I’m excited to announce that the New Edition of London is a Forest will soon be published. It’s more than just a makeover: the New Edition has been fully revised and updated, AND it contains a brand new seventh urban forest trail. The new book has 32 more pages, a lush and luminous cover, and a fancy gold badge, making it an even more desirable tome.
The new chapter describes a route from Harrow to St Pancras. It takes in some splendid trees, some memorable views, and green spaces that certainly surprised me.
The first edition was published in 2019, since when it has sold steadily and by Christmas 2021 it was pretty much out of stock. The publisher decided they would reprint, and asked if I’d like to make any updates. There were one or two things that I thought could be improved, a couple of individual trees I’d misidentified and there were a few things missing from the nerdy species lists too. After a little to-ing and fro-ing, we decided it would be great to include a new trail – I’d always felt there was a bit of a north west London green hole – and this was the opportunity to make amends.
Here’s an excerpt from the new chapter, this snippet introduces Acton and a memorable swamp cypress that resides on a residential street:
“The North Circular marks the start of a gradual transition from outer to inner London as Ealing becomes Acton, another area of Victorian expansion. Acton has very old roots. Its name is derived from the Old English word for tree, ‘ac’, which is also remembered in the common names ‘oak’ and ‘ash’, as well as the Latin Acer, the maple genus. These enigmatic names for different tree species are thus very, very old, coming from a single, simple word – more a sound, really – that contains myriad influences, meanings and questions. An ‘ac’ might be an obstacle, resource or landmark – the sound of things that are frequent and boundless. How were trees differentiated in the past? Certainly not by modern taxonomic methods. More likely it was by practical means. Pollard, coppice, spinney, copse, frith and penge are all terms associated with trees that have very specific meanings but are now largely forgotten. It seems implausible for a place to have been named after something generic, so the ‘ac’ of Acton must have referred to a noteworthy feature, perhaps a single oak, a multitude of landmarks, or a place noted for the quality or fecundity of its trees.
Acton is not known for its trees today, but offers frequent evidence of a boskier past. Alongside Ealing, it was a popular location for country houses, handy for London, but definitely not the city. These estates would have been grand and leafy, but are now only remembered in street names and open spaces given over to other uses. Springfield Gardens is one such space, while Shalimar Gardens remembers an estate of that name, and Perryn Road is named after Sir John Perryn, a local landowner who left his estate to the Goldsmiths’ Company. Where Shalimar Gardens meets Julian Avenue, a monumental reminder of Acton’s past soars above the Edwardian terraced cottages. The considerate developers of this corner of London thought fit to build around a tree that now takes over half a carriageway of the narrow street. Unlike Ealing’s Elephant Tree, this one has a protective kerb to reduce its exposure to frustrated motorists. It is a huge and aged swamp cypress, its size emphasised by its surroundings.”
I’m very excited to have been commissioned to write a book about the great urban trees of Britain and Ireland. Research is underway and, hopefully, I’ll be travelling all over these islands to see as many of its great trees as I can over the coming months.
There are some towns and cities I know well, but there are many more I know less well, and so that’s why I’m asking for your help. I’d love to hear about the special trees in towns, cities and villages all over the UK and Ireland. They might be in town centres or in urban woods, they might be in parks or on estates. They could even be street trees, or glimpsed over a wall in a school or a hotel. Ideally they’ll be ones that people can visit and see for themselves just why they’re great.
I’m interested in discovering the trees that are local landmarks or historical markers, the trees that in one way or another define a place. These are not necessarily the biggest or oldest trees (but of course, I’m interested in those ones too), they will be those that have stories associated with them, or those that mean something to the people who live with them. They might be survivors from a bygone age, or trees planted to remember a particular event or a moment in history. They could be those that are threatened by a future development (some may recognise Sheffield’s Chelsea Road Elm from the top of this post), or they could be trees that have been saved by people who care about them.
London has its Planes, and Manchester its Poplars. Edinburgh, like Brighton, is famed for its Elms. Plymouth has a pear named after it, Strawberry Trees are native to Killarney, Exeter has an elm, and I’m sure other species have urban connections too. I want to find the best examples of all these species!
