protectors by writer and academic Robert Macfarlane. Performed under the canopy of the condemned Chelsea Road Elm.
This post was originally published in March 2018, towards the end of the harshest winter in London for years.
You may have noticed – possibly with some alarm – the delicate, yet persistent blooms of the winter-flowering cherry which have been flowering for months now. The snow and ice of last week hasn’t been kind to them and many trees in London previously in full flower are now sporting a wilted coat of brown petals, but look beyond these and more flower buds are on their way!
A few years ago a trend began for planting early or late-flowering (depending on your point of view) Japanese cherries as street trees, and in some parts of town two closely related cultivars, like craft beer outlets, seem to be popping up on every street corner. Look out for the white flowered Prunus × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis*’ and the pink flowered Prunus × subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’
For the uninitiated, the sight of cherry blossom in the depths of winter has been known to elicit strong reactions, from concern for seasons going haywire, to global warming incarnate. But, although I wouldn’t want to deny the very real climate change phenomena for which overwhelming evidence exists, the winter-flowering cherry could not in itself be defined as an indicator. It’s supposed to flower in mild weather from November through to April. And this season, trees in London have been particularly good, blooming consistently since November despite the see-sawing of temperatures within the space of a few days. So, despite it feeling wintry out there, there has not, until last week been a sustained cold patch and this appears to have been exactly what this tree likes.
Which leads us to the question: why does the winter-flowering cherry flower in winter? The short answer is it has been bred to, its flowers are not filling an environmental niche to take advantage of a winter flying bee, it’s flowering because humans wanted something to cheer them up during the gloomy winter months. Prunus × subhirtella is thought to have Japanese horticultural origins, but it has been around for so long, its provenance disappears into the mists of time. It is sometimes also called Prunus subhirtella – note: no ‘×’ denoting hybridity – it’s unclear (as with many other ornamental cherries) what parent species have hybridised to create our tree. Sometimes too, it is called Prunus pendula, an appellation most commonly ascribed to another cultivar, the spring-flowering weeping Higan cherry. This though seems to be sloppiness and it should properly be called Prunus × subhirtella ‘Pendula Rosea’. Something else to look out for in Winter Flowering cherries is the last flush of blooms appearing in April with the leaves. These flowers differ from those of previous waves in having stalks – winter blooms are stalkless (or sessile).
Interestingly one of the world’s oldest Cherries, the 1,000 year-old ‘Miharu Takizakura’ in Fukushima province, is a weeping Higan and is often claimed to be the ‘most beautiful cherry tree in Japan’. This is a cultivar unknown as a London street tree, but it may bode well for the longevity of the trees we do have, not to mention their long term potential for craggy good looks.
As spring approaches, Winter-flowering cherries will be competing with other early flowering Prunus species, particularly the widely planted purple cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) of either the ‘Pissardii’ (white blossom) and ‘Nigra’ (pink blossom) cultivars. If you’re lucky, you may see almond (Prunus dulcis) with big pink flowers, blireana plum (Prunus × blireana), with almost fluorescent pink blossom or another Japanese tree, Prunus × incamp ‘Okame’ again with pink blossom preceded by distinctive maroon coloured buds.
From Hibiscus in Shoreditch, Golden Rain Trees in Osterley, and Bottlebrush trees in Pimlico, London has unexpected and fascinating street trees. Our urban forest, often under appreciated, is extremely varied and, what grows where differs around the city. So, which are the most interesting boroughs for a discerning London street tree admirer to visit, and why? Read on to find out about 5 London boroughs that, in no particular order, stand out…
Until about 20 years ago, Hackney was one of the less forested boroughs but around the turn of the millennium, it started catching up, and boy, did it catch up. Hackney now is a veritable arboretum: you can find streets lined with Kentucky Coffee Trees (Gymnocladus dioicus) in Clapton, Hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.) in Shoreditch, Wild Service Trees (Sorbus torminalis) in Stoke Newington and Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris) in Dalston. The urban forest is relatively young here but what it lacks in maturity, it makes up for in diversity. There is something of interest at virtually every turn, and it will be exciting to see this part of town mature in the coming years.
