It seems to me that of all the trees that have become venerable in London, the plane tree in Cheapside is the most venerable and, considering the circumstance, the most noble of them all.
That was Gardeners' Magazine in 1881. Fast-forward almost 140 years, and the Cheapside plane (actually on Wood Street) is still there, more venerable and noble than ever. It is designated as a Great Tree of London, the only one in the Square Mile. But do passers-by still notice it?
Our ancestors certainly did. Written accounts of the tree are legion in the 19th century. It was practically worshipped. Then, as now, it was the only mature tree on Cheapside, and treasured as a rare piece of greenery.
Walter Thornbury, in his 1873 book Old and New London, says that the tree 'has cheered many a wary business man with memories of the fresh green fields far away'. Even Wordsworth bowed to the boughs. Though he doesn't single out the tree, its presence is felt in the 1797 poem Poor Susan.
At the corner of Wood-Street, when day-light appears,
There's a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years.
Poor Susan has pass'd by the spot and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the bird.
'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees.
Some of the lines are copied onto a board at the foot of the tree, which stands in one of those diminutive 'pocket parks' found all over the Square Mile. You can sit here and enjoy your lunch in the giant's shade. That's if you don't mind the constant waft of cigarette. This is a favoured refuge of smokers.
As the regrouped gravestones suggest, this patch of land once belonged to a vanished church. St Peter Cheap was razed in the Great Fire and never rebuilt. The plane tree emerged sometime after — though when exactly is impossible to say. A City of London planning document reckons it was planted in 1850, which is patently absurd, as we'll see.
The adjacent businesses, a deli, a newsagents, and a Cards Galore, themselves inhabit venerable buildings. A half-concealed plaque gives a date of 1687, though I suspect they are much altered, given that they lack listed status. Oddly, bomb damage maps from the Second World War show no buildings on the site.
Whatever their age, the shops are stunted at two floors. They are exceptional dwarves in a part of town where land values are sky high. The leases supposedly forbid anything loftier, so as not to disturb the tree. This restriction has long protected the plane from land developers, and the tree was described by the envious Manchester Courier in 1901 as 'the most valuable tree in the world'.
For Victorians, the tree was such an important landmark that it was routinely used for directions. In 1853, Samuel Roe's cab firm was advertised simply as 'under the Tree, Cheapside'. In 1879, BW Maughan, a manufacturer of water heaters, published its address as 'opposite the tree, 41 Cheapside', as though the arboreal component were more important than the door number. The Express Dairy Company could be found 'under the tree, Cheapside' in 1890.
Wordsworth's thrush was not the only bird to call the tree home. In the 19th century, the Cheapside plane was famous for its crows and rooks. Two nests were noted by the Illustrated London News on 26 April 1845 (five years before the tree was planted, according to the City of London).
In the small churchyard of St Peter, West Cheap... stands a solitary tree, on the lofty branches of which two pair of rooks have this year built themselves nests, and are now busily engaged in rearing two broods, which have been recently hatched.
The birds returned regularly until 1870, when they were driven away by 'the idiotic behaviour of some clerk in a neighbouring warehouse, who amused himself by shooting at the birds with a pea rifle' (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News). The birds were, no doubt, also finding it harder to secure food, as the metropolis expanded ever further from the centre. Rooks today are a rare sight in central London.
So, go pay your respects to this venerable old fellow, which has survived bombs, fires and the encroachment of developers. The London plane might be one of the capital's most common trees — to the point where they're almost invisible — but this one has a unique place in the city's history.
Interested in London's planes? The author will chair the London Plane Tree Conference at City Hall on 10 July 2019. Tickets available here.