Special branches: why London loves trees
According to author Paul Wood, the capital contains enough trees to designate it a forest. Dan Carrier talks to him about his new book
02 May, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Author Paul Wood’s new book, London is a Forest, explores the capital’s ‘natural havens’. Photo: Islington Faces
WITH London becoming ever more polluted, with every scrap of land having a monetary value developers hope to exploit, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are an urban jungle, not a tree-filled green oasis.
But author Paul Wood argues in his new book, London is a Forest, that if we look about us, our city is exactly that. Under the United Nations’ definition of a forest, our capital qualifies – so where are all these trees?
“Among the buildings, roads and railways, nature is thriving,” writes the Islington-based author and self-taught tree expert.
“This urban forest is a patchwork consisting of innumerable natural havens, from the gardens of suburbia to ancient woodlands, to parks and open spaces.”
In London, there is “an incredible range of habitats, species and landscapes”.
Paul says his interest in trees dates from a Kentish childhood spent under canopies of leaves.
“At the end of my garden was a wood,” he recalls. “I would scamper in, build dens and climb.”
By the age of 12, he was collecting seedlings and growing hundreds of trees in yoghurt pots. Moving to London as a student offered the chance to marvel at street trees, parks and railway cuttings – and, above all, nature’s resilience.
His book takes the reader on six walks from outer to inner London, and describes what you can find en route. It is an exhaustive piece of research with wonderful asides and anecdotes drawing on social history, architecture, heritage, eras and people that are linked to the trees he finds so captivating.
One walk starts at the Totteridge yew in Barnet – the oldest in London, which could have been a seedling 2,000 years ago – and among the highlights is a set of pear trees in St John’s Villas, Archway.
“Before the Victorian residential developments of Holloway, Highbury and Tufnell Park, market gardens and orchards that would have fed the city were common around here and the boundaries determined over centuries or even millennia are now preserved in the Victorian street pattern,” he writes.
The remnants of the fruit trees are still with us and many are now largely ornamental – except in St John’s Villas.
“It is lined with sand pears,” writes Paul. “Each year they produce large, russet apple-like fruit adored by the culinary adventurous and loathed by less sure-footed residents.”
He describes how Highbury Corner was hit by a V2 flying rocket in the Second World War – a tragedy that killed 26 people – and how “an intriguing array of now-mature trees” were planted to test the resilience of a number of species to urban living. They include a southern beech from Chile, several maples and an array of conifers.
He also notes how a council officer around 30 to 40 years ago must have liked the rare Caucasian Wingnut – a tree that is an occasional feature in Islington streets.
Such vignettes open your eyes in a new way to the urban environment.
When discussing the Amwell Fig – “a huge three-trunked specimen wider than it is tall and propped up behind a fence outside Clerkenwell Parochial School on Amwell Street” – he points out that not only does it date from the school’s building in 1828, it may have been planted to help teachers illustrate biblical tales.
The link between trees and industry is noted, too. He points out that there has been a symbiotic relationship for millennia – our woods are managed spaces, no matter how wild they appear.
London woods were not usually used for timber: to create building materials, you would have to take a tree down and shape the wood from its trunk. Instead, places such as Highgate and Queen’s Wood would have been carefully managed for other materials: fire wood, tools and the like. And it is no surprise to learn that The Woodman pub, is named after those workers who coppiced and harvested the trees nearby.
He also spots a patch behind Highgate tube, which Paul says is former railway land and has been left to its own devices for more than 50 years.
“It has evolved into a dense woodland of vigorous sycamore, ash and ivy that offers a glimpse of what London might look like in the future if nature were given free rein.”
Above all, if we city dwellers open our eyes, we can see an urban space has greenery. If we recognise that, we can work to protect and increase it.
“You might think of London as a place just of traffic and pollution, of noise and bricks and buildings,” Paul adds. “But if you look across from Parliament Hill, you begin to comprehend just how many trees there are. We have a green city – much greener than Paris or New York. It is worth celebrating and hopefully by doing so it will help make it more so in the future.
“We are on the cusp of big environmental changes, such as how we get around, and this in turn will impact on pollution and green spaces. Trees will play a continuing, and larger, role in our lives.”
• London is a Forest. By Paul Wood, Hardie Grant Publishing, £12