To what extent are cityscapes defined by their trees? Seville has its orange trees, Berlin its linden trees, London its plane trees…In London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd notes that the London plane tree is a hybrid, like many Londoners, and that an ability to shed its bark makes it ideal for the city’s polluted climate. Ackroyd describes the famous old plane tree on the corner of Wood Street and Cheapside as an emblem of the city. It has existed for centuries while buildings around it have changed. It once inspired a poem by Wordsworth. It is protected and cannot be cut down.
Not every London plane tree has been so fortunate. In her poem The Trees Are Down, Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) wrote
They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of
the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoa', the loud common talk,
the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.
The poem concludes:
It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the
hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying -
But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
'Hurt not the trees.'
Charlotte Mew also wrote another shorter poem on the same theme:
Ever since the great planes were murdered at the end of the gardens
The city, to me, at night has the look of a Spirit brooding crime;
As if dark house watching the trees from dark windows
Were simply biding their time
According to the Charlotte Mew on-line chronology, the trees were cut down in 1922 as part of work to build new buildings on the south side of Euston Square Gardens.