I’m interested in the intermingled history of towns and trees too. There are grand landscapes that bring trees right into cities like Phoenix Park in Dublin, Cardiff’s Bute Park or the Pollok Estate in Glasgow. The Victorians have bequeathed their great legacy of public parks, botanical gardens and arboreta like those in Belfast, Nottingham, Birkenhead, Derby, Lincoln and Walsall. Urban growth has grown around ancient churchyards and country estates, and remarkably, woodlands survive in the most unlikely places. Towns and cities have been associated with the great plant collectors and nurserymen of the last 200 years, and their arboreal traces surely live on too.
Smaller towns and villages have great trees too, and I’ve come across the old fenced in Ginkgo in the Cotswold town of Chipping Camden, the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs tree in Dorset or a huge Cedar of Lebanon at Tredegar House in Newport. But these are, I’m sure, just the tip of the iceberg.
So, please let me know about the great trees of Truro, Lerwick, Haverfordwest, Cork, Bradford, Sunderland, Dunbar, Gloucester, Aberystwyth and Dundalk, to name just a few. These are just some of the places I’ll be looking for trees, so if you can think of any others, or know of any trees that I must see, please do let me know about them using the form below.
In the first post, I wrote about how my lockdown urban nature rambles turned into my new book, London Tree Walks: Arboreal Ambles Through the Green Metropolis. Lockdown allowed me to really get to know parts of the city near where I live in north London, and as the rules eased, I ventured further afield, mostly on two wheels, and occasionally on public transport, allowing me to get to the tropics of Acton, Fulham, Pimlico, and beyond.
The book consists of twelve walks in many corners of London from Brockley to Walthamstow, I hope these brief arboreal portraits will offer a taste of the book.
Here are the second six:
7. Churchill Gardens Chinese Tree Privet
The most prominent of several fine examples of mature Chinese tree privet trees in Pimlico’s Churchill Gardens Estate, one of the Architectural Utopias Among the Trees.
Churchill Gardens is one of central London’s finest modernist housing estates. It was largely constructed in the 1950s, and the young architects responsible, Powell and Moya, worked with a former head gardener at Kew to devise the planting*. Seven decades later, and the estate is awash with fine, and often unusual trees. One species that makes its presence felt, particularly in winter, is the evergreen Chinese tree privet, the finest example of which stands outside Wilkins House towards the western end of the estate.
8. Fulham Oak in Fulham
Fulham oaks really do originate from SW6, and a rare example can be seen in Hurlingham Park on the route tracing Rock Family Trees.
There are lots of different hybrid oaks, and to confuse us, there are lots of different named cultivars of hybrid oaks too. The Fulham oak is a cultivar of the hybrid between cork and Turkey oaks: Quercus x hispanica‘Fulhamensis’ (or Q. x crenata to some). It is so named because it was offered for sale by a Fulham nursery, Osborne’s, around 1760, when semi-evergreen oaks were popular. It is very similar to Lucombe oak, another cultivar of the same hybrid, but is far rarer, so it’s good to know there’s at least one alive and well in Fulham!
Swamp cypresses are one of those curious conifers of the deciduous kind. Other types you might come across are soaring dawn redwoods, a tree much planted around London, or one of the larches (trees more likely to be encountered on a Scottish mountainside than in suburban Acton). So it will be even more surprising to discover this one, and a very large one at that, on Julian Avenue, W3. It’s been here for many years, possibly a couple of centuries, it certainly appears to predate the Edwardian terraces that now surround it. Intriguingly, it grows in its own build-out into the road (it must be cursed by impatient drivers), suggesting it may have been protected by the Edwardian developers from some earlier landscape. If so, it must have already been a tree of note over a century ago.
10. St. Paul’s American Sweetgum
Tucked away in one of the Green Corners of the City is the towering American Sweetgum growing against the southern wall of St Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul’s Churchyard is stuffed with great trees including several magnificent and aged London planes, but the American sweetgum is perhaps the most interesting tree here. It is an exceptional example of a species much planted in London in recent decades, giving us a hint of how big these trees might become. It is by far the largest one I know, an even more remarkable fact when you discover it is a mere 70 years old.
