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Green among the grey in Poplar, London

30 November 2018

Paul Handley goes on an unlikely nature ramble

Paul Handley/Church Times

Bob Gilbert with the newly planted black poplar in the grounds of All Saints’. The shape of the leaves distinguish it from the hybrid poplar. See gallery for more images

Bob Gilbert with the newly planted black poplar in the grounds of All Saints’. The shape of the leaves distinguish it from the hybrid poplar. See gall...

IT WAS grey. It was damp. It was November.

It was east London. It was Bob Gilbert’s new book, Ghost Trees, that had drawn me here. Specifically, it was his thesis that wildlife can be found and enjoyed in the most urban of environments. I was there for a demonstration.

It was a challenge.

My journey on the DLR had taken me past Canary Wharf, the south-eastern fringe of the parish of All Saints’, Poplar, where Bob Gilbert’s wife, the Revd Jane Hodges, is the Team Rector. It appeared as a solid wall of grey, stretching up into the mist. The parish is sliced into unequal segments by arterial highways — the A12, the A13 — and can be navigated only through subways and over roof-high walkways.

The most arboreal thing about Poplar these days is its name. It was originally a marsh, flooded periodically by the Thames. This was the perfect environment for the black poplar, a native species notable for its unkempt appearance and its ability to stay upright, sort of, in the wettest of soil.

Perhaps fittingly for a riverside patch of land, change to Poplar has come in waves. Drained by successive generations, beginning with the Romans, the woodland was cleared to produce an area of market gardens, and then, successively, intensive industrial housing, busy dockland elegance, wartime devastation, urban social experiment, and now privatised over-development.

The borough, part of Tower Hamlets, has an emblem with a poplar on it; but it is the wrong poplar: a Lombardy, which began to be imported into the UK in the 18th century. The black poplar is hard to find anywhere in the UK, and has disappeared completely from Poplar itself — though more of that later.

Bob Gilbert was formerly director of the environment for Islington Council and is now a full-time writer. He is also a Quaker, and was concerned that the Church Times would want something more overtly spiritual from him than a guided nature ramble. I reminded him of our Green Health initiative, and reassured him that we would not be dropping to our knees every ten minutes.

As it happens, we did — not to pray, but to examine the micro-environment that exists at ground level, often despite the best efforts of council contractors. In fact, these contractors are key agents in introducing new species, carrying seed on the underside of their equipment from site to site.

Just as the human population of Poplar gives the impression of being transient, so, too, does its plant life.

Walking across Jolly’s Common (Mr Jolly, a butcher, was not very jolly, apparently; but then, the common is not much of a common), Bob Gilbert showed me some clover. Except there was a dark blur in the middle of each leaf: not clover, then, but spotted medic.

In the scrap of ground next to the A12, next to the final flowering of a wild chicory, he pointed out a tall nightshade, “which has only just arrived”. Reaching through railings next to Balfron Tower, he pointed out a tiny patch of bur chervil, most likely brought here on the wheels of an industrial lawnmower.

Further on, in front of Langdon House (named after a former Vicar at St Michael’s, one of the parish’s churches — there were originally six), were several fungi: shaggy ink cap. “This area was returfed a couple of years ago, and the spores must have been brought here in the new turfs.

“The caretaker caught me picking them for breakfast, and I thought he was going to stop me; but he was only curious. I couldn’t persuade him to try one, though.”

While down there, Bob Gilbert spotted a fungus he had not registered before, a member of the russula family. Familiarity with the existing flora means that he can recognise when a new plant moves in. We made a detour to see something he had spotted only that week. “Look up there: the only mistletoe in Tower Hamlets! And on a maple!”

Mostly, we talked about trees. Almost every tree that he showed me had been planted by urban planners. Fortunately, there was no time to venture to the new high-rise estates that are being thrown up in the parish, where even the tidy urban trees are deemed too awkward for the arid wind-tunnels between the tower blocks.

Walking along a street of low-rise houses, Bob Gilbert pointed out the rowan and birch trees, albeit Himalayan birch. “These are some of our most magical trees, ancient protective trees. It amuses me that urban planners — I assume without realising it — are replicating the old practice of planting these trees near your house to protect you from witches and the evil eye.”

We stop by a liquid amber tree, and take a detour to visit a few Turkish hazels, a twig of which Bob Gilbert took for some spectacularly ineffective dowsing — “But it was growing next to the Salvation Army: what could be more sacred than that?”

We admire a small Tree of Heaven, self-sown behind a lock-up garage; a ginkgo, an exotic tree now favoured by urban planters, glowing bright yellow even on such a dull day; and a pair of hornbeams — “I love its colour, I love its shape.”

Our circular walk takes us eventually to All Saints’, a neo-Classical Hawksmoor-esque church currently surrounded by cladding. We ring the doorbell (a doorbell?) but Jane isn’t in. But it wasn’t her that we had come to see.

Because Ghost Trees is not a novel, I have permission to reveal its ending. In the churchyard is a healthy, if spindly, sapling, protected by two stakes thicker than itself. It is a poplar — not a white, grey, hybrid, or Lombardy, but a black poplar, the first to return to the parish, planted last year at the end of a Rogationtide walk, the story of which forms the last chapter of Bob Gilbert’s book. He poses by it for a photo, and shows me the distinctive lozenge shape of the leaves, still green despite the lateness of the season.

On the way back to St Michael’s vicarage, where the family live (Jane started in the parish as curate: it’s complicated), Bob Gilbert tells me about “Poplarism”: the name given to a local form of socialism in the 1920s — the mirror image of popularism.

It seems to me that the name could be applied to the survival and renewal of wildlife in the borough, fighting back against the corporate developers. “Rewilding” would be too grand a name for it, but the combination of guerrilla gardening (slogan: “Resistance is fertile”) by many of the residents, and the willingness of flora and fauna to relocate themselves in the unlikeliest places, suggest a shared resistance to the forces that seek to dehumanise and denaturalise the city.

A spindly tree might not look like the picture on the borough logo; but it seems a good emblem of this resistance. And where better to be planted than a churchyard?


Ghost Trees: Nature and people in a London parish, is published by Saraband, £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).

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