A St Paul’s Perambulation from London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – Part One

St Paul’s Cathedral with American Sweet Gum

Dear Readers, I have a great affection for the City of London, with its strange mixture of skyscrapers and old churches, broad avenues and higgledy-piggledy backstreets. As you might remember, when I was first going into the office at the Bloomberg building, I was desperate to find some green space, and finally managed it, so today I felt a strange urge to go and see what was happening. It was almost as if it might not be there, just because I hadn’t been there to see it.

I wanted to have some purpose rather than just a wander, so I took my cue from Paul Wood’s (relatively) new book, ‘London Tree Walks‘. Regular readers will remember that I did one of his walks from an earlier book and goodness only knows why I haven’t done some of the others because it’s a great way to pay attention to the magnificent trees that are all around us. This walk is a circular one from St Pauls, and I did a detour to check that my workplace did, in fact exist.

The walk begins in St Paul’s churchyard, but there was a small problem.

I can only assume that opening hours are more limited because of the Covid restrictions, but some signage explaining this would be good. However, I was undeterred – I particularly wanted to see the American Sweet Gum, because Wood points out that this has become a popular City street tree in the past few years. On Cheapside, the main route from St Pauls to the Bank of England, there are American Sweet Gums on the northern side of the road, and Spathe’s Alders on the shadier southern side. The one at the side of St Paul’s, though is truly spectacular. I have been doing a few calculations. The height of the top of the dome of St Pauls is 365 feet, and the dome itself is 278 feet tall. That means that the main building is about 87 feet tall and, although it’s not clear from the photo, the tree is nearly to the top of the windows.

American sweet gums can reach 45 metres tall, so this one is just a baby (it was planted just after the Second World War). However, they love swampy ground, which is clearly not available around St Paul’s, and the trees are also relatively short-lived. Nonetheless, this tree is a cracker even if I had to view it from outside the churchyard, and apparently its autumn colour is really something to behold, so I shall have to go back.

And how about this? Can anyone guess what it is?

How about now?

This is a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera var Aureomarginata) and I think I was either just too late to catch it in full flower, or it didn’t have a great year – as we know, trees don’t always flower prolifically every year, and maybe this one is having a break. And who would blame it? This, too was an impressive tree, and as they can grow to nearly 200 feet tall I’m sure they need to put at least some of their energy into bark and woody stuff.

Then it’s across the road in the general direction of Tate Modern, and something was going on with these ladies in red. One reason that I love London so much is that there’s always something out of the ordinary to see. Last time I was around St Pauls, some photographers were using it as a backdrop for some pictures of a Chinese bride, and very lovely she looked too. Apparently having your photo taken in your wedding dress in front of a variety of iconic buildings is all the rage in China at the moment.

And if you want a little clip of the dancing, here we go…

Anyone who wants to point out that I missed a trick by not getting a photo with St Paul’s as the backdrop is probably right, but I was on a bit of a mission to find trees, as you will hear.

I made a brief stop to visit another North American tree, a Pin Oak on Old Change Court.

Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)

Pin oaks are part of the red oak family, and this is another tree that will look wonderful when autumn comes. But what’s this ‘Trees for Liveries’ business? A bit of digging has made some progress: The Liveries Wood Group is a collaboration between the five Livery companies who use wood in their craft, the Carpenters, Turners, Furniture Makers, Upholders and Joiners & Ceilers. The group exists to promote the use of wood, and protect this natural resource. So while I haven’t quite got to the bottom of exactly what was going on when this tree was planted, it’s interesting to know that these ancient companies, who go back to the Medieval period, are still promoting their skills.

Incidentally, an Upholder is an Upholsterer. Who knew?

Retracing my steps, I pass a row of recently planted Italian alders. I am very fond of alders, as you know, but the UK species likes wet feet, which they wouldn’t get here. My tree guide describes it as a tree of ‘vigour and polish’, and it is certainly doing very well, even though it’s the shady side of the road.

Italian Alders (Alnus cordata)

Then I nip down Distaff Lane, and pass the church of St Nicholas Cole Abbey, with its clear glass windows.

Then it’s time to cross Queen Victoria Street to visit an old favourite haunt, the Cleary Garden. This is a bittersweet place for me: when I was in my thirties I would sometimes meet Mum for lunch here, and I can still see her sitting on a bench with a sandwich. There is a new office building with some Snakebark Maples outside – I would never have noticed the astonishing stripy bark if Wood hadn’t mentioned it.

Snakebark maples

And then it’s into the Cleary Garden. There aren’t as many people around for sure (though to go by the queues outside some of the sandwich shops you wouldn’t necessarily think that), and the garden is so peaceful that I can sit down and commune with the swamp cypress (the first one I ever saw).

I’d already seen a wren singing its head off in the cypress, and I could hear baby birds, so I wasn’t so surprised to see this.

The great tits have some babies, and handily there’s a great selection of bird feeders right next door, enclosed in a cage to keep the squirrels and the big birds out.  How handy to have everything that you need right on your doorstep! My only worry would be dispersal – there are lots of trees around, but there are also a lot of crows and seagulls who love a tasty fledgling if they can catch one. Good luck, great tits!

And before I start on the second half of my walk, I pop down to my workplace to see how it’s looking. Quiet would be one description. The complicated fountain outside, meant to represent the river Walbrook which runs under the building, is fenced off for repairs yet again. Another part of the fountain has several workmen sitting in it and lovingly trowelling the gunk out of the spigots.

But here’s a thing! My favourite City pizza place has survived. Fingers crossed that we’ll be able to have a team get together soon…

And now, it’s time to cross the road and head towards one of my favourite trees in the whole of London. But for that, folks, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow….


4 thoughts on “A St Paul’s Perambulation from London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – Part One

  1. K.E.S.

    An enticing new angle on the City of London, and the snake bark is really impressive.

    I did a walk with Open City a few weeks back focusing on the recent architecture in the same bit of London, and it was a revelation — familiar things sprung back to life when looked at through different eyes.

    BTW, the person leading the walk described the Bloomberg building in captivating detail; I wasn’t quite so entranced, but it did make me look closer. Funnily enough, they were swabbing down the Walbeck spigots when we were there too.


Leave a Reply