November 30 2015
Gardening at the Museum is dominated by the hundred-year old plane trees which line the south and west of the site. The churchyard meadow flowers in April but by May is strangled by the opening of tens of thousands of seven-fingered leaves overhead. By October the garden volunteers are a band of Canutes against a tide of dead leaves, each as sodden as a wet tea towel.
The building project begins with the rip of a tree surgeon’s chainsaw. Suddenly you can see our building as you cross the Thames at Lambeth Bridge. Each tree has had its boughs lifted, its branches thinned, but, most importantly, has got back its shape again: a trunk which soars and divides, steeply, into three boughs.
For the first time I like our plane trees. That’s thanks to Dave Winston-Hart of Trees at Heart of Kettering. It’s only on the final day of five days’ work that I realise that he and his two colleagues drive two and half hours each morning from Northamptonshire (and back). To support the Museum he is not charging for his week’s work; as a modest ‘thank you’ we ask him to choose a favourite tool for adoption and display in the new galleries.
It is a nice job to have done, he says: in London street trees don’t often a get a chance to acquire their natural form. They just get hacked about according to the urgencies of TFL, insurance companies, or property development. His colleague is high in the tree with a chainsaw, bucking in a harness in the first blows of Hurricane Abigail. The wind is now so strong that an old lady’s walking stick buckles as she crosses the road.
This final tree has eaten at least ten inches of the ornamental Victorian railing erected between the churchyard and the road in the 1870. Yes, swallowed; the spearhead is like a harpoon embedded in a whale.
The plane tree is as London as a black cab or a red bus. But are we as proud – or as aware – of them? The London plane has not had its Richard Mabey, or Philip Larkin, or Holman Hunt. Google, and you’re told that the oldest planes in London are in Berkeley Square, planted in the 1780s. But a Council Tree Officers says that, in fact, the oldest and biggest are in Carshallton. ‘They’re still growing’ they say. ‘No one yet knows how big a London plane can get’.
That was at our ‘Big Tree’ event in the spring, at which Evan Davis chaired a debate about the future of London’s tree canopy. The landscape architect Brita von Schoeanich lifted the pavements of the city to show why it is so hard to plant the big trees which will make the city’s future green: cables and pipes claim the underworld, leaving a tree pit too small for anything but a lollipop tree such as the pyrus chanticleer, the developer’s favourite. It’s a cheerful little tree which, like a KitKat, cheers up an office worker’s lunch hour. But no one knows how they’ll last.
A Boris or a Ken – indeed, any politician – will tell you that ‘X,000’ trees have been planted during their term. But as Jo Gibbons, also a landscape architect showed, one big old knobbler is worth a hundred lollipops in terms of water retention and carbon storage, absorbing pollution and lowering temperatures. ‘I can’t think of any man-made innovation which matches the environmental performance of a mighty old tree’ says Gibbons.
She, like Brita, is optimistic. Councils are the first to become aware: Islington has declared itself a ‘Big Tree Borough’ and is planting tulip trees on the A1. At King’s Cross Argent have planted a thirty-foot high oak tree as the centrepiece of a new square; five years ago, it would have been the inevitable Gormley. Architects, not planners, are the next challenge, you realise – to be precise, the architects of mudless late Modernism, who like white birches as smooth and slim as Anglepoise lamps and those round steel specs they wear.
Pollen is the problem any lover of planes must fess up to. 2015 was a sneezy year for cyclists. Jo Gibbons’s son Miles has designed for Rapha a pair of sunglasses which protect your eyes from the pollen (http://road.cc/content/news/157618-rapha-unveils-new-classic-glasses). They are very cool and cycling to Condor Cycles in Holborn to buy a pair I think, first, how satisfying it is when product design at its most sophisticated and Nature at its most rough-textured meet so happily.
It was here in Holborn that in the late 16th-century John Gerard assembled the garden of rarities described in his Herbal. The oriental plane grew from the seeds – or, rather, what he called ‘the tough buttons’ – which a sailor brought back from Morea, a province of the Ottoman Empire. Gerard noted the itchy pollen (and that dunking the fruit in wine cured the bites of mad dogs).
The London plane is a hybrid of that oriental plane, and a planus occidentalus that John Tradescant the Younger brought back from the swamplands of Virginia. The two grew in their garden in Vauxhall. Did the two first hybridise there, by chance or design, wonders Jennifer Potter in ‘Strange Blooms’, her biography of the Tradescants? An example was first identified as a species in the Oxford Botanic Garden early in the 18th—century, she tells us, concluding that we will never know when the first London plane grew.
But it would be nice to think that the hundreds of thousands of London planes – tough, rough, and challenging but cooling and softening our city - are a Tradescant legacy. No one will ever know, but four knobbly trees are carved in stone to support the lid of their tomb. It is the only monumental tomb in London which is cornered by carvings of trees.