11. The Inner Temple Manchurian Walnut
Between Holborn and Temple lies Legal London, a part of town renowned for Lincoln’s Inn, the Royal Courts of Justice and the sanctuary of the Temple, within which a delightful and rarely opened garden can be experienced.
Inner Temple Garden doesn’t get too many visitors as it’s only open for an hour or two on weekdays, so make sure you plan your visit in advance. It’s a charming place boasting a splendid tulip tree, a lovely Atlas cedar and a rare hybrid strawberry tree among dozens of fine trees. But the one that stands out for me is a spreading Manchurian Walnut tree – it’s the only one I’ve seen, and I’m still not 100% convinced that I’ve correctly identified it…
12. The Honor Oak
No book about trees in London could be complete without mention of the London Plane, and in The Embankment’s Nineteenth-Century Planes, there’s a whole walk devoted to them. But there are one or two other species making a guest appearance too, including the Palace of Westminster catalpas.
Of the other trees, there are several characterful southern catalpas or Indian bean trees to discover in the gardens along the Embankment. Many of these date from their opening in 1870 and, unlike the long-lived and far more abundant London planes dating from the same period, they are showing their age. Catalpas are relatively short-lived trees, and the oldest of the bunch, in fact the oldest trees on this route, are the wonderful wizened group in New Palace Yard just below the Elizabeth clock tower housing Big Ben and behind the security fence.
There are of course many, many more trees to see on each of these routes, and they are detailed in the book. As well as hundreds of photos and dozens of features, the book contains detailed OS maps to aid your passage.
During Lockdown 1.0, I spent as much time as I could outdoors. Like many, I found it gave me an opportunity to appreciate nature on my doorstep even more than usual. Combined with a beautiful spring and the dramatic reduction in pollution, it seemed especially piquant. My lockdown urban nature explorations turned into a project which came to fruition in October with the publication of my new book, London Tree Walks: Arboreal Ambles Through the Green Metropolis.
A charismatic hornbeam can be found near the start of this seven mile circular walk from Highgate Tube station exploring North London’s Ancient Woodland.
Hornbeam is a common species in all London’s precious pockets of ancient woodland. It was a tree favoured for its hard wood, a valuable commodity in days past when Londoners relied on wood, charcoal and coal shipped from Newcastle to heat their homes and power their businesses. This is a particularly characterful example, one that appears to have been spared the regime of coppicing and instead seems to have fulfilled a role as boundary tree, tucked away in the dense undergrowth of Queen’s Wood. From Queen’s Wood, this walk takes you through no less than three other tracts of ancient woodland.
2. Wood Street Horse Chestnut
The Wood Street Horse Chestnut is a local landmark on this circular walk from Walthamstow Central: Surprising Trees Between River and Forest.
The iconic Wood Street Horse Chestnut in Walthamstow is a fine example of the much-loved conker tree. It’s difficult to say how old this one is, but the clapboard building, now a health food shop but once a butchers, is around 200 years old. Like all London horse chestnut trees, this one suffers from leaf miner attack resulting in the leaves appearing brown and shrivelled from the late summer. It’s a problem caused by the caterpillar of a micro moth eating the leaves from the inside. While it doesn’t seem to stop trees rebounding each spring, it must surely be gradually weakening them. Enjoy this tree while you can.
3. Mentmore Terrace Bee-bee Tree
It’s almost impossible to select a single tree that sums up London’s Urban Arboretum, another circular walk, this time from Hackney Central, but the bee-bee tree is one of the most unusual.
Typical of Hackney’s exciting and diverse tree canopy is this example of a rare east Asian bee-bee tree near London Fields, seen here laden with berries in late summer. This walk offers a taste of the borough’s ambitious and surprising modern tree planting, but also traces the legacy of Loddiges nursery, a botanical institution located in Hackney during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
4. Wapping’s ‘Baobab’ Plane
On the route of Docklands Old and New between Wapping and Canary Wharf, I discovered a rare ‘Baobab’ London plane.
