Forty years ago it was impossible to walk through a London park or the British countryside and not notice, marked against the horizon, the unmistakable outline of the elm tree. But in the 1970s millions of elm trees were lost to Dutch elm disease, transforming our landscape.
But unknown to many Londoners, the elm lives on in the capital, providing important habitats for many other species, as well as through its contribution to London’s history and culture.
To mark the start of National Tree Week Somerset House hosts The Conservation Foundation’s Ulmus Londinium elm heritage installation, including a weekend of talks and demonstrations on 28 and 29 November starting at 2pm.
In our streets
Elm’s strong, water resistant qualities has lent it to many uses in crafts and the built environment. At the London Museum of Water & Steam you can find a demonstration of one of its early uses: to carry the capital’s first piped water. In the 17th century vast quantities of elm were grown in the Thames Basin to supply the demand, and the sounds of machines boring the trunks to create a pipe echoed through the countryside.
On the Thames, lock gates and boat keels were often made of elm, while elm piles kept Old London Bridge out of the water which, despite the famous nursery rhyme, stood standing for six centuries. You can find the last remnants of the medieval bridge at St Magnus the Martyr’s church on Lower Thames Street, along with a model of the bridge.
The elm has also lefts its mark prolifically throughout London’s streets. Their often striking statures led to their use as route way markers and plantings to line avenues. Today this is shown in almost 200 London street names that reference the elms that have stood there. There are also less obvious references, such as Seven Sisters in Tottenham, named after a stand of elms and referenced at the tube station through a mosaic of seven elms by Transport for London designer Hans Unger and in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The English Elms.
Off the street, elm can also be found in London’s houses. A dip into Brent Archives reveals architect Ernest Trobridge’s experiment with elm wood in the 1920s for housing — cheap and plentiful at the time, and stronger than many other woods — to meet the post-First World War population expansion. You can still find many of his houses in the area.
The capital’s culture
The elm also features prominently in London’s cultural history. In art, many of John Constable’s paintings at the V&A feature the elm, most obviously in Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree which was painted on Hampstead Heath, and in more contemporary pieces including The Twilight Tree sculpture in Acton Park.
Elm has often been used in medicine to treat wounds, giddiness and even leprosy, illustrated at Richmond Park’s old Victorian pharmacy, and today through the occasional use of slippery elm for sore throats and stomach pains. However, the tree also has a rather darker association. Rudyard Kipling’s A Tree Song highlights its reputation for dropping boughs on passersby, and the wood was often chosen for coffins, including for Anne Boleyn’s at the Tower of London.
At Marble Arch, a plaque marks the spot of The Tyburn Tree, originally a large elm tree and later a gallows, used to hang the convicted. Nuns of the nearby Tyburn Convent commemorate the Catholic martyrs that died here and a recent grove of disease-resistant elms can be found across the road at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park.
The park is dotted with other elms, including next to the site of the 1851 Great Exhibition — by today’s tennis courts — which paved the way for the cultural wealth of museums on Exhibition Road and Albertopolis. They have long-featured in the park and such was the public uproar when two enormous elms were to be felled for the exhibition’s glasshouse, that a dome was added so they could be accommodated within it. However, there was concern that sparrows nesting in the trees would soil visitors. To prevent this a sparrow hawk, at the request of the Queen and her husband Albert, was introduced.
London’s elms today
Today, the elm is a much rarer site in the capital, but you can still find significant numbers — approximately 4,000 in Greater London. Many grow in hedgerows as a result of the English elm’s tendency to “sucker” along root systems, creating rows of identical elms and prolific spring blossom — which they celebrate as Spring Snow in Amsterdam — but many much grander trees can also be found.
At the top of Marylebone High Street you can find what could be London’s oldest elm, thought to be some 150 years old. As well as surviving the ravages of Dutch elm disease and London’s sprawling development, the tree also narrowly avoided a World War Two bomb, to which the Garden of Rest on the site of a former church now testifies. Here, many new elms have also recently been planted thanks to the W1W Tree Planting Scheme, while to the north Regent’s Park contains a grove of rare Japanese elms by the Sicilian Fountain, and a Caucasian elm which came down in a storm is clambered over by children in the park’s Marylebone Green Playground.
Hunting down London’s elms can also reveal the wider heritage of places. Tucked behind St Pancras rail station, in an old churchyard, you can find a number of “weeping” elms among the gravestone-encased Hardy Tree, and John Soane's mausoleum, which inspired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's design for London's infamous red telephone box.
By James Coleman
The Ulmus Londinium installation is in the New Wing of Somerset House until 6 December, with talks and demonstrations on 28 and 29 November from 2pm. Further details at www.conservationfoundation.co.uk