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Highgate Cemetery says goodbye to historic Cedar of Lebanon tree that predates burial ground itself

PUBLISHED: 15:19 06 August 2019 | UPDATED: 15:19 06 August 2019

The Cedar of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery is no more. Picture: Highgate Cemetery

The Cedar of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery is no more. Picture: Highgate Cemetery

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Visitors to Highgate Cemetery may have observed a haunted, glum look on the faces of volunteers this week.

An drawing of St Michael's Church and the Cedar of Lebanon from around 1832, before the cemetery existed. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreAn drawing of St Michael's Church and the Cedar of Lebanon from around 1832, before the cemetery existed. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

Not because of any ghosts or vampires though, the cemetery is mourning the loss of one its most recognisable features - the Cedar of Lebanon tree which dominates the West Cemetery.

The tree, which predates the cemetery and around which it was designed, has had much of its canopy removed for safety reasons after serious structural issues were discovered.

"Significant decay" had been detected in each of the three main stems, and one of them had a fungus,causing it to rot and become prone to brittle and unpredictable failure.

One of the main supporting stems was also "predominantly dead".

The denuded Cedar of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery. Picture: Highgate CemeteryThe denuded Cedar of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery. Picture: Highgate Cemetery

Dr Ian Dungavell, chief exec of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, said: "We went through it very carefully, stem-by-stem, but the conclusions were inescapable.

"Around 25,000 people walk beneath that tree every year. And it sits on top of a large Grade 1-listed structure, the 'Lebanon Catacombs', which themselves contain quite a number of burials in fragile, lead-lined coffins. A collapse would have been horrific."

He added: "It's something we have been looking at for a long time. The cedar has had a rough old life and we had noticed a little while ago that it had some fungus growing quite high up. That's usually a bad sign."

After the requisite arboricultural testing, it was bad news for the iconic tree.

Tree surgeons at work on the Highate Cemetery Cedar of Lebanon. Picture: Highgate CemeteryTree surgeons at work on the Highate Cemetery Cedar of Lebanon. Picture: Highgate Cemetery

"It's run into trouble," Dr Dungavell said. "There's a risk it could give up and the whole tree could collapse.

"If we we in a field we would put a fence around it and we would wait ofr it to collapse and, frankly just see what happened, it could then be habitat. But we can't do that."

The risk, Dr Dungavell explained, to the living and the dead, would just be too great.

He said: "The tombs also contain the bodies of lots of dead Londoners, and we have a duty to preserve that.

On its way out. The Cedar of Lebanon at Highgate Cemetery. Picture: Highgate CemeteryOn its way out. The Cedar of Lebanon at Highgate Cemetery. Picture: Highgate Cemetery

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"Anything going wrong could have been a really messy situation. We thought we had to do something."

And so on Monday, the tree surgeons were called in and the tree which has stood in Highgate since before there even was a cemetery, is firmly its way out. This week, the plan was to cut the immediate danger.

Dr Dungavell said: "The tree surgeons are cutting the canopy back, and then we'll look to remove the trunk."

Losing the cedar, which gives its name to the Circle of Lebanon one of the ornate West Cemetery's dominant features will leave an palpable absence.

Dr Dungavell explained the mood at the cemetery since the news had filtered through had been sombre. "We've all been a little glum," he told this newspaper. "Lots of sad faces, and we did the finals tours of it at the weekend."

The cedar's disappearance from the carefully planned David Ramsey design, will be hard to miss.

Dr Dungavell added to the Ham&High: "Really what you would do anywhere else is alow those trees to slowly decay - in a cemetery that's really hard, but it's the heart of the cemetery in design terms. A new tree needs to go in there. "That's my job for this week. I need to find out what we can do about a tree."

He said he would be looking at the most cost-effective tree to replace the cedar, but also making sure it adequately replicated its role in the cemetery's landscape.

"It's a real focal point," he added. "We'll need something big enough to not be dwarfed by the space."

Dr Dungavell explained that in times past, when large trees were moved and replanted, they would often undertake a 'progress'.

The cedar of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery was a relic left behind after Ashurst House was demolished to make way for St Michael's Church in 1830.

A couple of years later, it was incorporated into the landscape design for the cemetery - which it was hoped would look like it was part of the churchyard itself.

Speaking about when one of London's other 'magnficent seven' Victorian cemeteries - Abney Park in Stoke Newington had to move some distinctive trees - Dr Dungavell said: "I find the movement of trees fascinating. They had a proper arboretum there, and at one stage, you'd see trees transported in carts and people coming out to see them."

So with a new tree soon to be on its way, well-timed visitors to the Swain's Lane cemetery might be in for a treat.

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