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250-year-old tree at Highgate Cemetery meets chainsaw after being declared dangerous

'There is a scene in Hampstead where Diane Keaton is having a picnic underneath the Cedar of Lebanon – if a branch fell on her it could have been a nasty end for Keaton'

08 August, 2019 — By Helen Chapman

IT predates Highgate Cemetery itself, towering over the land that became the historic burial ground for two-and-a-half centuries.

But this week the striking Cedar of Lebanon tree, a centrepiece of the West Cemetery, was declared to be dying and dangerous as it was chopped down with a chainsaw.

“It was like hearing a relative has progressive cancer,” said Ian Dungavell, the cemetery’s chief executive. “It is like being asked to switch off a life support machine, but it has been suffering for a long time and has reached the end of its life.”

The West Cemetery, which has tour-only access to visitors and is the final resting place of singer George Michael, novelist Beryl Bainbridge and the painter Lucian Freud, opened in 1839 with the tree already there. Listed burial chambers dating back to that time are nearby and Mr Dungavell said: “Those vaults contain coffins so we could have a case where branches collapse on the lodges. We don’t know what is going on underneath. It might damage the coffins underground or even uproot some of the bodies.”

Volunteers at the cemetery bade farewell to the tree on Sunday before the tree surgeons arrived the next morning.

Mr Dungavell said: “First we noticed some fungus so we called the experts. The tree inspector came last Thursday and used a micro hammer to measure the pressure. A healthy wood would have more resilience. The results of that were not good. Then he used an old-fashioned hammer and went around knocking at the stems to check if they were hollow. It had been cordoned as a dangerous tree – it is likely to collapse.”

He added: “He [the tree inspector] even took his wife back to say bye. These tree experts don’t make these decisions because they are out to get trees – they do it because they love trees. It is not a decision to take lightly. We did all we could and had it regularly inspected. If we could have seen it saved we really would have. Drone footage shows there are pine cones way at the top of the tree. I want to keep one as a souvenir.”

Dr Ian Dungavel

In 2017 a snow storm damaged some branches at the very top of the tree leaving a gap. The cemetery was also told it was hit by lightning in the early 2000s. Mr Dungavell said: “It is pretty special architecture and a special tree. It’s not just a tree – it’s the most important tree in the landscape because the cemetery is built around it.”

The West Cemetery burial chambers can be seen in films Fantastic Beasts: the Crimes of Grindelwald and Hampstead, the latter based on the life of Harry “the Hermit” Hallowes, who lived in a shack on Hampstead Heath.

Mr Dungavell said: “There is a scene in Hampstead where Diane Keaton is having a picnic underneath the Cedar of Lebanon – if a branch fell on her it could have been a nasty end for Keaton.”

Chainsaw work on the Cedar of Lebanon

Plans are being made to install a new tree in the autumn.

“We will need something big to make the use of the space so will probably have to bring it in by helicopter,” said Mr Dungavell. “We will have to think about the logistics and our budget.”

The tree’s wood will be donated to Wood that Works, a recycling project based in Highgate Newtown. Mr Dungavell said: “They will probably only need the branches, which would be nice to make coasters out of. We would be interested in talking to any woodworking groups who read this in New Journal. It is consoling for us as part of the whole process. People like to see trees reused, to see it used for good.”


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