No tree-hugging, please.

06/05/20

Architecture journalist, Harriet Thorpe, writes about the infrastructure of or cities beyond the bricks and mortar, celebrating the trees of our city.

Plane Windrush Sq Brixton 

For many people in London neighbourhoods have recently become worlds. Running, walking or cycling, you’ve probably covered some new ground within a mile radius of your home during your daily exercise or essential outings in the past month. No doubt readers will have exhausted any architectural sites of note on route, so how about setting your sights on some trees?

There’s an explosive Canary Palm on Millbank worth a visit. A 2000-year-old Totteridge Yew in north London worthy of a pilgrimage. Brockwell Park’s magnificent oak, estimated at 500, deserves some attention too, and did you know there is an avenue of Japanese Yoshino Cherries in Herne Hill?

These trees are all plotted on the new Great Trees of London Map  by Paul Wood an urban forester on a mission to protect London’s trees for generations to come. Unfold the printed map, from Blue Crow Media’s handsome series of urban maps, to meet Barney of Barnes, the first Plane tree planted in London 350 years ago. First a 17th century curiosity, the Plane tree would later become the most popular tree species in the city.

Yoshino Cherries Winterbrook Road 

While each tree doesn’t have its own nickname like Barney, each one does tell it’s own tale: “Exotic species like the Rotherhithe Silky Oak acknowledge our changing climate, while landmark trees like the New Cross Gate Giant Redwood or the Hardy Ash inspire visitors to wonder at their individual stories,” says Wood, who, during lockdown, has just released a revised and expanded edition of his book London's Street Tree.

Wood is also participating in the upcoming Urban Tree Festival, running virtually from 16 to 24 May with a programme covering the Green Belt, city orchards, nature writing and the health benefits of trees. Supported by charity Trees for Cities, Tonkin Liu Architects, Bell House London, and CPRE London, the festival is ‘a celebration of urban and suburban trees, woods, forests, scrubland, hedgerows and all the wild places that bring life and joy to our cities’.

According to Trees for Cities, London’s trees remove 2.4 million tonnes of pollution from the air each year and research from the University of East Anglia finds that leafy surroundings can improve the immune system amongst other benefits. I’ve spent some blustery days at Hainault recreation ground and Jolly’s Green planting trees with Trees for Cities on their volunteer planting days. Whether it was chatting with neighbours over a hot tea, meeting my local councillor whilst digging a hole, or the fresh joy of the young saplings themselves – I certainly felt the health benefits.

Recent temporary closures of Victoria Park and Brockwell Park have revealed how much we city-dwellers depend on green spaces and appreciate them. While councils can’t chain the gates to the urban trees that line stretches of street and pop up in pocket squares, some of them are at risk – such as a magnificent Black Mulberry in Bethnal Green that Wood highlights on the map.

Awareness and appreciation of London’s urban trees can only be a good thing. So on your next escape from the house – for your daily exercise or for an essential journey – why not say hello (or direct a discreet nod, no tree hugging) to some of your local trees.

Disclaimer: please enjoy London’s trees safely in line with government guidelines

Hardy Ash