Paul Wood writes about trees in London. As part of his latest book, London Tree Walks, Wood discovers the trees in our city with celeb connections.
1. Neil Armstrong
The first man on the moon is not normally associated with Kennington, but eagle-eyed top-deck travellers on the 159 should look closely at the London planes on Kennington Road. Neil Armstrong and his fellow cosmic travellers have been commemorated on small metal plaques attached to the trees at first-floor height. Originally there were 24, one for each Apollo astronaut, but now just 16 remain. In situ since at least 1990, their provenance was a mystery until a 2018 local newspaper article confirmed the British Interplanetary Society on nearby South Lambeth Road as behind their installation. Londonist has reported on the 'Astronaut Trees' previously, but before the mystery was solved.
2. Elizabeth I
Legend has it that the virgin queen, while on her way to meet a courtier in Lewisham, stopped to picnic under a fine and spreading oak tree on the brow of a hill in what is now SE23. The tree which had the honour of shading her majesty became known as the 'Honor' Oak, and while the very tree no longer survives, a replacement planted in 1905 offers intrepid climbers of One Tree Hill the possibility of re-enacting a similar royal experience. The Honor Oak is of course testament to our great fondness for trees, having subsequently given its name to a whole area of London!
3. Marc Bolan
In September 1977 glam rocker Marc Bolan's life was tragically ended when his Mini Cooper skidded off the road in bosky Barnes and collided with a sycamore tree. More than 40 years later an incongruous barrel marks the spot, adorned with photos of the 70s pop poster boy, bedraggled teddies and lines from Ride a White Swan handwritten in purple biro in a tat-strewn shrine that still attracts pilgrims. But what became of the tree? The sycamore survived the crash only to be felled some years later, but its abundant progeny can be found all along the wooded verge.
4. Kate Bush
Revered yet retiring musical icon Kate Bush penned her breakthrough hit Wuthering Heights while lodging in a bedsit in Brockley. The garret that nurtured her talent (which one day will no doubt be marked by a blue plaque) was on Wickham Road, a handsome Victorian avenue of stone villas lined with mature London planes and limes. Undoubtedly, the gothic ambience of 1970s Brockley energised her Brontë-inspired lyrics, but would Kate recognise this corner of south-east London today? We can only wonder what chart-topping tunes the dramatic Persian silk trees complementing the coffee-shop-lined environs of Brockley Station might stimulate...
5. William Wordsworth
The 18th century Romantic poet is often associated with the rugged beauty of the Lake District, but he was also a pioneer of urban nature writing with his much-loved poem The Reverie of Poor Susan, in which Wordsworth describes a thrush in the City:
At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years.
It seems clear the humble songbird is located on a bough of the Cheapside Plane, a huge and ancient London plane tree that still hangs over the corner of Wood Street and Cheapside. It would have been a fine tree back in 1797 when Wordsworth drafted those lines.
6. Ada Salter
Ada Salter was appointed Mayor of Bermondsey in 1920, becoming the first woman to hold that office anywhere in London. Her priority was to turn what was an unsavoury area of docks and factories, that also housed 100,000 people crammed into insanity conditions, into a garden suburb. She did this by creating a 'Beautification Committee' responsible for greening the area and planting trees. Within a few years Ada's committee had planted thousands of trees from Borough to Rotherhithe, and many can still be seen lining streets, gracing parks and shading estates. The tree that came to define Bermondsey and Ada Salter is the fast-growing and attractive Tree of Heaven, a species Ada adored. A notable example now marks the spot where her ashes are interred in the Alfred Salter Playground just off Druid Street.
7. George Best
Thirsty footballer and Chelsea resident George Best was a fixture in the Phene (or Phené if you prefer). This tastefully greige boozer, with an attractive ginkgo tree outside, is named for John Samuel Phené, a mid-Victorian property developer who built the pub and the elegant terraces lining the surrounding streets. Phené is notable for introducing the very first planned street trees to London, two of which — London planes — can still be seen on Margaretta Terrace. Best would have passed them (as well as Bob Marley's former residence on Oakley Street) on his way back to his Cheyne Walk home for a well-earned nightcap.
8. Billy Hughes
A blue plaque on the stuccoed wall of number 7 Moreton Place in Pimlico tells us that this address was the birthplace, in 1862, of former Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Back then, the streets in these parts would have been unadorned with herbage, but in recent years, Westminster Council has been doing a sterling job turning the treeless terraces of SW1 into leafy avenues. On Moreton Place, it appears to have been so inspired by the Antipodean connection that exotic Australian bottlebrush trees have been planted. They are particularly striking during summer when they are covered in loo-brush-shaped red flowers.
9. Kit Lambert
Brompton Cemetery is stuffed with literary and musical remains, including those of rock impresario Kit Lambert. Very much a man of his G-G-Generation, Lambert expired at the tender age of 45 after a life of narcotic excess: he signed Jimi Hendrix to Track Records and managed the Who — indeed, his gravestone is inscribed with 'The Man Who Made the Who'. He rests in the family vault alongside his equally dissolute father Constant Lambert, a musician, composer and founder of Sadlers Wells, its location marked by towering poplars. Unlike London’s other 'Magnificent Seven' Victorian cemeteries, Brompton has not become overgrown, so the original concept of a 'Garden of Sleep', complete with a fine complement of weeping lime trees (a tree thought to symbolise mourning by the Victorians), is particularly apparent.
10. William Morris
The original radical, bearded, east London hipster, William Morris is synonymous with Walthamstow. He grew up in the grand surroundings of Water House, now the excellent William Morris Museum, then, as now, surrounded by expansive gardens which have become known as Lloyd Park. Morris, famed for his textile designs and pioneering socialist politics, was much taken by nature, a recurring motif in his perennially popular designs that fill upmarket interiors to this day. One of his most memorable is surely 'Arbutus', featuring the leaves and fruits of the Strawberry Tree. Look out for several examples of these attractive evergreen trees that flower and fruit simultaneously in the autumn, in Forest Road just across from the museum.
London Tree Walks is published by Safe Haven, RRP £14.99
All photos © Paul Wood except Neil Armstrong © Michael J Keane