Swapping aeroplanes for London Planes on a tree tour of the capital

James Ware seeks out the green gems in London’s concrete jungle

Monday 08 February 2021 13:14
A tree tour is a novel way of exploring the city
A tree tour is a novel way of exploring the city

f all the journeys I expected to go on this year, a pilgrimage to Totteridge, the penultimate stop on the Northern Line, certainly wasn’t one of them. It’s in N20. In a postcode pub quiz, I couldn’t have told you as a lifelong Londoner that there were 20 Ns.

With the current travelscape, it does an admirable job of plugging the long-haul gap. Famous residents of Totteridge over the years have included Sir Cliff Richard, Arsene Wenger and Des O’Connor. But I’m not here to see any of them. I’m here to see a resident much more longstanding: The Totteridge Yew. The oldest tree in London, coming in at 1,000 to 2,000 years old.

Forget trainspotting, this is treespotting, a travel pursuit that’s seen me swap aeroplanes for London Planes. I’m surprised how heady a pastime being a tree tourist proves. Unfurling my copy of the Great Trees of London, a satisfyingly old school tree treasure map showcasing 50 of the capital’s top trees, it’s a proper baptism by bark. There’s a basic delight to spending the day navigating by map not app.

With the interminable trek involved, I wondered whether the yew it’s guiding me to could be anticlimactic. But when I arrive at the churchyard that houses it, I am absorbed by its leafy aura. Getting up close and personal with its wizened hollow branches, which have taken on a vintage marbling of ancient greens and whisky browns, I find myself briefly on its wooden wavelength, simply tree and me.

There’s also a moment when I’m with the map’s author, Paul Wood, on Wood Street, talking about wood when it feels quite possible I’ve entered the tree Matrix. “Trees are big at the moment,” Wood acknowledges, having ridden the tree trajectory from a blog started for his own interest, The Street Tree, to having just published his third book, London Tree Walks, which contains 12 different tree routes through the city. So what’s his top tip for an arboreal amateur? “We just need to look. And then you will discover that there are all sorts of fascinating things to see”.

He goes about showing me some highlights of his new book’s central circuit around St Paul’s, with endearingly pure enthusiasm for everything we encounter. His comments convey both his knowledge and his knack for an accessible tone: “A really tremendous tree”, “Not an ordinary tulip tree”, “The Sweetgum is fantastic. The largest example I know of that one”.

A Canary palm

Right by where we’d been standing, he remarks on a Japanese bitter orange tree overhead, informing me that it’s the only type of citrus tree that will grow easily in London. We inspect its oranges, which you can apparently make marmalade from. If it hadn’t been for Wood pointing it out, I never would have noticed that I was right below this source of metropolis marmalade. What I realise I’m learning, as our tour continues, is a new lens to see London through. As Wood says, “it’s a way of looking at and experiencing the city but with just a slightly different angle than you would normally”.

It’s not just about seeing either. The tour turns out to be multi-sensory too. The gingko tree is one of the oldest in the world, stretching back 270 million years, meaning that it predates dinosaurs. Yet it’s rare to encounter a female gingko because in the autumn they produce such incredibly foul-smelling fruit that they’re seldom planted. Humorously enough, the female gingko featured on the map is right outside the Royal Horticultural Society, which makes you suspect that it must have been planted in some horticultural high jinks. As Wood had warned me, its fruit smells as if someone just opened their bathroom door having failed to flush their toilet since New Year’s Eve with several medium-sized mammals having also fallen in and rotted away. It’s a real sensory safari, the gingko stink.

Yoshino Cherries on Winterbrook Road

To make any niche hobby mainstream, a healthy sprinkling of innuendo never goes amiss and I am tickled by the map’s suggestion for Brockwell Park’s oak: “Get up close to appreciate its vast girth.” Some of the other facts it reveals on my tour ignite a more childlike curiosity in me. For example, Berkeley Square’s London Planes, which I’ve walked past countless times before, are valued at up to £750,000 each by London’s Tree Officers. I find myself trying to imagine how the Great Tree Robbers would attempt to make a getaway with one’s gargantuan trunk. Also, how do you become a Tree Officer? I can’t say I remember that option from careers day.

At a time when the closest any of us are going to be getting to palm trees any time soon is in the form of a desktop screensaver, I particularly appreciated the exotic elements of the tour. The tropical traffic feature that is the Canary palm, in the middle of Millbank’s Lambeth Bridge roundabout, provided some welcome winter warmth. The avenue of Yoshino Cherry Trees on Winterbrook Road makes Herne Hill feel like a commuter Kyoto, their ruffled orange foliage arching imperially over the suburban street. I’m already plotting a spring return to see them in all their blossomed glory in late March.

Forget trainspotting, this is treespotting, a travel pursuit that’s seen me swap aeroplanes for London Planes

My journey comes to an end at New Cross Gate station, there to see the giant redwood that towers over Platform 1 to such an extent it renders it part of a model railway. My last experience of a giant redwood had been a drive-through tree in California and this is one you can catch a train past. Its monumental proportions seem to make it a particularly transportive tree. Admiring it from the platform, there’s something in its planted presence that does briefly make time stop, even with the station clocks all around me. What I’d realised throughout the day is that trees don’t just enable us to see the city differently, they allow us to see more broadly. And if there’s ever been a time to value being able to vary our vision, it’s now, when we all feel increasingly blinkered. Even when we can’t go further afield than the urban forest, we can still travel through trees’ transcendence. And I’m thankful to have been shown this wooden way.

Tree trivia

  • London’s oldest Plane Tree, “Barney” in Barn Elms Playing Field, is thought to have been planted around 1680. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the Plane’s popularity took off and it became known as the “London Plane”.
  • The riverside Plane in Twickenham is one of the tallest in the country, standing at over 40 metres high.
  • The oldest tree in Richmond Park, The Royal Oak, has been dated at around 750 years old.
  • London’s Urban Heat Island’s higher temperatures means that tree species that couldn’t survive in other parts of the country thrive in the city.
  • Tree planting follows fashions, with tree trends tending to go in cycles of 10 or 20 years.
  • Every year, an awards ceremony known as “The Tree Oscars” is hosted at City Hall to give out The London Tree and Woodland Awards. 

Paul Wood is the author of the Great Trees of London Map and the recently released London Tree Walks, which can both be purchased here.

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