Wood Street Plane Tree
Last of the Mohicans (Mio Platano Amato)
“Because it is a non-native hybrid, there is no mythology and folklore associated with the London plane.” The Woodland Trust
A tree. A visible, living tree. Intertwining the occident and orient by accident. Rootless cosmopolitan shackled by its locks. Soaring eighty feet, yet it’s hidden in the shadows. An interloping rogue amid the steel and concrete blocks. Surviving by regenerative bark exfoliation. Resilient chirpy cockney, as native as can be. Cradling the songbirds that sing of joy and pain. An old romantic guru of ancient reverie. Confronting the pollution of stupendous roars of traffic. Rebel eco-warrior unravelling the vapours. Protecting local commerce throughout its lone existence. A refugee and migrant sheltering its neighbours. Raking its rhizomes through the ravages of time. Relic of our history (the tree does not forget). Spreading out its limbs on a city-centre corner. A rugged Jesse emblem; an old cross surrogate. Jeremiah, Obadiah, Hannah Canner, Uncle Bill. Remembered by the reaper of decaying fallen stone. I hope and pray that rough winds won’t shake its resistance. Against the odds, this real-life superhero holds its own.
The London plane tree (Platanus × hispanica) is a remarkable specimen of life. It is the result of accidental co-operation between nature and man, and an example of how globalisation can have a positive effect on the environment.
Over 350 years ago, a chance hybridisation occurred between two trees of the same species that had been brought together from opposite sides of the planet: the Asian (eastern) sycamore and the American (western) sycamore.
British tree experts soon realised that this new hybrid had properties that would allow it to resist the sooty pollution of growing cities. In addition, the fine-grained wood was tough and almost impossible to split. Its hardwearing attributes made it ideal for furniture, flooring, butcher blocks etc. It was also used to make wheels for ox carts.
The tree cannot breed itself, having to be physically planted. The first successful plantings in Britain were in Cambridgeshire between 1660 and 1680; they’re still growing. A 1749 specimen planted in Bryanston School, Dorset, has reached a height of 164 feet, making it one of the tallest trees in the UK, while the forty-foot girth of the example at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire makes it one of the nation’s thickest trees.
The wide planting of this hybrid in the growing industrial capital led it to be named the London plane. It is a tree well-loved by Londoners. In the 2010 guide The Great Trees of London, eight out of the ten most popular central London trees were plane trees. In that guide, I championed my personal favourite: a London plane which stands at the junction of Cheapside and Wood Street in the City of London.
Planted at the cost of sixpence about 200 years ago, the Wood Street plane is recognised as the oldest tree in the square mile.
Despite its eighty-foot height, it stands in the shadow of the architectural battle for space that rages in the financial centre. Britain’s most prominent designers fight hand-to-hand with an armoury of styles. In Wood Street, we are met by the surviving tower of the seventeenth-century St Alban’s church, a Christopher Wren rebuild based on an original Inigo Jones design, now a private residence. To the left, the triangular sections of a glass curved roof are the unmistakable sign of a Norman Foster office building. Next door, the brightly coloured air vents are the inimitable external elements of Foster’s ‘nemesis’ Richard Rogers. On the opposite side is the City of London police HQ. Constructed in 1965 in Italianate style, it was the last completed design by Donald McMorran. Next to this, we have the work of the comparative ‘new kid on the block’ Eric Parry. Finally, we have 125 London Wall, with Terry Farrell making the most of softly coloured cladding and glass.
Being ‘born’ on Wood Street, our specimen is a native Londoner. Indeed, it is about as cockney as you can get; the famous Bow bells are within deafening distance across the road.
Set equidistant from Temple Bar in the west and Aldgate in the east, the tree’s environs form the torso of the world’s greatest financial market. Around it beats the heart of banking, flows the lifeblood of insurance, pulsates the nerve centre of trading and investments. It might seem all fairly perfunctory to the average eye, but for those in search of a more artistic soul, there are plenty of literary echoes in the immediate vicinity: John Milton and John Donne were born across the road on Bread Street. Thomas Hood was born on Poultry. John Keats lived above the Queen’s Arms pub at 71 Cheapside, where he wrote such classics as ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens all set scenes here, and it was the main location for Thomas Middleton’s 1613 comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.