There must be less than a hundred ‘Baobab’ planes in London, so it’s always a thrill to come across one I hadn’t heard of before, like this one in Wapping’s St John’s Churchyard. Called ‘Baobabs’ because they have peculiarly swollen trunks, it’s thought these are an unusual, and now forgotten, Victorian cultivar. From picturesque Wapping, this walk leads east hugging the river before exploring heroic modern tree planting nestled between the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.
5. Tree of Heaven on Enid Street
On the trail of Ada Salter and the Beautification of Bermondsey, between Borough and Rotherhithe a splendid mature Tree of Heaven is encountered.
Trees of Heaven are synonymous with Bermondsey. They were the tree favoured by tree planting pioneer and local heroine Ada Salter from the 1920s. Salter set about transforming the former borough of Bermondsey (now a corner of Southwark) partly through planting thousands of trees there. Many of those early twentieth century trees can still be seen, and this fine specimen on Enid Street was resplendent with deep red seeds when I walked the route in August this year.
6. The Honor Oak
The surprisingly bosky, not to mention, hilly route from Honor Oak Park to New Cross Gate, A Local Community Gets Involved, takes in great views and great trees.
Both can be experienced at the top of One Tree Hill where the Oak of Honor grows a few metres from one of the finest views over London. The current Oak of Honor was planted in 1905 to replace a much older oak that reputedly had the ‘honor’ of shading Queen Elizabeth I who passed this way en route to Lewisham… The walk also leads through the flatter ground of Crofton Park and Brockley where trees planted by the inspirational grassroots charity, Street Trees for Living can be found.
There are of course many, many more trees to see on each of these routes, and they are detailed in the book. As well as hundreds of photos and dozens of features, the book contains detailed OS maps to aid your passage.
If these half dozen arboreal stars have whetted your appetite, look out for the next six trees which I’ll be posting in a week or so. And if you would like to get hold of the book in the meantime, it’s available from all the usual places including Bookshop.org and NHBS, and I have signed copies available too.
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?
Over 60 people joined the Zoom which involved the publisher, Graham, and I speaking about how the book came about. I went on to give a presentation about some of the things that have changed since the first edition was published. These include the appearance of new species like the Pineapple Guava and the Peanut Butter Tree, the impact of Sheffield on raising awareness of the threats street trees can face, and how in south east London, Street Trees for Living are providing a model for the future of funding, planting and maintaining street trees.
If you missed the launch, it was recorded, and the very committed can view all of it here (it is over an hour long, so you might need some fortification lined up before you start watching!)
Since the first edition of London’s Street Trees was published, what then seemed like a very old fashioned street tree, the rather lovely ‘Pauls’s Scarlet’ cultivar of Hawthorn, appears to be having something of a renaissance. And, as it’s May Day, I shall end this post with some Hawthorn or May blossom. It’s looking particularly lovely this year…
If you’d like to buy a copy of the new edition of London’s Street Trees, it is available from Amazon, direct from Safe Haven and from me too! Just click the button below to buy a signed copy.
On Saturday, I made my second foray into live video presentations with the virtual launch of the Great Trees of London Map, recently published by Blue Crow Media.
In normal times, a launch event might have consisted of a convivial evening in an independent bookshop lubricated with free-flowing wine, but our new reality forced us online instead. I presented a series of images of London’s greatest trees and talked about why they have been included in the map. All without a drop passing my lips.
Here, for those who missed it, is a video recording of the event.
At that independent bookshop, the publisher would be selling the object of the launch with a discount to those who ventured out for the party. I’m pleased to say this tradition continues, and Blue Crow Media are selling the map online with a 10% discount and free postage until midnight tonight (20th April 2020). Click here to purchase, using the code PAULWOOD10 at checkout to claim your discount.
I said this was my second attempt at a live video presentation. You’ll have to take my word for it that the first, a virtual tour of the trees of Hackney, was a great success, but it will have to remain semi-mythical… However, if you would like to join other virtual (and if you’re reading this after mid-2020), real-life events I have lined up, see my events page.
