Street Trees Urban landscape

Olive and Kicking

I wonder what they were thinking, planting Olive trees on the streets of de Beauvoir Town and Pentonville? I like to think it is a nod to the glory days of 1980s Islington when media types slurped their way through tankers of new world Chardonnay accompanied by mountains of juicy olives.

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Extra virgin: Ripe fruit on an Islington street tree

Famed in tabloid imaginations for a pioneering fondness of continental gourmet goods, Islingtonians now have an opportunity to get with the small-batch artisanal craft food programme burgeoning in neighbouring Hackney. A locally produced olive crop could be the source of North London’s own cold-pressed lubricant or salty morsel – the uses of the fruit of Olea europaea are many and varied as the ancients could testify.

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A trailer loada trees: Stunted and twisted Olive trees arriving in Clerkenwell

Small but nevertheless fruit-bearing olive trees are to be found in several locations in the borough where they blend in seamlessly in these unlikely urban groves. The silvery evergreen foliage mirrors the au courant colour choices rocking the halls and doors of interiors from Clerkenwell to Canonbury.

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Singular estate: An Olive street tree graces a salubrious Pentonville Regency terrace

The Mediterranean exoticism of the olive is somewhat diminished by the ubiquitousness of hacked around trees used as props in restaurants and serviced offices. Nevertheless, the Olive tree is not to be overlooked – an attractive and extremely long-lived tree, it is a remarkable choice for a street tree, perhaps unique to Islington? Throughout my travels in Olive growing lands, I have never seen these trees lining streets in Greece, Italy or Spain.

Olives are inedible until they have been through a complex process of curing and fermenting so I am unable to report on the taste of the Islington fruit. But, while photographing trees recently, I witnessed a blackbird plucking a ripened olive from it’s branch, so they clearly do have some takers.

You can find the Islington groves here…

River Street, EC1:

Rotherfield Street, N1:

Urban landscape

Old St. Pancras’ Hardy Tree

The graveyard of Old St. Pancras church is full of interest: tucked away behind the station, it contains several things worth missing a train for, not least some venerable old trees.

The churchyard has survived much as it must have appeared in the mid 19th century when the last significant alterations were made. Its architectural treasures remain gently crumbling in Victorian aspic, while its botanic notables have been left to grow old gracefully. Here’s a glimpse of the St. Pancras Road entrance courtesy of Google Streetview:

The church itself has ancient roots although the current building is largely Victorian. It was originally perched on the banks of the semi-mythical river Fleet which, thanks to 19th century railway development, is now culverted and entirely hidden from view. This railway work also resulted in the churchyard being built on and the consequent need to move graves from the path of progress.

I do not know whether any campaigning took place to stop the new railway slicing through this consecrated land, but I wonder if moving the graves and deconsecrating the land would have caused emotions to run high?

The job of removing the gravestones and exhuming the interred fell to one Thomas Hardy (yes, the Thomas Hardy) who, to cut a long story short (you can read the longer story here) created a deeply fascinating architectural installation…

The Hardy Tree, an Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) surrounded by gravestones, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
Fraxinus Excelsior: The Hardy Ash Tree forms the focal point of Thomas' visionary tombstone wheel

It is a remarkable, ambiguous memorial reminiscent of a 20th century art intervention. A wheel of tombstones, each spoke made up of two rows back to back, at its apex is an Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) now grown so large that its roots ooze over and through the stones, the slow force of growth has cracked and broken them in places. The tree must be at least 163 years old – a youngster compared to how old the species can become. The whole ensemble is now known as the ‘Hardy Tree’ and takes an unconventional form inspired by expediency rather than the conventional architectural aesthetics of the day. Its purpose was surely to provide a fitting monument for the relatives of the moved, for some of the disinterred may have been recently buried judging by the style of the gravestones.

And the other things to look out for in Old St. Pancras churchyard? See below:

Burdett-Coutts monument, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
The Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial: Grade 1 listed high camp gothic pinnacle featuring Portland stone doggies, mosaic pansies and some lichen covered remnants of wrought iron railings.


Sir John Soane's masoleum, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
Sir John Soane's Memorial: An interesting, somewhat deconstructed assemblage of architectural elements carved from stone of varying hues. Allegedly the inspiration behind the red London phone box (a four-cornered low dome is featured in the centrepiece), it might also have inspired the inventors of Lego.


London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia), Old St Pancras churchyard, London
London Plane: A massive and splendid two hundred year old London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) encircled by an iron bench.

And if you’re still interested, I have posted more photos (including one of the Portland stone doggie) in an Old St. Pancras churchyard Flickr set.

Street Trees Urban landscape

On another Plane

I’ve been working up to the inevitable London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) post for some time but this, you may be pleased to know, is not it. Instead I’d like to compare notes on one of it’s parents, the Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis).

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Plane difference: The Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis) can be distinguished from the London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) by its more deeply lobed leaves

Two examples of these relatives of the acerifolia (Maple-leaved) tree inhabit Brunswick Square Gardens in the heart of Bloomsbury next door to Coram’s Fields and the fascinating Foundling Museum.