Regarding literary mentions of the tree itself, Leigh Hunt, in The Town (1848), tells the story of a local girl who had no knowledge of the tree:
A child was shown us who was said never to have beheld a tree but the one in St Paul’s Churchyard. Whenever a tree was mentioned, it was this one; she had no conception of any other, not even of the remote tree in Cheapside.
In his popular history Old and New London (1878) the Victorian writer and poet Walter Thornbury described the tree thus:
How pleasantly on a summer morning that last of the Mohicans, the green plane-tree, now deserted by the rooks, at the corner of Wood Street, flutters its leaves!
On the subject of the tree’s possible inhabitants, in his botanical studies of London, the naturalist James Mitchell remarked in 1831 that ‘a pair of crows have this spring taken up their abode within the city, and built their nest in the top of the lofty plane-tree in Wood-street, close to Cheapside.’ A twentieth-century literary classic suggests a different resident: in Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle series, ‘Cheapside’ is the name belonging to the little cockney sparrow.
On a final note here, nearly every book, blog and article that I have read on William Wordsworth’s ‘The Reverie of Poor Susan’ happily trots out the fallacy that the Wood Street plane was specifically referred to. This would indeed add to the tree’s miraculous reputation, considering the poem was written in 1797 and the tree planted in 1821. Perhaps there was an earlier tree? Even if there was, Wordsworth does not specifically mention it in the poem which reads, ‘At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears, / Hangs a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years.’ It is most likely the thrush was hanging in a cage. Had it been in the tree, I suspect Wordsworth would have used the word sits, not hangs. However, the fact that the nation’s most romantic poet chose to use this particular London street corner as a setting certainly adds to the literary mysticism of the place.
For 2,000 years, the thoroughfare of Cheapside has been one of the busiest in London, and the traffic has brought its share of pollution to the district. Before the Great Fire, the seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn noted the surrounding air ‘is poisoned with so thick and dark a fog’. In the eighteenth century, Wordsworth’s aforementioned ‘Reverie of Poor Susan’ relates to the pollution of Cheapside. In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations refers to the heavy traffic around Wood Street. In 1870, it was recorded that almost 12,000 vehicles passed along Cheapside in twenty-four hours. In the twentieth century, H G Wells’s Tono-Bungay tells us that the roar of the traffic of Cheapside was ‘stupendous’.
The antidote to this poisonous pocket of London is our lone tree. The plane is impervious to pollution. Indeed, it has been claimed that plane trees help remove up to 80% of city grime. The bark has pores to breathe through. When they become clogged with soot, the bark is shed in small patches. This gives it a unique speckled look at certain times of the year. The leaves are covered with hairs which also trap particles of soot. The hairs drop to the ground in summer to expose glossy clean leaves. The tree absorbs carbon dioxide and provides oxygen via the photosynthetic process, cleans the air, and provides shelter, shade and much-needed respite to its citizen neighbours.
Refugee and Migrant
The oldest retail premises in the City are three Cheapside shops built in 1687 which stand directly beneath the Wood Street plane. Despite the fact that the ‘foreign’ tree was planted over 130 years after the shops, they enjoy a symbiotic relationship; the lease of the properties forbids the building of another storey, allowing the tree to branch out. In turn, the tree’s status is protected, which means developers cannot get their hands on the space around it, thus preventing the demolition of the shops.
Cheapside is London’s oldest shopping street. The very name, from the old English ceap, meaning marketplace, made it synonymous with the shopping industry. The names of streets that run off it today are ghostly reminders of medieval trade: Bread Street, Milk Street, Honey Lane, Ironmonger Lane, Poultry etc.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Cheapside was also London’s main gold market. A gold refinery was based on Wood Street, and opposite to where the plane tree stands was Goldsmiths’ Row, reputed to be the most finely decorated terrace of trading houses in the city. It featured images of woodmen carved in wood, financed by Thomas Wood, benefactor of St Peter Cheap church, who some say Wood Street is named after. The Great Fire of London in 1666 saw the Row’s destruction and the decampment of the gold merchants, but Goldsmith Street, off Wood Street, still leads to the Goldsmiths’ Hall, which stands on its original spot a block away.
