Great Trees of London
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
In October 1987, hurricane winds of up to 115mph blew through the south of England. This was the worst storm in 200 years. A huge number of mature trees were brought down. Following the catastrophe, a group of tree enthusiasts got together to compile a list of London’s best trees so that we could all marvel at these growing wonders.
The initial 1987 list was forty-one trees. This was expanded in 2008 to add a further twenty more. You can purchase a map or a book with them all noted and go and visit each. I’m fortunate enough to have three in my neighbourhood and I’d like to tell you a little about each.
Our first is the Brunswick Plane located in Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury. This tree was almost certainly planted to decorate a new residential garden square that was built on the grounds of the Foundling Hospital in the 1790s. At that time the Hospital had a lot of ground but not a lot of money. They set about fixing that by building two residential garden squares. These were Georgian terraced housing of the highest quality that would be erected on three sides of a new garden square. The fourth side was already occupied by their front garden and colonnade under which orphan children would exercise in poor weather and boys destined for a life in the navy would learn to make ropes.
One was named Mecklenburgh Square after Queen Charlotte of Meckelenburgh-Strelitz. The other square was named Brunswick Square after Charlotte’s new daughter-in-law, Caroline of Brunswick who became the Princess of Wales in 1795. Caroline had just married her first cousin George who would go on to become King George IV. The Brunswick Plane was planted as the surrounding buildings were finished. Today none of the Brunswick Georgian terraced housing remains, the tree has outlived them all.
Our next tree is the Amwell Fig which is located on Amwell Street in Clerkenwell. Amwell Street was once on land belonging to the New River Company and right across the street from the tree you will see the New River Head. The New River was an aquifer which brought drinking water from Hertfordshire (near the town of Amwell) to London. The New River Head held a reservoir and a windmill to pump water. The water was available by subscription and only for those who could afford it. If you had money, then a pipe made from hollowed-out elm trees would be laid to your home and water would be delivered. This was not a case of turning on the tap as we have today. Back then your pipe and personal spigot would be activated a few times a week so you could fill your residential water butt. That water would be used mainly for drinking.
The tree is on the grounds of the Clerkenwell Parochial Church of England Primary School. This school building was opened in 1828 and would have been a charity school. It’s worth remembering that there are no state schools until the 1870s. The tree is in the front garden of the school master’s house and could very easily date from the early 19th century.
The fig is sprawling and covers the entire front garden. In height, it is about three storeys but it is characterised by being more horizontal than vertical. If you get close or if you’re here when the tree is not in leaf, you will see that it is supported by large steel struts to support the main trunks of which there are several. The tree often produces figs but I don’t think that the fruit ripens enough to be eaten given the generally colder UK climate.
Our final tree is another plane tree and this one is in the City of London on Cheapside. Cheapside is an old Roman road that would have been the western approach to the Roman walled City of London. In the 18th century, this was London’s most famous shopping street and many of the houses would have been shops as well as residences.
If you walk down Cheapside from St Paul’s Cathedral towards the Bank of England, you will see this very large London plane tree above a short row of just two-storied houses. The tree towers above the shops in front.
The tree was planted in the former churchyard, and graveyard, of St Peter Cheap. A close look at the iron railings will reveal a depiction of St Peter holding his attribute of the keys to the Gates of Heaven. St Peters was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Many of the churches destroyed in the fire were rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren including St Mary le Bow on the other side of Cheapside but St Peters was not chosen as part of the rebuilding plans.
We have no date for the planting of the tree. I would suggest that it is younger than our previous Brunswick Plane and could have been planted as late as 1820. Certainly, we know that by the 1840s the shops in front of the tree were advertising themselves as ‘under the tree, Cheapside’.
The London Plane is a hybrid between two species of plane tree: the American plane (Platanus occidentalis) and the Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis). This hybrid is known as Platanus x hispanica. The x denotes that it is a hybrid and the ‘hispanica’ infers that the hybrid was first made (or discovered) in Spain. There is a lot of debate in the horticultural world about the origins of the London plane tree but there are a few things that we do know.
A botanist named John Tradescant the Younger seems to have described the tree. He had a nursery in Lambeth not far from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. He, and his father, John Tradescant the Elder, are buried in what is today the Garden Museum in Lambeth next to Lambeth Palace. John Tradescant the Younger died in 1662.
The tree was adopted by London and is one of the most common trees that you will see in the Capital. It is very tolerant of air pollution and soil compaction. The tree has a smooth mottled grey/green/brown bark that absorbs air pollution and then flakes off. The Victorians thought that it was the best tree to plant near roads and you can see many trees planted along Victorian streets. Today we think that the oldest London plane trees are in Berkeley Square in Mayfair. We know that these were planted in 1789 which makes them older than our Brunswick Plane and thus older than the Cheapside Plane.
The Cheapside Plane is the only Great Tree of London located within the boundaries of the City of London (a must-stop location from our latest tour uploaded to the platform, go check it out!).
Plane trees are the most common on the list of trees with 13 of 61 being London Planes.
I would recommend making a plan to visit one of London’s Great Trees next time you’re in the capital.