If you’d like to buy a copy of the new edition of Great Trees of London Map, it is available from Amazon, direct from Blue Crow Media and from me too! Just click the button below to buy a signed copy.
Three years ago, my book, London’s Street Trees was published. Since then it’s been through three print-runs and has been the subject of kind comments and favourable reviews. And today, I’m very pleased to announce that a new, expanded and fully revised edition has been published by Safe Haven Books.
In that first edition, I calculated around 300 species and cultivars could be found on the streets of London. I have since discovered Hackney alone has over 350. And while that borough has the most remarkable and diverse collection of street trees in London, there are still species not present on its streets that can be found elsewhere: Islington has over 100 Caucasian Wingnuts, there’s at least one rare Catalina Ironwood in Chelsea and a handful of Cork Oaks in Southwark.
This new edition is larger in every way – it’s physically bigger, has more pages and includes more tree species. It also includes hundreds of new photographs, the result of three years of my continued obsession with London’s trees.
But just as the number of species has increased (a decade from now I would not be surprised to count upwards of 500 species and cultivars), so has Londoners’ interest in them. What began as the novel idea of one or two guided walks to inspect the street trees is now, nearly three years later, a regular activity. Even in the current health emergency, I have been able to harness the latest technology and lead virtual walks allowing people to join from all over the world. Above all, I report how Londoners are raising funds to plant their own streets with resplendent species like Persian Silk Tree, a species admired in the pages of this new edition.
The diversity of today’s urban forest is relatively new. A century ago, A. D. Webster wrote in ‘London Trees’ that ‘nothing very remarkable is to be found in the way of street trees in London.’ Sixty per cent, he estimated, were London Planes, then the height of arboreal fashion. Now, it’s only around 3%. But that is because the overall number and diversity of trees has increased dramatically, not because we have lost thousands of Planes. So, to Webster’s generation, and those before him, we owe a debt of gratitude for the mature giants that now define this city, and the very desire to plant street trees at all. It was only fifty years earlier that the first street trees were systematically planted along the Embankment. Now it would be hard to imagine London, or indeed any city, without them.
We could think of the last 150 years as a great experiment, and one we are still engaged in. The pace of change in the urban forest is rapid. The humble Field Maple, the glamorous American Sweetgum and the rare Paper Mulberry thrive in what appear pretty unfavourable conditions.
Of earlier species like poplars, by contrast, only aged examples of these magnificent billowing trees can be seen on the street. The attractive, fast-growing Tree of Heaven was once commonplace in places like Bermondsey, but its propensity to jump ship and opportunistically take up residence wherever it can has made urban foresters less keen on what was once considered a wonder tree. But as the looming climate emergency makes the benefits of trees in cities more obvious, one of the most remarkable, and hopeful, things I’ve noticed is just how fast trees can grow on London’s streets. In just a few years, a vulnerable sapling can transform itself into a confident adult tree.
Then again, since this book first came out – Sheffield happened. Campaigners had to fight a long battle to save hundreds of magnificent, mature street trees from the axe. It shows, I think, just how much we value our urban trees, and how far we are prepared to go to protect them.
Street trees reflect the aspirations of a city, the conditions of the present and our legacy for the future. In London, grand oaks and planes offer a direct connection with the glories and inequalities of its past; exotic Olives and Crêpe Myrtles celebrate our multicultural world city as well as its changing climate, while Tulip Trees, Dawn Redwoods and Ginkgos will grace our streets for generations to come. I hope you enjoy discovering them all.
If you’d like to buy a copy of the new edition, it is available from Amazon, direct from Safe Haven and from me too!
In 2019, I was asked by Blue Crow Media, the publisher of some very cool city maps, whether I’d like to edit a map of London’s greatest trees. Now, that’s a fascinating project I thought, and before Derek at Blue Crow had finished, I had already said YES! Nine months later, and after much discussion and whittling down, I’m really pleased to say the very beautiful Great Trees of London Map has been published!
