I have written previously about the big London Plane Trees on East Finchley High Street, so this week I decided to concentrate on the smaller, more decorative trees that adorn the pavements of the Country Roads. And what characters they are! The trees often look as if they’ve been attacked by a cack-handed individual wielding a chainsaw, although it maybe that local urchins broke branches off when the plants were young and they’ve never recovered.
The poor tree above always reminds me of a wood nymph trying to fight her way out of a tree-trunk. Why the tree has ended up in the shape that is is anybody’s guess, but it’s fair to say that a little more loving care and attention early on might have lead to a more pleasing shape.
Most of the street trees in the area belong to the Sorbus family – we have rowans and cherries, crab apples and the occasional pear. They have proven to be a big hit with the local woodpigeons and, in the autumn, the Fieldfares and Redwings often stop off at the more fruitily-endowed plants to fuel up. However, the humans are often rather less impressed, shaking their heads as they sweep up the fallen crabapples and cursing as they slip on the squashed berries.
So, what makes a good street tree?
The plant should be slow-growing, and long-lived – you don’t want to be replacing it every few years. It should be resilient – pollution resistant, with tough wood and the ability to withstand the vagaries of the English climate. It should be a suitable shape – you don’t want people to be whacked in the face with a branch every time they pass by.
There are other points to consider, too. Native trees, such as the Rowan, will support more animal life, and will make a bigger contribution to biodiversity. Some trees will also provide human food – pears and cherries, apples and even crabapples, which could be harvested by and used in the community. In fact Fruit City have produced a map showing the location of all the fruit trees that they’ve so far identified in London, so that if you are inclined, you can go and harvest your own food, rather than it all going to waste.
Of course, in some places people have gone further – the Incredible Edibles project in Todmorden, Yorkshire, has planted fruit and vegetables all over the town, in municipal flowerbeds, in parks, in the Fire Station, in schools. The produce is available for everyone to harvest, and because it is a community venture, with many people involved, folk by and large take what they need, and put back what they can in terms of labour. Many of these plants are also great for pollinators and other wildlife, so everybody wins. Our street trees don’t have to be purely decorative, they can make a much bigger contribution to the whole community, animal and human.
Now, when I first came to East Finchley, I noticed this on Durham Road.
These are very puzzling objects. They show no evidence of ever having had lights attached. Someone did tell me that they had air-raid sirens attached to them during the Second World War, but a little research has shown that they are, in fact, Stink Pipes.
These were used in Victorian times to carry the delightful smells from the sewers up into the air, where they would assail only the nostrils of sparrows, and would be carried away on the light London breezes. Some, like the ones in East Finchley, follow the line of ‘interceptor sewers’ that feed eventually into the Northern Outfall Sewer, but there are also lots in south and west London, and they can be spotted in any area with Victorian sewers. Once noticed, a stinkpipe can be picked out at fifty paces, so do let me know if you’ve spotted any in your location. Maybe we can create a map, to go along with the (rather more useful) one of the London fruit trees.
So, it seems that our pavements are full of underutilised trees, and unnoticed Victorian street furniture. Who knows what else we will discover?