Clare Wadd reviews Bob Gilbert’s Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish, published by Saraband and out now.
When Bob Gilbert moved to Poplar in the East End to become a “vicar’s wife”, he decided to walk every street in his parish and record the nature he saw in his new inner-city borough – starting with the poplar trees after which Poplar is named.
Taking defiant inspiration from Richard Adams, who once wrote about the dearth of wildlife seen on a “briefly endured” trip to London, Gilbert shares his pleasure in observing every-day nature. He enjoys cities – where two thirds of the world will live by 2050 – and nature is in cities to be cherished and enjoyed, you have to look a bit harder for it.
Its tone warm and its content wide-raging, Ghost Trees spans history and social history, folklore, religion and walking as well as nature – but Gilbert wears his vast knowledge lightly and shares it engagingly and entertainingly. He tells the story of his patch through its generations of trees: after the poplars came the fruit trees, planted when the area was a market garden supplying London with apples and cherries; the mulberries favoured by James I, supposedly to boost the home-grown silk industry against the French and Italians; the grand designs of the Victorians and their plane trees; and more recent municipal street-tree plantings. Poplar is low-lying, and black poplar once flourished here in the marshy areas by the Thames and the Lea, but is no longer to be found.
From “ghost hedges” – the trees left to form hedgerows when forests were cut back for cultivation – he arrives at “ghost trees” as hauntings from trees’ impact on an area that manifest in place names like Poplar, the myriad of streets named for trees, local symbols, boundaries and folklore. These ghost trees resonate in the lives of local people centuries later – the infamous Bryant & May match factory was here because poplar was the perfect wood for matches, and the local boxing tradition was almost certainly aided by a bruise-soothing lotion derived the poplar tree. Taking flora as the story of communal history, Gilbert journeys from London rocket flourishing in the ashes after the great fire, through the arrival of the tree of heaven in a period of obsession with all things Chinese to, more recently, the spreading of Indian mustard plants from local window boxes and gardens into parks and open spaces.
Affection for his parish sparkles from the pages, spawned by the vegetation lining the entrances to underpasses, the shared spaces between the post-war estates, the canal-sides and the A-roads that thunder through. It’s a place of cod-philosophy graffiti and of ecology that’s shared with domestic pets, squirrels and pigeons. Thanks to Ghost Trees, I’ll long remember both the close relationship between sparrow population and poverty, and the Passport to Pimlico-esque real-life 1970s bridge blockades and brief declaration of independence of the Isle of Dogs, when it had its own President and Prime Minister for a few weeks.
Readers are invited into Gilbert’s family life – he ropes his sons into conkers, into discovering the identity of their future-intended through the casting hazel nuts into a fire, and then both family and friends into scrunching up unpleasant sperm-scented tree of heaven (or hell) leaves and proffering adjectives to describe them. His sons are reassuringly both not entirely compliant, sharing clearly invented names of potential true-loves, and short on adjectives (“leafy”); the old come up with “corned beef”. This is a happy family, but a real one: Gilbert is rueful about being on the losing side in the cat / dog debate, but the rescue dog, pre-named Ash, comes in handy all the same, both as a walking companion and as a talisman for investigating Poplar’s ash trees.
Having hunted the black poplar to no avail, Gilbert variously observes the large plane tree in his vicarage garden over the course of a year, and tries to retrace the route of the lost Black Ditch river through a combination of dowsing and following old maps and the geography of the land. Finally, he leads his wife’s congregation in the walking and beating of the bounds of the parish of Poplar, an event which culminates in a happy ending with the planting of a black poplar sapling in All Saints churchyard garden.
Ghost Trees is available to buy in the Caught by the River shop, priced £14.99.
You can read an extract from the book here.