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Books Urban landscape Walking

Twelve Trees that Defined my Lockdown – Part 2

This is my second half dozen, for the first six, see Twelve Trees that Defined my Lockdown – Part 1.

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.

Out Now: London Tree Walks

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.

Modern: A mature Chinese tree privet in early March

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.

Old Peculiar: Fulham oak acorn and leaves

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!


9. Acton’s Swamp Cypress

On the way to discover How the Elephant Got its Trunk, Acton’s huge old swamp cypress is a very surprising sight.

Road Hog: The magnificent swamp cypress on Julian Avenue

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.

Heavenly: The towering sweetgum in St Paul’s Churchyard

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.

Your Worship: Is this fine spreading tree a Manchurian walnut?

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.

Right Honourable: The catalpas at the Palace of Westminster date to 1859

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.

If these half dozen arboreal stars have whetted your appetite, check out the first six trees, and get the book. It’s available from all the usual places including Bookshop.org, Stanfords and directly from me (signed of course!)

* Read more about the Churchill Gardens estate on the brilliant Municipal Dreams blog.

That wonderful avenue of mature London planes at the top of the page can be found on the Legal London walk.

Categories
Books Urban landscape Walking

Twelve Trees that Defined my Lockdown – Part 1

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. 

Out Now: London Tree Walks

The book consists of twelve walks in many corners of London from Acton to Walthamstow, and during the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting two blogs featuring a tree on the route of each walk. I hope these will offer a taste of the book.

Here, then, are the first six:

1. Queen’s Wood Hornbeam

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.

Rippling: Dramatic sinewy trunk of the Queen’s Wood Hornbeam

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.

Awesome: Walthamstow’s landmark conker tree

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.

Sweet spot: Hackney’s unusual bee-bee trees are irresistible to pollinators

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.

Doggone: The striking swollen bole of a ‘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.

Angel’s Delight: Tree of heaven seeds and leaves in SE1

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.

Your Honour: One of south London’s finest

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.

And if you’re wondering about the Canary palm… it’s outside Hackney Town Hall and can be seen on the London’s Urban Arboretum walk.

Categories
Ancient trees Street Trees Urban landscape Walking

The Carlton Road Oak: Ealing’s Elephantine Tree

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…

Showstopper: Circus celebs of yesteryear

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?

Island Queen: The middle of Carlton Road, a very precarious spot for a veteran oak tree

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.

Gang of Four: The Elephant Tree is one of a row of veteran oaks

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?


Road Hog: The Carlton Road Oak in all its battered yet resilient glory

Circus elephant image from Alison Marchant on Flickr.

The Carlton Road Oak features in my new book, London Tree Walks, signed copies of which are available from yours truly.