Southwark is a big borough (by inner London standards), stretching from the southbank at London Bridge all the way east to Canada Water and south to Dulwich and Nunhead. Street tree planting is varied, and, like Hackney, you don’t have to go far to find something of interest. There’s a street of spectacular Yoshino cherries (Prunus x yedoensis) in Herne Hill, some of the biggest Tree of Heaven(Ailanthus altissima) specimens in London can be seen in Bermondsey and Magnolias (Magnolia spp.) are planted outside Borough Church. Southwark has pioneered some unlikely species too, including Persian Silk Trees (Albizia julibrissin) and, one of my favourites, the Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo).
That long ribbon of a borough, Hounslow, has been planting great trees for years. It’s got everything, from stately Planes (Platanus x hispanica), classic Lime tree (Tilia x europaea) boulevards and landmark Cherry (Prunus spp.) avenues to being perhaps the best place to see mature Golden Rain Trees (Koelreuteria paniculata) in London. Of these elder statesmen, a tree right outside Osterley Tube station is an arboreal landmark, displaying beautiful coral pink new leaves in spring, yellow flowers in high summer, glorious autumn foliage and seed lanterns in the winter. There’s at least one tree in this borough playing host to Mistletoe too.
My home borough, so I might be a little biased, Islington is the part of town I know best. It’s the best borough for Caucasian Wingnuts (Pterocarya fraxinifolia), a fabulous spreading tree easily identified by tell-tale dangling clusters of little winged nuts, and is home to some other intriguing species. Islington was, of course, the first borough to plant Olive trees (Olea europaea) on the street – to reflect its Greek and Turkish communities perhaps? It is also home to some great Elm trees of various types including the Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia), the largest tree of this species in the country can be seen planted outside the Whittington Hospital. But perhaps what Islington is most noted for is ornamental fruit trees; dotted about the borough, the street tree aficionado can find rare pears (Pyrus spp.), notable Crab apples including plenty of Chonosukis (Malus tschonoskii), and unusual Yunnan Apples (M. yunnanensis). There’s also a good stock of flowering cherries including examples of the now rather out of fashion Bird Cherry (Prunus padus).
Westminster plays host to the ‘Government Estate’, so has the job of keeping some of the most visited, filmed and photographed parts of the city looking green and pleasant. There are a lot of mature Plane trees in Westminster, as you might expect, adding to the grandeur of Whitehall and parts of the West End. But scratch the surface and you will find more interest around many corners. Westminster has pioneered the planting of Gingkos (Gingko biloba), a species well adapted to life in the busiest parts of town, and even in this most urban borough, English Oaks (Quercus robur) can be found outside Charing Cross and Pimlico stations. Perhaps the finest Mimosa (Acacia dealbata) to be found on the frontline can be seen in Pimlico and there’s even a street lined with Australian Bottlebrush trees (Callistemon citrinus)!
Trees and technology are not, on the face of it, natural bedfellows. But I believe new technology can provide the trigger for people, especially young people, to become interested in what is around them.
So, I’m very pleased to be part of a ‘Trees and Technology’ seminar during London Tree Week where I am sure this will be one of the hot topics. Other topics to be discussed are the Mayor’s street tree map, the data behind it, which is now in the public domain, surveying urban canopy cover from space, creating digital tree trails and how Internet of Things (IoT) technology can help monitor tree populations.
This event is part of the London Tree Week Lecture Series organised by the Mayor of London and the Woodland Trust. It takes place on Friday 2nd June, 2.30pm – 4.30pm at Convocation Hall, Church House, Westminster, London SW1P 3NZ
I have an announcement to make: my book, ‘London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest’ will be published by Safe Haven Books at the end of May 2017.