These gardens are what remain of an undoubtedly fine Georgian Square noted as the fictional home of Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. Now they are surrounded by more modern developments: no buildings of those romantic days survive and the small public park that is now Brunswick Square Gardens is managed by Camden Council.

One reminder of the past (although very much part of the present) is the enormous and venerable London Plane (P. x acerifolia) that dominates the gardens. This magnificent tree, possibly a remnant from the original development, will have witnessed many changes around the Square and tolerated a varied cocktail of noxious fumes during its centuries on the spot.

In its shadow are two equally remarkable Oriental Planes (P. oriental). This pair – of indeterminate age – are Bonsai trees in comparison. Although much smaller and easier to miss they have arguably more character; they exhibit pot-bellied, burry old boles reminiscient of ancient oaks and have elegantly spreading canopies developed over decades, if that is a suitably ageing unit to use.

Platanus orientalis were classified by Linnaeus and were so named due to their origin in the east. ‘Oriental’ in eighteenth century botanical circles referred to anywhere east of Sweden, in this case the Balkans and Turkey. The Oriental Plane has been a feature and often the focal point of Greek villages, the late Roger Deakin mentions an ancient hollow Plane on the island of Lesbos in his book ‘Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees‘:

‘At what must have been the village centre, the living remains of an enormous oriental plane stood. Its massive trunk was hollow and had broken off ten feet above the ground, perhaps as a result of a lightning bolt. It was charred inside and out, yet fresh living boughs were again springing from a tree that must once have shaded the spring and steam bath.’

Platanus Orientalis, Brunswick Square Gardens, London
Plane to see: One of the Oriental Plane trees (Platanus orientalis) in Brunswick Square Gardens, London showing it's bulbous bole and typical multistemmed, spreading form

My two gnarled ancestors of the London Plane are typical in their growth – according to my research the Oriental Plane can be a large tree sometimes attaining the great size common in its progeny, but often becomes multistemmed and spreading.

I am very fond of these two trees, they are not like other public trees in central London which have to take on trim and uniform shapes defined by triennial pruning regimes laid down by local authorities fearful of the potential damage a splintered arboreal limb might cause a no-win-no-fee solicitor or his clients.

Check out the various Planes of Brunswick Square Gardens on Google street view:

Further reading:

  1. P. orientalis entry on Wikipedia
  2. Corsham Court Oriental plane ‘most spreading tree in UK’ – BBC new story from 07/06/2011
  3. Take a look at my Plane tree set on Flickr.
Urban landscape

Trees of Heaven

That tenacious suckerer, the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) has been at it all over London.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Finsbury Estate, London
Bedded in: ToH enjoying the company of some lurid Dahlias on the Finsbury Estate

Since my last post on the Tree of Heaven, I have been seeing them everywhere. They are invasive and potentially damaging, but they appear to be tolerated, even encouraged by Londoners. It’s not just in the privacy of domestic gardens; the ToH manages to blend in to civic planting schemes just as sneakily.

Check this chancer out on the underground reservoir bank at the corner of Amwell Street and Claremont Square in Islington:

Since the Google street-view was taken in 2007/8 (I think?) this one has grown into a medium-sized tree blending in effortlessly with its older, planted neighbours. Only its position so close to the railing gives away its interloper status.

Further down Amwell Street I saw another opportunist thriving in a crack between the pavement and a basement wall of a Georgian townhouse. Unusually I couldn’t locate the parent tree for these Amwell Street tenants, maybe it’s in a back garden or perhaps these are suckers from a street tree now removed.

The success of the Tree of Heaven seems to be its ability to appear inoffensive, its attractiveness helps too, but perhaps it is its brazenness that works best for it. It will just pop up surprising a new landlord or landlady and rapidly take hold growing metres per year in some cases.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Amwell Street, London
To Let: ToH opportunistically squatting in a basement wall of a fine Georgian house in Amwell Street

I suspect there will be more ToH posts in the future, and I have started a leafy invader Flickr set which I will be adding to in the meantime.

Street Trees

Bedford Row Robinias

Bedford Row is a very handsome eighteenth century London street, in some ways more handsome than it’s Bloomsbury neighbours north of the Theobald’s Road divide. It is wider than Great James Street and softer than Doughty Street, it is lined largely by fine Georgian terraces, (the exception being a post-war infill half way up on the western side), now mostly law firms and esoteric consultancy businesses.

Robinia Pseodoacacia avenue on Bedford Row
Robinia Pseodoacacia avenue on Bedford Row

The Row’s charm is helped in no small measure by being lined with mature feathery-leaved Robinias. These North American trees take on interesting and characterful shapes as they grow older and the Bedford Row specimens have become reminiscent of those familar and quitessentially English trees rendered by Constable or Gainsborough. From a distance they might be mistaken for Elms, a half-remembered image still burned in the English consciousness despite the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease laying waste to the species way back in the early 1970s.

Robinia Pseudoacacia
Robinia Pseudoacacia - single specimen on Bedford Row

This is my second Robinia post in only three days – read about the Golden Robinia of Barnsbury.

Take a virtual trip down Beford Row thanks to Google Street Tree view: