A St Pauls Perambulation from London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – Part Two

London plane tree in Bow Churchyard

Dear Readers, the second part of my tree walk features lots of plane trees. This is hardly a surprise in the middle of London, but what was startling was the size of some of them. Look at this one for example, in the courtyard of St Mary Le Bow, thought to be the ‘Bow Bells’ that Cockneys need to be born within the sound of (rather than the church at Bow in East London). However, spectacular as this is, there is another a few hundred metres away on the corner of Cheapside and Wood Street. This is the Cheapside Plane, a landmark for several hundred years, and a truly venerable tree.

The Cheapside Plane

In London Street Walks, Wood is of the view that the tree is likely to have been planted in the eighteenth century (there are older planes in the capital), and not only is it protected by local bye-laws, but the shops underneath it are too. The square that the tree stands in was the site of one of the 37 churches that was destroyed during the Great Fire of London: the tree also survived a direct hit during the Second World War. It stands with its roots in a very tiny, dark, damp square, surrounded on three sides by the fire escapes and air conditioning units of the adjacent buildings, but it looks healthy and strong. According to ‘The Great Trees of London’ it used to hold a rookery, but rooks are a very rare sight in even Greater London these days: it’s thought that the rooks left when the horses did, and when people no longer raised sheep locally. The rooks used the fur from these animals to line their nests, and the fact that the last major stronghold of rooks in the capital is close to Richmond Park, with its large herds of deer, supports this theory.

The shadows of the branches of the Cheapside Plane on nearby buildings.

At the end of Wood Street lies a most peculiar tower: this is St Alban Wood Street, all that remains of a Wren church destroyed in the Blitz. The tree at the bottom is a nettle tree (Celtis australis) which can live for 1000 years in its native Southern Europe, but is often seen off by the frosts in the UK. I imagine that living in the middle of an urban heat island must be helping this one to survive, The building is now a private residence, and I would give several eye teeth to have a look inside and see how they’ve managed to make it  habitable.

 

I love how the new and old buildings in London suddenly come into stark juxtaposition. Sadly I haven’t noted down which church this is, but I’m sure you get the general idea.

On I go to St Mary Aldermanbury, close to the Guildhall and site of a rather splendid copper beech.

But I managed to miss the Judas Tree, which I’d written about in an earlier post. Still, it’s looking very healthy, and there’s always next year. I’ve always wanted to see the magenta flowers bursting out from the branches and even the trunk. My tree book describes them as ‘budding endearingly’, and who could resist such a description? I must make a date in my diary.

Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum)

And now, here’s a thing, and many thanks to Wood for pointing it out. As you walk around the corner onto Aldermanbury Square, there are some plane trees which are being trained into a kind of pergola, akin to a wisteria or a vine. I imagine that this is a phenomenal amount of work – as we know, plane trees seem to want to grow up, rather than out. The shadows are very fine, however, and several people were enjoying a sandwich and a coffee under their shade. I was a little flabbergasted that plane trees could be ‘persuaded’ to grow in such a way, and I did wonder why the planners hadn’t chosen something more amenable to this kind of treatment, but I guess that only time will tell.

There are some Himalayan birch on the other side of the square, bang smack up against the hoardings for a major refurbishment of the Brewer’s Hall, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London so probably in need of some tender loving care. I have a strong suspicion that a couple of the birches have been removed to make room for the skips, though.

Himalayan birch plus skip.

On the other side of the passageway that skirts the Brewer’s Hall I stopped to listen to a blackbird singing from somewhere very high up. I thought that it might be in the Honey Locusts that shaded the spot, but I couldn’t see it. Maybe it was on top of one of the many, many cranes. I paused to look at this statue of ‘The Gardener’, by Swedish sculptor Karin Jonzen. It looked very familiar to me, and when I did some research I discovered why – he used to be in the gardens at Moorgate where I would often meet Mum before we travelled home together. Now he’s in this shady spot next to a building site, serenaded by blackbirds.

On I go, under the Terry Farrell-built Alban Gate and past Richard Rogers’s ’88 Wood Street’ with its brightly coloured steam-ship inspired heating outlets.

Air conditioning by Sir Richard Rogers

I pause to have a quick look at the Roman Wall on Noble Street, uncovered by war damage in the Second World War and now surrounded by a rather nice mixture of wildflowers of various kinds and ferns.

The Roman Walls

Trailing bellflower on part of the Roman Wall

On the roundabout there are some Chinese Red Birches, which Wood explains can be distinguished by the reddish-brown bark on the younger branches. They are a welcome sight in this traffic-heavy, intensely urban area.

Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis)

But, Dear Readers, there is one more thing that I want to share with you, but to do it justice, I’m going to leave it until tomorrow. Not far to go now, I promise!

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