During the nineteenth century, Cheapside lost practically all its retail business to the West End, particularly Oxford Street. However, under the tree’s protective canopy, the three ancient shops soldiered on. Then, in 2010, the One New Change shopping centre opened, its angled brown glass reflecting not only the plane’s green foliage but the full-scale return of Cheapside’s time-honoured retail practice. In a successful homecoming, the old Wood Street plane, having seen the core business of the local community endure decades of decline, welcomed back trading neighbours on the site of the old Goldsmiths’ Row.
Relic of History
The tree’s canopy spreads over one of the most historic locations in the square mile, with its roots clawing deep into London’s past. Signs of early civilisation at the tree’s location date back to the last ice age. In the nineteenth century, twenty-five feet below the surface near the growing plane tree, workmen discovered the skull of a hunted wolf at least 10,000 years old. They subsequently found a bronze-age axe. The tree stands on the site of a 2,000-year-old Roman fort, and there are remnants of its wall nearby. According to the thirteenth-century chronicler Matthew Paris, the Anglo-Saxon King Offa (r. 757–96) had a royal palace next to St Alban’s church in Wood Street.
From a medieval perspective, the tree stands on the site of the twelfth-century church St Peter Cheap, whose doors opened onto a major London landmark, the famous Cheapside Cross. Erected in 1290 to commemorate Queen Eleanor, the cross had been restored several times by the Tudor period. It was about thirty-six feet high with four levels of niches for small statues of monarchs, popes and saints, topped by a Greek cross. It bore a resemblance to the ‘modern’ cross that currently stands outside Charing Cross station. Combined with a public drinking fountain known as the Cheap Standard, it formed a boundary marker between the northern and southern city wards. It was used as a centrepiece for tournaments and pageants such as the Lord Mayor’s show. It also became the focal point for visiting monarchs to the City of London. All royal proclamations in the City were read here. Indeed, Mary I was officially proclaimed queen here in 1553.
Sometime in the Elizabethan era, the Cheapside Cross began to give out a bad vibe. There were allegations, albeit from the puritanically minded, that it was a crucible of idolatry and devil worship. In 1581, an attack was made on the lower tier, and depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Resurrection and Edward the Confessor were all mutilated. Over the following decades, as a relic of the old religion, it became the focus of bitter controversy, eventually stirring active enmity.
In 1641, a bishop compared the cross to the pagan deity Dagon, whose statue was destroyed by the power of the Ark of the Covenant which had been kept inside Dagon’s temple (Samuel 1:5). The invocation of Dagon has a macabre local connection: the severed head of the biblical King Saul was also displayed in the temple of Dagon (Chronicles 1:10). Similarly, the head of the Scottish King James IV, slain at Flodden Field in 1513, was displayed at the house of a royal glazier who lived on Wood Street, and was later buried in the church of St Michael on the same thoroughfare.
The cross was attacked several more times as an agent of the devil before pamphlets were written in the voice of the cross itself. One has it relating its life story and current predicament to its sister, Charing Cross. Another, The Doleful Lamentation of Cheapside Cross, protests its innocence, accusing its attackers of greed, malice and lies. The cross then appears to curse the assailants with its revenge, telling them that even if it is destroyed, a ‘rage’ will continue to infect the assailants. The threat may have been taken seriously, as the following year the cross was actually denounced for treason! The puritan activist Richard Overton accused it of demonically seducing the people into disturbing the peace in his Articles of High Treason Exhibited against Cheapside Cross (1642). A major riot ensued when a group of apprentices, intent on bringing down the cross, were met by a group coming to its defence.
The Cheapside Cross continued to court controversy. Its impending doom was interpreted by some as a sign of the apocalypse. In some aspects, it might be seen as the catalyst for the Civil War in 1642. Certainly, it was a signal for the government-sanctioned iconoclasm of the period, as it was finally destroyed in 1643 by the Parliamentary Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry. ‘And so, this Cross, poor Cross, all in a rage / They pulled down quite, the fault was only Age.’
Even after the Cheapside Cross was removed, it continued to haunt the minds of Londoners. Royalists continued to venerate the spot by removing their hats and crossing themselves, and a further pamphlet, The Downfall of Dagon (1643), personified the cross again, referring to ‘his’ death, funeral and legacies.
Not only can this location claim a role at the start of the Civil War, but also at the very end. In January 1661, while negotiations for the restoration of the monarchy were still ongoing, an armed group of fifty Anabaptist fanatics tried to capture the city. Known as the Fifth Monarchists, they took their name from a biblical prophecy that four monarchies, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian and Roman, would precede the monarchy of Christ. They marched up Cheapside to the symbolic site of the Cheapside Cross. Here they were met by troops of the Trained Bands and the Life Guards. They were eventually corralled into Wood Street, where a bloody pitched battle ensued. A heavy death toll saw twenty-two men killed. A further ten Fifth Monarchists were subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered. Three months later, Charles II was crowned king, with a royal proclamation announced here.
Shortly after the Restoration, citizens would have been mistaken in believing their apocalyptic punishment was over; a major outbreak of the deadly bubonic plague in 1665 coupled with the Great Fire a year later wreaked havoc in London. The parish clerks were licensed to keep the official death counts known as the Bills of Mortality. The Grim Reaper’s toll was recorded at their company hall on Wood Street.
As a pivot of Christian worship, few places in the medieval world could match Wood Street corner. Including St Peter Cheap, it boasted an incredible forty churches within a 300-yard radius, one of which, of course, was mighty St Paul.
St Peter Cheap, like the majority of these churches, was destroyed in the Great Fire. It was never rebuilt. Instead, this spiritual hub was turned into a small graveyard on which our plane tree was later planted. The surrounding railings date from 1712. Decorating these is the image of the crossed keys, signifying St Peter as the keeper of the gateway to Heaven.
In the Old Testament, Jesse was the father of King David. Isaiah 11:1 begins, ‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and from this stem, a branch will bear fruit.’ Medieval artists depicted Christ’s ancestors in the form of a ‘Jesse tree’.
The tripart symbolism of grave, tree and keeper also conjures an archaic pagan rite. In the ancient Roman world, wealthy families would bury their dead in a sacred wooded grove, then pay a ‘keeper’ to permanently watch over the graves. The lucrative nature of the ‘king of the wood’ meant he became a target of greed. Those with an eye on his handsome situation would signal a challenge by snapping a branch, the Golden Bough, from a tree in the grove to show that the current keeper was not worthy to hold the post. The keeper would then have to physically defend his livelihood. He constantly fought off these threats until he was inevitably usurped: the king is dead – long live the king. Thus the tree is a symbol of renewal.
Reaper of Stone
Under our plane tree lie the few remaining headstones from the original graveyard, their inscriptions fading. They include Obadiah Rogers, Hannah Canner and William Stapler. The Reverend Obadiah Wickes Rogers (d. 1816) was a ‘Gentleman of Bermondsey’ whose parents were parishioners here. Hannah Canner (d. 1808) was the wife of city marshal William Canner, who had died three years earlier after being infected by a diseased vagrant he was trying to remove from the parish. Three gun volleys were fired over the grave on his burial. William Stapler (d. 1810) was the uncle of John Stapler, who ran Wood Street’s Cross Keys inn, deriving its name from St Peter’s symbol. In Dickens’s Great Expectations, Pip arrived at the inn to start a new life. Jeremiah Taverner is remembered in a stone plaque overlooking the graveyard. As a churchwarden, he oversaw the building of the adjacent shops in 1687.
Moving on to the City’s darkest days of all, the Blitz of World War II, this mystical place once again demonstrated its defiance in the face of adversity. The Wood Street plane survived a direct hit from a bomb in 1940.
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