Of course, there are dozens, if not hundreds of great trees throughout London, and we soon came up with a long list of 127. The task of selecting just 46 great trees from that list was difficult. And there was history to contend with too.
Following the Great Storm of 1987, a list of 41 special trees selected and voted on by the public was put together by the charity, Trees for Cities. A further 20 trees were added in 2008 bringing the total to 61. Since then, several have gone the way of all trees, and currently there are 55 still standing. There are some fabulous trees on this list – like the Hardy Ash – but we felt London needed a bit of an update.
Maps offer a unique opportunity to visualise where things are, and on that original list, lots are out in the, er, sticks. We felt a map needed to have a more even spread and perhaps a greater concentration in the centre. After all, it would be great if people used the map to find the trees, and even better if they could plan routes between them.
So, from our longlist of 127 very worthy trees, we set about some heavy pruning. We used several criteria: we thought about their history, their cultural value, their diversity, their relative locations, and what they could tell us about London in the early 21st century.
And so, eventually, we agreed on 46. I hope you will forgive us if your favourite tree didn’t make the final cut, but I also hope you will appreciate an eclectic and diverse group of trees that I believe represents London’s urban forest today. I hope it is well-balanced between old and young, and that we have included just enough of our wonderful London planes and venerable old oaks.
To give you a taste of what’s included, there are some very old trees, like the Totteridge Yew or the Royal Oak at Richmond, offering a unique connection with the past. Exotic species like the Rotherhithe Silky Oak acknowledge our changing climate, while landmark trees like the New Cross Gate Giant Redwood or the Finsbury Park Almond inspire visitors to wonder at their individual stories.
As the city grows and changes, its trees will do the same. Great Trees of London Map aims to inspire us all to acknowledge and celebrate 50 of today’s truly remarkable trees.
If the map is not enough excitement, I can also announce that a fully revised edition of London’s Street Trees will be out very soon too!
To mark the occasion, the publisher, Safe Haven Books, is sponsoring the planting of a new street tree in Shoreditch. And as that’s in Hackney, it’s going to be something special… More soon: watch this space.
Today, London has 32 Boroughs (plus the City of London), but before 1965,it was made up of a multitude of small boroughs, one of which was the Borough of Bermondsey.
Now subsumed into the super-borough of Southwark, Bermondsey was, a century ago, filled with warehouses, tanneries and docks stretching from London Bridge to Surrey Quays. It was an overcrowded area teeming with humanity where more than 120,000 people were crammed into crumbling, insanitary slums. For comparison, the 1961 census records that Bermondsey’s population had declined to just over 50,000.
The following is selected from my new book, London is a Forest. It discusses the work of Ada Salter, her Beautification Committee and the trees she planted around Bermondsey.
Into this toxic environment an idealistic young woman arrived intent on transforming the lives of the area’s residents. By 1920 Ada Salter had become a Bermondsey councillor, and set about making ambitious changes. Together with her doctor husband, Alfred, they started improving housing, health and the environment. Ada set up a ‘Beautification Committee’ with the ambitious task of turning Bermondsey into a garden suburb. By 1930, 7,000 trees had been planted on the new estates and the streets of the borough.
Salter was the driving force behind the transformation of Bermondsey from industrial slum to green oasis. She was a quaker and an ethical socialist who felt her mission was to deal with the great iniquity of slum housing and the intolerable conditions in which the urban poor were forced to live. She arrived in Bermondsey as a social worker where she met her husband, Dr Alfred Salter. Together they lived in the slums among the people they represented and helped, he providing medical assistance to the poor and needy while she threw herself into alleviating social injustices affecting housing, health, worker’s and women’s rights.
Ada Salter became Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922, an important and powerful position back then. She was one of the first female mayors in the country, and was the first ever female Labour mayor. From this platform, she and her fellow councillors were able to set in motion a whole host of radical policies and reforms. Great strides in public health were made decades before the NHS existed, a programme of slum clearance alongside the erection of new homes, vastly improved sanitation, and public washing and laundry facilities were completed.
