Books: Ghost Trees by Bob Gilbert

Bob Gilbert picture in Highbury Fields by Polly Hancock

Bob Gilbert picture in Highbury Fields by Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

The Ham&High columnist reminds us of our deep rooted connection to trees as he writs about Poplar’s missing poplars

Ham&High columnist Bob Gilbert moved from Holloway to Poplar nine years ago when his partner Jane became Rector of All Saints.

But the writer and former director of environment for Islington Council didn’t lose his fascination with how wildlife can thrive in the most unpromising of urban environments.

His latest book Ghost Trees (Saraband) investigates the vanished species which gave Poplar its name - and our deep connection to London’s lost landscapes.

“I have been observing urban wildlife for a long time to point out the unexpected on a city street, and Poplar was just a new canvas, “I started walking around the parish and became interested in the idea that even the element of the landscape that was no longer present had left a mark.

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“The whole place is named after a tree that was once there. There’s not a single one left yet it has left its mark.”

The native black poplar had thrived in East London’s marshands centuries ago, clinging on even when the Thames flooded the soil.

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But over the years the area was drained by the Romans and cleared to create market gardens, which in turn made way for the industrial development of London’s docklands.

“The poplar is a wetland tree lost to the draining of the marshes and development,” says Gilbert.

“It was replaced by cultivated hybrids and the last references to it here were in the 1700s. The book is about people and community as well as wildlife, and our need to make a connection to it.

“I love it here in Poplar. It’s a part of London that was heavily blitzed, then the planners did some shocking post war development.

“It’s the second pooreest ward in London and hasn’t become trendy or hip. There are no terraced streets like Spitalfields. It’s an unloved area where there is a new generation of high rise development going up that’s not for the benefit of the local community who are amazing.”

Gilbert explains that the idea of “natural features which have disappeared but left their mark” is based on the idea of ghost hedges.

“The ancient hedegrows are a remarkable feature of our landscape but ghost hedges aren’t a hedge that was planted, but part of a wood that was removed to provide a boundary between fields.

“These became known as Ghost hedges - the ghost of the woodland that was once there.”

Gilbert himself grew up in the inner city but a love of plants and wildlife was instilled at an early age.

“Eighty percent of the UK population now live in cities. I can remember living in a prefab in Bermondsey and seeing my first blue tit. That explosion of colour stayed with me.”

He studied sociology and later became the gardener at Sunnyside Community Garden near Crouch Hill before taking a post as Islington’s ecology officer.

“I’ve always been interested in the connections between social history and natural history. I started writing about sustainability. My first column was about the holly blue butterfly but I also wrote about dog mess!”

Gilbert, who plans to move back to his home near the Nag’s Head when he retires, compares his awareness of the natural world as “almost like a practice of minfulness.” “It’s being wonderfully attuned and realising the power of attention and being fully awake to the world.”

On a simple walk around Poplar he can spot clover, wild chicory, nightshade, chervil, mushrooms and mistletoe on a maple tree. He talks of the London plane as reflects the personality of the city and our ancient reliance on Hazel.

“We have lost connection with our own history and folklore of place, our sense of belonging somewhere, and connectetness to the community.

“I try to bring some of those things back together by telling the story through trees.

“We have a real emotional attachment to trees, poems are written about them, people get protective about them. Even when we had good reason to remove a tree, someone would be camped out beneath it. The book explores the deep connections with trees that go back thousands of years and how they have often survived in people without them being aware of the root of it.”

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