This book documents my own journey of discovery, not just of the great variety of London’s street trees, but also their fascinating stories. I’m extremely pleased to include a Foreword from London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who will face the challenge of improving our air quality during his term in office, I’m sure that planting many more trees in the city will be part of the solution.
Londoners need only walk a few minutes from their front doors to encounter a hugely diverse and endlessly fascinating urban forest. My book is a celebration of the forest, its diversity and its beauty. It is a guide to the many unexpected, even improbable, species to be found around the capital, from Anerley to Walthamstow, and an attempt to shed light on things many of us never knew about the trees on our streets.
Most people will be aware of London’s own eponymous street tree, the London Plane – in itself unique among cities – and no doubt many could recognise one, but according to the London i-tree eco project report, Plane trees account for less than 3% of London’s street trees. I hope this book will go some way to helping you identify the other 97%.
Here’s a few spreads from the book to whet your appetite:
You may want to read more, if so, you’ll have to wait until the end of May, but you can pre-order on these sites:
Some months ago I heard rumours about a London Street Tree map being prepared by the GLA at City Hall. Excitingly, that map is now live and has been for a couple of months. For those who haven’t yet poured over the fascinating insights into what trees can be found on London’s streets would be well advised to stop reading this and get over to the map now!
Underlying the map interface there exists a vast database of information, no doubt hard won, wrestled from individual boroughs. Each borough is responsible for the trees on their patch and each has a team dedicated to their management. Perhaps not surprisingly then, each borough holds their own records for their part of the urban forest, and each borough uses different ways to gather and store this data, not to mention what data it actually harvests and holds. Therefore the feat of wrangling data from these various sources into a single dataset providing consistent information should not be underestimated – makes my brain hurt just thinking about it.
There are some black holes – for instance, Hackney and Haringey are two of seven boroughs that have yet to provide their data, but 25 of the 32 boroughs, plus the City of London and TfL have done and even with gaps, the potential of this map is becoming clear. Knowing what is planted on our streets is not only of interest to those who manage the tree inventory, this information can start to inform planning decisions, provide environmental insights and help shape policy to improve air quality. If there’s a correlation between levels of pollution and mature Plane Trees for instance, then this map could be a tool in that investigation right across the city. For me though, the most exciting possibility is the potential for public engagement.
The street tree data including location and species information is in the public domain and is released under an Open Government licence. It can therefore be used by third parties to exploit both commercially and non-commercially. And this is where the opportunities lie: imagine an app that can tell you what the tree is outside your front door, or the tree you walk past on your way to work? All possible with the data. Imagine walking up to a tree and discovering through your smart phone that it is a 150 year old Plane tree, it’s 33m tall and it’s one of 253,751 Plane trees in London, one of the most frequent trees in the city. This Plane tree stores CO2, soaks up pollution, moderates temperatures and has a financial value too. Imagine another app, this one educational, telling kids about all the minibeasts that make their home in an Oak tree outside their school or a Rowan tree on their street. It could tell them that an ancient pollarded Black Poplar tree in the local park was there long before the park and that it is a rare native tree that needs protecting. Another app could guide users on tree trails around Hampstead, Putney or wherever, it could allow the users to add comments about the trees on the trail, even add their own trail or check in at the Wembley Elm on Facebook.
And then of course there are more practical or nerdy applications, want to check out where all the Kentucky Coffee Trees are in London? Want to let your Local Authority know about the broken branch on a tree in your street? Want to see where the empty tree pits are? Want to get involved in community street tree maintenance?
So, what do other cities do about mapping street trees? New York appears to be leading the way with their recently launched map. It is worth noting that New York is in a very different position to London in that one city-wide body manages the street trees ensuring the data wrangling issues faced in London just don’t exist, so they have the luxury of focusing on visualistaion and functionality. New York’s data is real time, users can register and once logged in, favourite individual trees and get involved with community street tree activities like planting and maintenance.
