Nature and people in a London parish
Saraband, 2018, 304 pages
Hbk £14.99 ISBN 978 1 91223 527 8
LONDON IS A FOREST
Quadrille, 2019, 192 pages
Hbk £12 ISBN 978 1 78713 341 9
Review by Mathew Frith
We are in the midst of a resurgence in literature on nature in our cities. The books and blogs range from personal reflections of coping with stressful urban environments through natural ‘wellbeing’ to new explorations on how the wildlife we share our cities with adapts and evolves. This material conveys a growing desire by many that our course needs to change. Cities and city life of the 20th century are no longer viable, is the claim.
London, arguably one of our ‘greenest’ cities (its huge ecological footprint, aside) with almost half of its area either vegetated or open water, offers a multitude of ways in which writers can disseminate the rich ecological seams that are linked with the city’s history and effervescent present. Following almost 50 years of ‘professional’ (but largely hidden) advocacy to show how nature can and should inform the way in which our cities are designed, managed and enjoyed, a growing and vibrant tangle of stories and pictures bring life to the technocratic jargon of green infrastructure ecosystem services, natural capital and net gains.
Ghost Trees and London is a Forest are part of this welcome chorus, both hanging their narratives on trees, the most visible of the non-human denizens of the capital. They inevitably touch on the same tree species and similar histories, such as that of Grinling Gibbons’ woodwork, and Ada Salter’s influence on the planting of tree-of-heaven. But around their sturdy anchors they both delve, in different psychogeographic ways, to reveal the wilder roots of London for so long underplayed.
Paul Wood, already with the popular London’s Street Trees (2016) to his name, now takes the city as an ‘urban forest’ as his starting point. With at almost one tree for every Londoner (8.6 million at last count) and at least 20% of the capital shaded by canopy cover, from trees in streets, gardens and parks, to the remaining tracts of ancient woodland (themselves covering about 8% of London), it’s a different prism through which to view the capital. Wood threads his story along seven forest trails – totalling 178 km and marked with GPS co-ordinates in the margins – between London’s rural Green Belt hinterlands and the high-rise centre, starting with an impressive 30 meter oak at Monken Hadley, and ending – almost as a throwaway comment (but rather potently) – with a “tenacious” silver birch sapling sprouting on an anonymous brick building in Heathrow Airport. His focus is primarily botanical; apart from a few asides on parakeets, moths, stag beetle, Wood weaves his stories around the trees and woodlands on these trails. And with such a diversity of trees from all around the world now finding a home in London, the arboreal palette from which he vivaciously draws on is both encyclopedic and spirited. Wood is well-attuned to the drier regards of conservation policy and the tribulations of those striving to conserve London’s urban forest, and this adds weight to his stories as well as his welcome asides, sometimes waspish, sometimes yearning.
Bob Gilbert, author of The Green London Way (2012, predating Wood’s forest trails), focuses in and around Poplar, a neighbourhood in the East End now somewhat shaded by the glass money-spinning towers of Docklands and one of the most deprived wards in London. Heavily bombed during the Blitz, Poplar’s nature is now thoroughly (post-) modern, and Gilbert, who moved to here in 2009, brings his life-long curiosity of nature into the nooks and crevices of his perambulations of every street, park, estate, dock and churchyard in the area (94 species and cultivars of trees alone). A number of ‘London trees’ are thoroughly explored; the poplars (that once fringed the Thames and Lee, and giving the name to the parish), ash, hornbeam, London plane, horse chestnut, Turkish hazel, limes and mulberries.
a strong emphasis on his home patch Gilbert digs deeper, marveling at woodlice
(the pets of his boyhood), the “noisy chorus” of Cockney sparrows, the
botanical wonders of wastelands – such as the understated Jersey cudweed – and
sand martins finding home in the open drainpipes above the Limehouse Cut.
Nevertheless, the sometimes harsh human stories are part and parcel of his narrative
too. Gilbert grew up in a prefab “hacked out” of a Bermondsey bombsite, and
this shapes his sharp eye in a wonderful discourse of an oft-forgotten city
neighbourhood where one would least expect to see, let alone touch, smell and
hear, the beating heart of nature so close to hand.