But perhaps Salter’s most long-lasting and far-reaching achievements were those of the ‘Beautification Committee’ she chaired from 1919. This innocuous sounding task force was driven by the compulsion that improving the environment was part and parcel of improving people’s lives, and that by raising aesthetic appreciation of their neighbourhoods, a sense of personal wellbeing and civic pride would be engendered. Salter’s ambition with the Beautification Committee was to turn Bermondsey into nothing less than a garden city.
This transformative vision for the borough can still be seen. Estates dating from these interwar years often have central green courtyards and balconies which, although less festooned nowadays, at one time would have been bedecked with window boxes. Elsewhere the legacy of thousands of trees planted all those decades ago can still be seen, Tower Bridge Road, Tooley Street and Jamaica Road are grand plane-lined thoroughfares, indeed virtually every street within the former borough is lined with trees.
Had it not been for the Great Depression of the early 1930s, many more workers cottages with gardens may have been built rather than the cheaper-to-construct flats that abound here. Wilson Grove and Janeway Street represent what might have been. These streets, completed in 1928, exemplify Salter’s utopian vision for ideal social housing to replace the slums. Rows of neat, faintly art deco garden-cottages were designed in consultation with local women who advised on the practical necessities required for their new homes. Greenery was at the heart of the development, gardening was encouraged, and trees lined the new streets. On Wilson Grove today, large, spreading Caucasian wingnuts (Pterocarya fraxinifolia) cast their shade. These handsome trees have big pinnate leaves (multiple leaflets on a single stem), and long, dangling seed clusters. They are unusual in London, particularly so as street trees because they require considerable space to reach their impressive potential. It could be that these individuals were planted in 1928, but, more likely, they are replacements for short-lived birches (Betula spp.) or trees of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) – the latter was Salter’s favourite species – that may well have been specified for Bermondsey’s high profile housing project. Intriguingly, trees of heaven and Caucasian wingnuts have similar leaves and are quite easily confused, particularly when they are saplings. Maybe then, Wilson Grove’s wingnuts were planted in error by a well-meaning but mistaken urban tree planter in decades past.
Not far away, on Druid Street, opposite the arches carrying the elevated railway lines from London Bridge, lies the Dr Alfred Salter Children’s Playground. Here, on a raised flower bed between the swings and flats of the Fair Street Estate (typical of Bermondsey’s low-rise interwar developments) a broad-crowned tree marks the vault where the ashes of Alfred and Ada Salter are interred. This is a tree of heaven, between 20-30 years old, and one of just a handful consciously planted in recent years. Ada Salter planted hundreds of them though and they are, perhaps, the species that defines the work of her Beautification Committee. Originating from China, they were introduced in the 1700s and have been in and out of fashion ever since. Originally they were an attractive curiosity: large trees with huge leaves almost resembling palm fronds, and conspicuous seeds, more or less red, appearing in the high canopies in late summer. In the nineteenth century, their pollution tolerance, rapid growth and easy propagation – seedlings and suckers can, remarkably, grow several metres in their first years – meant they were good candidates for planting in industrial cities.
By the early twentieth century, they were particularly recommended for planting in the grimier parts of east and south London for these reasons, and having encountered them in Paris, Salter was, apparently, smitten. They appeared to be the perfect tree for Bermondsey, and large trees from her era can still be seen today, Long Lane between Tower Bridge Road and Borough tube station is lined with fine, mature examples. While they are large and fast growing, they are also short-lived – in their dotage at seventy – so these trees may only have a few years left before they are replaced. When that time comes, they will no doubt be succeeded by a different species.
Since the mass planting days of the last century, trees of heaven have proven to be invasive, springing up in front gardens, railway embankments, cracks in walls and anywhere else they can find a niche. Unlike the misunderstood sycamore, there are many good reasons not to plant them. They barely support other species, they can cause structural damage, they can poison other plants, and their abundant seeds produce an overpowering or according to some, appalling, smell. In North America they have become known as the ‘ghetto palm’, a reference to their giant leaves and propensity to quickly colonise unused lots.