Melbourne’s map, like New York’s, allows users to zoom in almost to street level, but it only covers a relatively small area of the city centre. As reported in media around the world, users can email trees in Melbourne which while possibly a bit odd has clearly caught the imagination of many.
The London Street Tree map and especially the data underpinning it are tools that could help us understand, appreciate and value the trees in London which in turn could make our lives richer and healthier. I can’t wait to see it show all the street tree data, and with more detail too – exact species info would be great to see.
“I can’t understand why anyone would want to buy a house on such an awful street.” These words, uttered by a passer-by 15 years ago, acted as a red rag to a bull for Wharfdale Road resident John Ashwell. A typically busy inner London street of multiple building styles and ages, Wharfdale Road connects York Way with Caledonian Road in Kings Cross. 15 years ago Kings Cross was a by-word for drugs and prostitution and was a very different place to the developed destination it has become.
Kings Cross forms an arc spanning two London boroughs from Pentonville Road to Marylebone Road with York Way at its apex. The Islington half was the crime hotspot while the Camden half was the dereliction centre of London. Now the Camden portion boasts a transformed St. Pancras station and the new Granary Square ‘quarter’ around Central St. Martins. Without the dubious benefit of a masterplan, landscaping and massive new developments the Islington half has had to make do with piecemeal private developments and community initiative. And this is where John, the original Kings Cross residents and the local authority came in.
John, a landscape gardener by trade, fired up by the throwaway remark overheard outside his front door, set his sites on no less a task that the beautification of Kings Cross starting with the planting of street trees on Wharfdale Road. Planting started after John raised money from local residents and the council released S106 funds enabling one half of a Cherry tree avenue. Over the next few years more money was released through public and private funding allowing the completion of the avenue planting. This second phase involved the narrowing of the road through incorporation of parking bays separated by tree islands transforming the street into the urban equivalent of a hollow way. All this has been achieved in the remarkably short time of 15 years.
Over this time a strong partnership has formed between the community and the council who all had the same goal of planting more trees and cleaning up their part of Kings Cross. In Wharfdale Road they planted a cherry avenue of Prunus avium ‘Plena’, a double white flowered variety of the common cherry and Prunus maackii ‘Amber Beauty’ a golden trunked Manchurian cherry with single spiked flowers (much better for pollinators). Within this corner of the urban forest over 300 trees have been planted including Islington’s first Olive (Olea europaea) grove on Fife Terrace and, something I’ve never seen elsewhere – Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) on Caledonia Street.
Of course, the trees on their own have not transformed this once scary corner of London (it would be foolish to ignore the presence of CCTV cameras and the millions of development pounds pumped in), but they certainly make the environment pleasanter and they have definitely helped calm the traffic on Wharfdale Road. Perhaps too they have contributed to making the area more hospitable for people which has in turn resulted in a proliferation of cafés and restaurants who don’t need to think twice about opening onto the street.
The community partnership allowed residents to get involved with street tree selection and planting giving them a sense of ownership of the trees in their neighbourhood and, coincidentally or not, Islington has recorded the lowest rate of sapling destruction in this part of the borough.
And here’s the street view of Bay trees in Caledonia Street, bizarrely the restaurant they shade is called ‘Thyme’:
How exciting – next week, Saturday 28 May – Sunday 5 June, is London Tree Week! I’m sure this fantastic initiative from the Mayor will prove to be a great success.
There are a whole raft of activities organised by City Hall’s environment department to check out on the London Tree Week pages.
Not to be outdone by Saddiq, I have also put together a somewhat taxing itinerary of a selection of London’s more unusual and overlooked trees like this thrilling Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis) on St. Peter’s Way, N1.
I’ve listed 22 trees worth checking out all over London from Finsbury Park in the north to Croydon in the south and from Chiswick in the west to Canary Wharf in the east, the app will use your location to tell you where your nearest trees can be found.
Once you have the app downloaded, follow these steps to find my listings: