Our veteran tree walk
By Bridget Penney.
‘And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon, even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall.’ I Kings iv, 33.
Quoted by George Collison in Cemetery Interment (1840) & Thomas Burgess Barker Abney Park Cemetery: A Complete Descriptive Guide (1869).
18th October 2011 at the main entrance of Abney Park Cemetery. The weather is absolutely beautiful, not so cold now the biting wind of earlier in the day has dropped. F. and I are here to do the veteran tree walk I downloaded from the Abney Park Cemetery Trust website. We have an hour and a half before closing which should be plenty of time.
‘A Veteran tree has characteristics of benefit to wildlife. These include deadwood, decaying wood, cavities, rot holes and slime fluxes.’ (‘Veteran trees’ leaflet) Exceptional size and great age are usually the defining characteristics for veteran trees and such huge old trees have often sustained damage in the course of their lives. Within the crowded woodland context of the cemetery, where there are no exceptionally large trees, the term describes specimens which are damaged and vulnerable, sometimes through natural causes but more often because of human intervention. Paradoxically the damage has sometimes increased the tree’s value for wildlife because of the very specialised habitats it creates. One of the main reasons for the veteran tree project is to identify vulnerable trees and attempt to prolong their lives by carrying out remedial pruning or ‘halo pruning’ the trees around them.
I’m hoping some of the veteran trees will date from the original planting of the cemetery by George Loddiges in 1840 – or even earlier, from the eighteenth century parkland of Abney and Fleetwood Houses. George Collison, Secretary and Registrar to the original Abney Park Cemetery Company, wrote Cemetery Interment as an extended advertisement for the new cemetery. ‘Many of the trees in the engraving [the panoramic view of the grounds by George Childs issued to shareholders] may be termed individual portraits rather than mere pictorial representations. Nothing can exceed the fine proportions of these aged trees’. Their presence set Abney Park apart from the other recently established garden cemeteries such as Kensal Green but Collison’s interest in trees is not primarily aesthetic. The text of William Cullen Bryant’s Forest Hymn (1824), which he quotes in full, functions almost as a manifesto. This poem, written out of the primeval forests of Massachusetts, seems a long way from a remnant of eighteenth century parkland on the outskirts of London but its sense of sublimity, firmly encapsulated within the context of natural religion, with its references to ‘God’s ancient sanctuaries’ was something Collison was very keen to invoke.
Another reason for preserving the remnants of the parkland planting within the new scheme was the value placed on trees as transmitters of historical associations with the people who used to live there. The terms ‘heritage trees’ and ‘legacy plantings’ used today in Hackney Council literature and on the Abney Park Trust website could have had resonance for the cemetery’s founders. The planting of Little Elm Walk, running north from the chapel, was popularly credited to Isaac Watts and Lady Mary Abney while the Cedar of Lebanon, exactly aligned with the centre of the garden front of Fleetwood House, was presented as having been planted by ‘the hand of [General Charles] Fleetwood’, Cromwell’s Lord Deputy of Ireland and for a few years his son-in-law. Though all these trees have gone the roads named after them are still on the cemetery map.
A labelled arboretum of 2,500 species and varieties of trees and shrubs was planted around the perimeter of the site. It may have held, as the arboretum at Loddiges’ ‘Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden’ on Mare Street did, all the species and varieties that could be grown outdoors in Britain at the time. Collison provides a complete list at the end of Cemetery Interment. ‘The descriptions are for the most part confined to such points of general interest in connexion with each genus as it was considered might impart information to the very numerous juvenile parties who take their daily walks within the precincts of the cemetery.’ The arboretum was arranged alphabetically by genus. Presumably within each genus the species and varieties were also arranged in this way to maximise its value as a teaching aid. ‘The names are on brick, the same as in the Hackney arboretum.’ (John Claudius Loudon The Gardener’s Magazine, 1843) Laid out this way it’s well suited to the method of acquiring a botanical education Loudon had outlined in The Vegetable Kingdom (1834). ‘Begin by acquiring the names of a great number of individuals. Supposing the plants growing in a named collection…then take any old book, and begin at any point (in preference the beginning) of the collection, border, or field, and taking a leaf from the plant whose name you wish to know, put it between the first two leaves of the book, writing the name with a pencil, if you are gathering from a named collection. Gather, say a dozen the first day, carry the book in your pocket, and fix these names in your memory, associated with the form and colour of the leaves, by repeatedly turning to them during the moments of leisure of one day…’
Equipped with our map, which letters the twenty-five trees the route zigzags to visit from ‘a’ to ‘y’, we stroll into the park. The first two veterans are hollow ashes Fraxinus excelsior but they don’t get more than a cursory glance because I’m much more excited about ‘c’; the dead Bhutan pine Pinus wallichiana on the south side of the entrance drive leading to the chapel. I think it might be one of the row originally planted by George Loddiges in 1840. The seeds of the Bhutan pine had been introduced to Britain nine years previously and Loddiges’ Hackney nursery was the first to offer the trees for sale. This row may also have marked the northern boundary of the Pinetum, containing what George Collison describes as ‘young but choice specimens’ of thirty species of conifer. Many were early casualties of air pollution but out of those that remain one, dubbed Pinus mysterious (‘Abney Trees’ leaflet) has so far eluded all attempts at identification.
A few metres before we reach the dead Bhutan pine we encounter a living specimen. It’s signalled by the first of the carved stone markers –which is just as well because I wouldn’t have been able to identify it otherwise. It is one of those most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen; huge, with fabulous drooping clusters of fine evergreen needles which emit a sweet, resinous scent. Large whorls on the trunk mark where boughs dropped off as the tree grew. The ground underneath is carpeted with dry, light brown needles, almost the length of my hand. The rather frayed pine cone I find is streaked with white, not any kind of growth as I first assume but the remains of resin which has crystallised on its tips. Entering through the Egyptian-style gates to pass a whole row of these evergreen, scented trees on the way to the mortuary chapel would have been intended to create a profoundly reflective mood but it’s difficult to estimate how far the original plan was ever realised. Though Bhutan pines are relatively tolerant of pollution, the trees could have failed for other reasons. The one on the veteran tree map was damaged by fire quarter of a century ago and eventually killed by a fungus which took advantage of its weakened state. As the cemetery became increasingly overcrowded, others may have been cut down to make way for more graves.
Following the route shown on the map, we branch right and walk round to the back of the chapel. This time I make sure I don’t miss the ‘LADIES’ sign indicating the cubbyhole. The floor looks slimy with rubbish, leaves and whatever else. From the doorway I take my own photo of ‘GOD/GOES/WIRELESS’, gabble that the writing near the corner is a quotation from Paradise Lost, then reel back. I’ve spent hours poring over other people’s photos of this graffiti online but can’t even bring myself to go inside. When F. does, she remarks on some sort of pipe outflow in the midst of the graffiti – maybe at some point there was a sink? – and gives me a slightly odd look, hardly surprising when I’ve dragged her all the way here. Both sides of the doorway are scrawled with a jumble of addresses and mobile phone numbers offering sex. The effect is oddly reminiscent of an old style telephone box but black marker pen has a longer life than cards which would just fall off and become part of the detritus on the floor.
All the graffiti has been cleaned off the outside of the chapel since I was last here.
We follow the veteran tree route round the back of the chapel to find a couple of poplar pollards Populus x canadensis ‘Serotina’ and the Indian bean tree Western Catalpa Catalpa speciosa. Then we head down the Great Elm Walk, originally planted in the seventeenth century, but the elms are long gone. According to Paul Joyce’s A Guide to Abney Park Cemetery (2nd ed. 1994), the drainage works carried out during the construction of the cemetery and consequent lowering of the water table weakened them (though at two hundred years plus they may have already been past their prime). Several were replaced with Lombardy poplars in the major replanting of 1890. These in turn are now nearing the end of their expected lifespan and have been pollarded in an attempt to prolong it. Quite a few are included in the veteran tree project. The elms which remained were wiped out by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s though their rootstock still produces suckers which can grow as tall as six metres before dying. Paul Joyce mentions the problem of Japanese knotweed taking advantage of spaces left by the elms’ removal; ash and sycamore are also described as invasive. Today ash leaflets characterise the woodland; it seems everywhere I look up they are filtering the light in their particular pattern. The effect might be more marked because of the timing of our walk. Unlike many of the other trees, they haven’t yet started to shed.
I’ve never seen Abney Park look as pretty as it does this afternoon.
Around twenty trees within the cemetery have been definitely identified as from the Loddiges planting; only a few are on the veteran list. The majority of the veterans are conservatively estimated to date from 1890; though the label of ‘the only mature hornbeam Carpinus betulus in the woodland’ suggests it might be older. I admire the way many of them have been pruned with jagged ‘coronet cuts’ to mimic storm damage. As well as minimising points of entry for disease it is aesthetically pleasing. Some of the trees have nicknames; ‘holey chestnut’, ‘topless chestnut’, ‘“woodpecker” ash’. The narratives on their labels echo each other with depressing familiarity. Several are damaged because fires were lit against them. The most spectacular survivor is known as the “one-legged” ash because the lower back half of its trunk has been completely burnt away.
The Common Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna labelled as a Loddiges planting just west of the Great Elm Walk, ‘hosts a fungus (Phylloporia ribis) which is so rare that Kew Gardens retains a sample from the bracket on this tree.’ (Veteran tree label) The date of the earliest burial on the gravestone underneath is within the second decade of the cemetery’s operation and though much of the writing has worn away there seems to be a whole family commemorated here. Presumably when the stone was erected, the hawthorn would have barely overtopped it. Gnarled, bent and twisted, it fully deserves to be described as ‘ancient’- but I experience an unwarranted, slightly anxious disappointment. I was hoping this would be what is reckoned to be Hackney’s oldest tree, a thorn dating from the eighteenth century parkland. Remembering a recent picture posted on the Hackney Environmental Network of an ancient thorn, known as ‘Hilderguard’, which has died due to lack of light, out-competed by fast-growing younger trees, I hope that wasn’t it.
There are three Service Trees of Fontainebleau Sorbus latifolia on the list. Their leaves have half gone but those still in place, tinged with yellow, are pretty. ‘The true Service is not found in abundance in any part of the world…There are but a few specimens of it in England, which are chiefly in the neighbourhood of London; and for the last thirty years scarcely any plants of it could be obtained in any of the London nurseries except at Messrs Loddiges’ and even then only since the year 1815.’ This date is a reminder of how the plant trade is as dependent as anything else on political events. Although these trees aren’t native to the UK they have naturalised successfully within the cemetery and are described on the Abney Park Trust website as ‘along with the naturalising southern European thorns, adding a cross-cultural dimension to the park’.
At some points in this western stretch it’s possible to think you’re not in a cemetery at all. The gravestones were either so small to start with, or have fallen flat and been covered with ivy and leaves and other woodland floor plants so the ground resembles any other woodland surface, the unseen forms could be branches or naturally occurring rocks.
There are quite a few people around but because of the enclosed and gently curving nature of many of the paths we come upon each other suddenly and don’t exchange greetings. If they’re here to get away from people the last thing they want is some stranger saying hello. Nearer the catacombs we see the only guy who I think might just possibly be cruising. Wandering though these ‘higgledy-piggledy paths’ where ‘every turn reveals a different landscape’, I’m reminded of another blogger on the subject of sex in Abney Park. ‘I do believe that consenting sex with strangers out in the open is a fantastic thing. As Camille Paglia once said “The unknown stranger is a wandering pagan god. The altar, as in prehistory, is anywhere you kneel.”’
Before we head back in the direction of the chapel we pass a man with two small dogs, and unusually for encounters within the park, eye contact is established and we nod. Maybe it’s because of the dogs, which are completely unthreatening and so clearly signal what he’s doing here. When we are just past him, he turns and calls after us, asking if we know the area, to which F. replies yes, in a slightly irritated why are you asking us a pointless question way. Evidently nervous about sounding creepy, he tells us that there was an attempted rape in the park last week, in broad daylight, at ten o’clock in the morning – but then adds, reassuringly ‘If there’s two of you, that’s alright then.’
We shrug slightly and thank him, not too gratefully. In fact I resent his intervention, which is unfair because he feels he is only fulfilling some kind of duty by warning us in case, innocent of the perils that lurk in this green labyrinth, we trip blithely down an impossible path and are never heard of again. But I feel irritated that we have to be advised of this danger. I’d have preferred him to see us in the tradition of Britomart or Xena, warrior princesses able to handle any kind of random malevolence heading our way. Instead we’re evidently just a couple of potentially vulnerable middle-aged women.
Such fantastical indignation masks a deeper unease about my own behaviour because I had read about an attempted rape in the park the previous month. A teenager taking a shortcut through the cemetery on her way to work one Sunday afternoon was attacked but she managed to fight the man off and escape. I don’t think I sought F.’s company on this walk because of that incident but I am concerned that she might think so. The more I turn it over in my mind I don’t feel I’ve been honest with her or myself. Though neither of us feels threatened, our mood is deflated. Other thoughts cross my mind – is the same guy responsible for both attacks – that it never really is what you might call broad daylight in here – and maybe our dog walker is talking about the earlier assault but it keeps updating itself in the minds of those walking in the park.
‘The ancient or dying phase of a tree’s life can be the longest – so an ancient oak might grow for 150 years, live for 150 years, and then decline for 250 years or more’ (from the veteran tree label for the Common Hawthorn). There are some beautiful oaks in the north of the cemetery. Collison lists sixty-eight species and hybrids in Cemetery Interment – adding with understandable smugness, ‘and probably no gentleman’s park can boast of so extensive a collection’. Eleven distinct species ‘plus any number of self-seeded hybrids’ [remain]. Some hybrids are of very mixed ancestry and have been referred to as “Quercus naturi” (quirk of nature).’ None are on the veteran list – by this reckoning they have another hundred and thirty years of vigorous life before they’re even likely to be considered for it – so we admire them from the path and hurry on. We pause in front of a specimen of Turner’s oak Quercus x turneri marked with another of the carved stones. I don’t know if this is an original Loddiges planting but the variety is on the arboretum list. It’s a hybrid of English and holm oak; small for an oak and semi-evergreen. Unless the winter is exceptionally severe, it keeps its leaves until just before new growth comes through. F. nods gravely, staring at the tree, and remarks that the holm oak is evergreen, which, so much for my research, I didn’t actually know.
The variety of oak I’m really curious about is the Lucombe oak, which is, according to the ‘Abney Trees’ leaflet, an Abney specialty. It’s a hybrid of Turkey and Corsican oak and is also evergreen. It produces fertile seed but there is considerable variation in its forms. It can also breed back with the Turkey oak, which confuses the picture still further. In an interview published in the Hackney Citizen in 2009, Russell Miller, co-founder of the Veteran Tree project, expressed his frustration
‘I spend an inordinate amount of my life in Abney Park Cemetery because I like to be surrounded by the trees and there I will visit the old oaks, which have caused me so much aggravation over the years in trying to identify them. When you try to look things up in books you realise that you’re not mad, that they’re not in the book.
That’s because they’re hybridising?
Yes, but also some of the old Loddiges trees, the old oaks are old Luccombe oaks, and if you go through the literature there’s a lot of confusion as to what a Luccombe oak looks like, and there are six of them in Abney.’
Another of the twenty trees which have been identified as surviving from the Loddiges planting and one of the most spectacular of the veterans is an American spotted thorn Crataegus punctata. Although its trunk has split and been practically hollowed out it is apparently healthy and still has plenty of leaves. The structure that remains has filled up with leaf mould, which as well as providing a valuable habitat for wildlife, somehow nourishes the tree through a system of internal roots. Thorns were another of Loddiges’ specialities; in 1828 there were sixty varieties of thorns planted together at the Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden prompting Loudon’s commen,t ‘An acre laid out as a thornery would form an interesting episode in the general scenery of a pleasure-ground’ (The Gardener’s Magazine 1828). But the only thorneries I can locate online are buildings and when I idly type ‘thornetum’ the search engine flips into a different language… Collison lists around ninety species and varieties as forming part of the arboretum and echoes Loudon’s enthusiasm with a rather more utilitarian bent. ‘If a man were exiled to an estate, without a single tree or shrub on it, with permission to choose only one kind of ligneous plants to form all his hedges, shrubberies, orchards and flower gardens, no genus would afford him so many resources as that of Crataegus.’ Of the more exotic varieties which remain in Abney Park, ‘various-leaved Hawthorn has naturalised from the legacy plantings and is nationally important’ (‘Abney Trees’ leaflet). I would have liked to spot one with the striking variation between leaves on the same branch but, as even Common Hawthorn’s leaves vary considerably, it’s doubtful whether I would have managed to identify it correctly.
We make our way back towards the chapel, stopping for the topless chestnut we recognise from the drawing on the front of the leaflet with a dawning awareness we’re indulging in tree ruin porn. The oldest man we’ve seen in the park is sitting on a bench further down. Unlike others we’ve passed he doesn’t just ignore us and keep staring into the trees. On the contrary, our approach really agitates him. When he jumps up to stand right in front of us in the path, it seems like he wants to say something but words don’t emerge. Vague gesticulations with his hands convey nothing intelligible but, with hindsight, I really wasn’t interested in listening. The sideways glimpse I have of his eyes is like looking into a fucking abyss. I smile, without making eye contact, in a way I hope simultaneously conveys we are neither threatening or feeling threatened, then step around him. He remains where he is but we don’t hurry on because another veteran poplar pollard stands just opposite.
If he hadn’t been there, we probably wouldn’t have lingered. We’d stared at a few poplars already and neither of us was bothered about ticking each tree on the map just for the sake of it. As he hovered behind us, I talked and rustled the map more loudly. It was a mistake to think about how we appeared to him. If he was registering us at all, it would have been as a disturbing buzz of movement, colour and sound. Exactly what point was there in proving we weren’t afraid of an old man who couldn’t have posed a physical threat?
The last veteran tree we find is ‘Perry’s Weeping Holly’ Ilex aquifolium Argenteomarginata Pendula. It’s a bit lopsided, ‘the tree had two limbs but one was lost after a fire some years ago’, but seems vigorous and extremely beautiful. The spiked, creamy edges of the leaves glow with the sun behind them. Almost hard to believe it’s over 170 years old, but it is another Loddiges planting.
F. asks if I know where the arboretum started then speculates it would have been on the left hand side of the main gates as you entered so you could turn and start following the textbook of trees right away. Planting the arboretum alphabetically made it hard to accommodate taxonomic drift. Loddiges’ arboretum at the Hackney Botanic Nursery Garden, initiated in 1816, started at Acer (maple) whereas the one he planted twenty three years later in Abney Park begins at Abies (spruce firs). Collison explains, ‘the species comprised in this genus were formerly arranged in that of Pinus; but they have been separated on account of the different habits of growth and the disposition of their leaves.’ Once he or she had acquired ‘the names of a great number of individuals’ the student of botany was expected to master the Linnaean system of classification and progress ‘to study plants according to their natural affinities.’ As the botanist John Lindley remarked ‘very different ideas of likeness and unlikeness are entertained by different observers’ so it could have been useful to have a physical reminder that not only the plants but the systems by which they were interpreted continued to vary.
It’s hard to orientate in the cemetery away from the main paths. The trees have completely obscured lines of sight on the original strong axial vistas. Even on a path leading directly towards the chapel it’s hard to see it until you’re quite close. I meant to look for the white marble lion – F. hasn’t seen it since it’s been cleaned – but abandon the idea. We look up at the sky. At nearly half past four the sun has dipped right down towards the west and to get to a gate we need to go east or south. But when there isn’t a path that goes in what we think might be the right direction, we can only follow the one in front of us. The trees are too thick to press our way through easily and the rubble of monuments potentially treacherous underfoot. The noise of traffic from Church Street or Stoke Newington High Street should give us some indication of which way to head but in here everything fades to a surrounding hum.
Although we still have half an hour before the gates close, even considering the prospect of being shut in is stressful. I can’t help thinking of the scene in Cornell Woolrich’s Black Alibi where a woman, locked in a cemetery after closing time, is stalked by something which may or may not be a leopard. In spite of this rather lame mechanism her experience of fear is conveyed as absolutely suffocating. Covertly glance at F. because she’s read the book too but I don’t ask if she is thinking of it. Either it’s embarrassment that remembering this scene makes my mouth dry or a feeling that expressing my disquiet at this juncture would not be helpful. But F. rescues us by holding up her iPhone, turning until it connects and confirms we are in Abney Park, showing exactly our position on the path near the southern edge.
We walk down to Abney House corner, which peters into a dogleg leading out through the original gates of Abney House onto Church Street. The square cut off behind a right angle of wall on the east side where Fleetwood House once stood is now the Fire Station. The corner is a strange confused mixture of tomb stones, several of which were flattened or badly damaged by a bomb in the Second World War. It’s dominated by Dr Rogers’ mausoleum, built on the site of Abney House’s front door. Barker comments, in his 1869 guidebook, on the prettiness of its stained glass, visible from Church Street. Hard to imagine now what it would have been like.
The other focal point is the group of massive granite shields which commemorate General William Booth and his wife and son, surrounded by the graves of other Salvation Army commissioners. The Victorian tree map shows the arboretum border as thick along the southern edge but what didn’t succumb to pollution was chopped down to make way for more graves. Dr Watts’ Walk runs from here up to his statue, the catacombs and ultimately the chapel. Going by the little triangles on this tree map, it was originally planted with conifers. In 1890 they were replaced by silver birches. This is, according to the Trust’s website, the ground with ‘sandy brickearth soils’ and Hackney’s last remaining heathland. F. spots the dry bracken stalks between the headstones before I do.
Now that we have our bearings, we decide to complete the circuit round to Stamford Hill. We pass Cedar Path, an ellipsis surrounding the huge Cedar of Lebanon which stood here until the 1920s. I really hoped that the distinctive shape of this ‘beautiful and appropriate tree’, recorded so faithfully in George Childs’ drawings of the park in 1840, would be visible in the surviving footage of General Booth’s funeral cortege in August 1912, but the film jumps straight from the procession’s entry into Abney Park to the bearing of the coffin up onto a platform at the graveside. The Cedar could be considered the first of Abney’s veteran trees. Collison details the restorative pruning it underwent as part of the original landscape work. ‘The health and vigour of this monarch of trees are surprising when its age is considered. In the conversion of the estate to its present interesting and solemn purposes it was found necessary to remove large portions of underwood and over-grown and decayed trees, and the free circulation of air, so introduced, has been of much assistance to it. Its oldest friends and admirers (and few living things have enjoyed a longer succession of constant ones) assert, that they have never seen it in a more healthy and promising state.’
The space enclosed by Cedar Path is madly jammed with tombstones. F. asks if they will all have been put there since the tree was felled, but certainly James Branwhite French’s Walks in Abney Park (1883) records ‘round about the Cedar’ as a favoured place of burial. Apart from all possible romantic historical associations with former inhabitants of Abney Park and the beneficial properties of cedar wood ‘proof against all putrefaction of human and other bodies; above all other ingredients and compositions of embalmers’ (John Evelyn, Silva 1664) the advantage of being buried under such a prominent landmark and thereby not having to negotiate the complicated grid system of the cemetery as it became increasingly overfilled must have seemed considerable.
We pass a couple of East European men, walking and talking quickly. We don’t meet anyone else until we get close to the main gates back out onto Stamford Hill.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 19th, 2012.