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Books London is a Forest

The Low Down on the New Edition of London is a Forest

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.


Pre-order your signed copy now


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.

Kensal Green Cemetery
Alive and kicking: Kensal Green Cemetery is home to a significant group of mature oriental planes, could this be the finest clump in London?

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.”

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London is a Forest Street Trees Urban landscape

Ada Salter and the Beautification of Bermondsey

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. 

Far Sighted: A statue of Ada Salter on Bermondsey Wall East

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. 

Mistaken Identity? Caucasian wingnuts on Wilson Grove

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.

Tree Museum: The tree of heaven planted above the vault containing the ashes of Ada and Alfred Salter

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.

A Tree Grows in Bloomsbury: Trees of heaven are noted for their ability to thrive in difficult urban environments as this handsome tree in Marchmont St, WC2 demonstrates

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. 

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Opportunist: A tree of heaven thicket in Nine Elms. Note the inscription on the old metal cabinet in the left foreground recalling Battersea Borough Council. Like Bermondsey, it is another lost borough consumed by Wandsworth in local government reorganisation of 1965.

Further Reading

Web
See my posts about trees of heaven and those in Bermondsey more specifically.

Municipal Dream’s thoroughly researched post about the Beautification of Bermondsey.

Print
Graham Taylor’s excellent biography: Ada Salter, Pioneer of Ethical Socialism.

Fenner Brockway’s biography of Alfred Salter, now out of print. Bermondsey Story; the life of Alfred Salter.

Mark Johnston’s important work, Street Trees in Britain: A History contains a section entitled Bermondsey and the Salters


July 20th would have been Ada Salter’s birthday, and to celebrate her legacy, the Cherry Garden TRA is throwing a birthday party in 2019 at which I shall be leading a walk around Wilson Grove and speaking about her environmental legacy.

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London is a Forest Urban landscape

Trekking through the urban forest

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.

London is a Forest Endpapers trails
Trail Mix: The six forest trails in London is a Forest

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.

Categories
London is a Forest Urban landscape

London is a Forest – A Labour of Love

I’m thrilled to announce, on Valentine’s Day, that my new book ‘London is a Forest’ will be published on 2nd May!

Book Now: London is a Forest by the ‘aptly named’ Paul Wood

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.

London is a Forest is available to preorder on Amazon from today – order your copy now!

Lying Low: The ancient and recumbent Lesnes Abbey Mulberry. Just one of the fascinating trees featured in London is a Forest

Have I piqued your interest? Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting some snippets from the book here as well as on my Twitter and Instagram.