Urban Tree Festival offers virtual tree tours in London and beyond

PUBLISHED: 11:49 16 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:52 16 May 2020

Hampstead Heath's Hollow Beech, where children and adults climb. Picture: Paul Wood

Hampstead Heath's Hollow Beech, where children and adults climb. Picture: Paul Wood

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The Urban Tree Festival is taking place online for the first time. Three organisers – a writer of London’s street trees, an Islington tree inspector, and a community gardener – talk about what trees mean to them.

Strawberry Tree in Waterlow Park. Picture: Paul WoodStrawberry Tree in Waterlow Park. Picture: Paul Wood

As we move in smaller circles since lockdown, a new appreciation of nature has taken root. Alastair Campbell, with his ‘Tree of the Day’ on Twitter, is not the only one to find peace of mind in the green spaces of north London.

The third Urban Tree Festival, running from Saturday, May 16 to Sunday, May 24, has risen to the challenge of online event organising, with more sessions than previously planned.

Each day starts with a meditation challenge and birdsong recording, before branching off into virtual walks, talks, book readings and family workshops. TreeTalk.co.uk and TiCL.me are two partner platforms where people can map their own tree trails.

The Hardy Ash Tree in St Pancras Old Burial Ground. Picture: Paul WoodThe Hardy Ash Tree in St Pancras Old Burial Ground. Picture: Paul Wood

Armchair tree climbing

Paul Wood, author of London’s Street Trees and London is a Forest, leads guided tree walks through the capital. Spring is “often a bit of a revelation to people who didn’t realise that there were, say, 400 different types of trees that are found on the streets.

“The stories of where they come from reflect the stories of Londoners themselves: the great diversity of trees equals the great diversity of London’s population.”

Paul’s event on May 18 will use Google Street View to cover greater ground, and provide snap-shots of trees over time.

Twisted ancient trees on the wood bank in Coldfall Wood. Picture: Paul WoodTwisted ancient trees on the wood bank in Coldfall Wood. Picture: Paul Wood

The festival is encouraging people to share #MyGreatTree pictures on social media, celebrating trees that are local landmarks.

For Paul, the remnant woodlands of Highgate, Queen’s and Coldfall Wood hold some strong contenders. The hollowed beech on Hampstead Heath entices climbers of all ages, as well as those in search of quiet communion.

Manna ash trees with white, candy-floss flowers, magenta-cloaked Judas trees and the deeper hued Paul’s scarlet hawthorn are blooming in Wood’s neck of North London.

The Peabody Blackfriars Estate community garden, a space for growing and networking. Picture: Carole WrightThe Peabody Blackfriars Estate community garden, a space for growing and networking. Picture: Carole Wright

City of trees

London has an average tree canopy cover of 21 per cent. Citing the numerous benefits of trees, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan plans to increase that figure by at least 10pc by 2050.

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Each borough is responsible for its own trees, and Hackney is racing ahead of that target with one of the most ambitious tree-planting programmes in the country.

An enormous fig tree in Amwell Street, Islington. Picture: Paul WoodAn enormous fig tree in Amwell Street, Islington. Picture: Paul Wood

Islington, though the most densely populated borough, has 25pc tree cover. Its trees are under the stewardship of senior tree inspector Greg Packham.

Greg previously worked at the Royal Parks, such as Kensington Gardens with its “really old sweet chestnut trees that Queen Victoria might have played under as a child”.

He said looking after the street trees of Islington really matters because it is an area where people live and work.

Greg brings his “tree management hat” to the festival, and will be discussing what we need from urban trees: soaking up pollution, cooling streets, storing carbon and sustaining wildlife.

An almond tree near Paul Wood's home in Finsbury Park. Picture: Paul WoodAn almond tree near Paul Wood's home in Finsbury Park. Picture: Paul Wood

Diversity is important to guard against the spread of viruses like Dutch elm disease. And Islington’s array of caucasian wingnut, crabapple and “amazing” Chinese elm trees make a magnificent sight.

Community gardening

Across the river, Carole Wright is a community gardener and bee keeper, using her Urban Tree Festival role to push for greater diversity in the environmental community itself.

Speaking from a Grade-II social housing estate in Southwark, with London plane trees dating back to the 1880s, Carol said: “You don’t have to accept scuzzy biodiversity because you’re on a housing estate – it has an impact.

“Because we are suffering from air pollution here, having an awareness of plants that take out pollutants from the air, and having some real activism around that, is vital.

“And that’s the stance I take as a black woman, growing up all my life on housing estates: I will not accept second rate trees, full stop. I want to know what other people have got.”

Carole will be leading a Zoom walk which links the Ice Age Tree Trail and Ecomemoria – a commemorative trail for the Chilean ‘disappeared’ – through the theme of migration.

She will be spreading word of the festival through her networks, including the Covid-19 Mutual Aid Group with which she volunteers.

“People need to know about trees, and their relation to their mental and physical wellbeing,” said Carole, “and know that they can do these things as well - not only participate, but if they want to put on a little something, why not?”

The full Urban Tree Festival programme, from May 16 to May 24, is available at urbantreefestival.org/programme-at-a-glance


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