In the aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987, in which an estimated 15 million British trees were felled, Londoners were asked to nominate their favourite leafy landmarks. Forty-one storm survivors were awarded “Great Tree” status in 1988, while a further 20 were added to the list in 2008. Sadly, six of those 61 arboreal wonders have since been lost – leaving 54 Great Trees still standing across the capital.
The trees can be found in all four corners of Greater London, from Barnet to Biggin Hill. Some – such as Battersea Park’s Strawberry Tree – have a green and pleasant home. Others – like the Tate Plane in Brixton – are surrounded by the urban sprawl. But all have one thing in common: they are well known and well loved by local residents.
Artist Luke Adam Hawker has made it his mission to visit and draw each and every one of the Great Trees of London. It is a project he concedes will take years, but having ticked off 20 he’s well on his way.
Richmond Park’s Royal Oak was his first subject. Found near the Pen Ponds, it is thought to be around 750 years old and is one of at least 300 ancient trees in the park. Edward Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, was on the throne when this venerable oak sprouted.
There are 13 oaks on the list, including the huge 600-year-old English oak on the south side of Brockwell Park. It was a mere sapling at the time of the War of the Roses.
In the shadow of St Pancras Old Church is the Hardy Tree, an ash with dozens of gravestones clustered tightly around its base. In the 1860s the novelist Thomas Hardy, then a budding architect, was tasked with excavating part of the graveyard so Midland Railway could expand its presence in the area. The gravestones in the way were placed beside the tree and, 150 years later, many have become encased in its broadening trunk and roots. It’s an eerie sight.
Fourteen plane trees are among the 54 survivors. They include the Cheapside Plane, which sits in the old churchyard of St Peter Cheap, destroyed in the Great Fire of London. It is thought the tree was planted as a memorial to the lost medieval church, but its exact age is unknown.
The plane outside Brixton’s Tate Library, in Windrush Square, has been standing for around a century.
Berkeley Square is known for its plane trees, which were planted in 1789. One in the south-east corner of the square, today a public garden, has been designated a Great Tree of London.
“I have always found trees very emotive, each with its own character,” says Hawker. “This fascination for trees is something many of us share and since beginning the project it has only grown.”
Dulwich Park has no shortage of fine trees, and the Turkey oak to the south of the Boating Lake, near Queen Mary’s Gate, makes the list.
The black mulberry at Charlton House may well be as old as the Jacobean property itself, which was built between 1607 and 1612.
Two of Greenwich Park’s trees, a Shagbark Hickory and a Sweet Chestnut, have been awarded Great Tree status.
A pair of yews, traditionally associated with churchyards, make the list: the specimen outside St Mary’s Church in Downe, and the one beside St. Andrew’s Church in Totteridge (pictured below).
“Visiting each tree and taking the time to draw each one on location is a brilliant way to feel further connected to the trees and create what will be a permanent record of this list, outlasting the trees themselves,” says Hawker.
Osterley Park is a lavish 18-century “palace of palaces” built by Robert Adam for the Child banking family. Its gardens contain one particularly notable cork oak, planted in 1855.
The black walnut at Marble Hill looks a little desolate in winter – glimpse it soon before the leaves have fallen.
Two maples make the list: a Japanese maple in Hendon Park (pictured below) and a field maple in Valentine’s Park, Ilford.
Hawker adds: “It may take another six or seven years to complete the project but if drawing has taught me anything, it’s patience. The main challenge is capturing the trees changing through the winter; each branch is exposed and the true structure of the tree is revealed, creating a far more complex subject. This, combined with sub-zero temperatures, makes for a difficult challenge.”
Four sweet chestnuts appear on the list of 55, including one on George Green in Wanstead. Sadly, another 250-year-old chestnut tree no longer stands on George Green. Redevelopment plans saw it cut down 26 years ago, despite angry protests from local residents in what became known as the Battle of George Green. The lesson? Don’t get between Londoners and their favourite trees.