There was a small woodland behind our garden when I moved here in 2001. Enclosed by terraced houses on four streets, it was filled with wildlife.
It was an unassuming woodland – but its mature Sycamore trees, Elder, Buddleia, brambles & other self-seeded ‘scrub’ were a haven for many creatures. Over 12 species of bird nested there. Seeds, berries & insects were plentiful. A neighbour said the dawn chorus was more like a dawn shout. Squirrels had made their dreys in the trees & there was a Fox den at one end.
MR WONDERFUL ON NEIGHBOUR’S FENCE, WOODLAND BEHIND
We never knew this cat’s proper name, but he was long & elegant and well-mannered, & we called him Mr Wonderful. Lavender spots (top right, over corner of fencing) are Buddleia. It grows tall when left to its own devices, & fought for its place amongst the Sycamore & taller scrubby shrubs. There were a number of Buddleia mounds in the woodland, visible from our back windows.
The woodland buzzed with bees & bugs & other insect life. Birds had places to perch and nest, & access to protein from all the insects. Once the undergrowth had grown tangled and difficult for humans to walk through, the leaf litter & all the creatures making use of it became another rich resource for wildlife. Autumn leaves, shed by mature trees in neighbours’ gardens, blew into the area & added year on year to the store of leaf litter. Even in a densely built-up part of London, with terraced housing all around, this was biodiversity in action.
Local cats used the woodland as their meeting place. For them there were trees to climb, pathways to walk and sniff, scentmarking spots. All the catly rituals were performed here: the long stares, one cat backing away in slow motion, deferring to the Top Cat; nose to nose yowling, tension building. Then a fizzing, snarling flash of teeth & claws deciding winner and loser, one cat bounding away into the undergrowth with the other in hot pursuit. Sometimes these cat battles spilled over into our garden, as one corner had been left unfenced.
Roger the gardener used this gap as he worked on our small garden. He kept a small area cleared just behind our boundary at the back. There he planted bulbs – Daffodils & Grape Hyacinth to join the Spanish Bluebells that may have been there before WW11, when the little woodland had been market gardens. Fallen leaves in black plastic binliners were piled against our fence & left to become leafmould.
RF and Eugene had laid out paths of old rooftiles around 1995. Flower beds were long & straight. A small patio was made at the back, & an oval herb bed close to the house. Back then the barrier between properties was a low brick wall topped with a chain link fence. This arrangement let in light for Eugene’s tomatoes & basil.
There were mature Damson trees, one being eaten by woodboring insects. Its bark was riddled with tiny holes. RF said that when all was quiet and he was having a sandwich at the white table, he could hear the chewing. That old Damson eventually collapsed & was sawn into smaller bits: the beginnings of our log pile.
Wildlife seems always to have wandered in and out of the garden through the unfenced corner. RF said that Foxes would stand in the gap & watch him as he worked or had his lunch. Sometimes one or two rubber balls could be seen in the clearing, lying where the undergrowth was flattened. They must have come from parents and children who lived round the wood. Once a ball had gone over their fence, buying a new one would have been easier than climbing through nettles & other overgrown vegetation to retrieve the lost one. Foxes, squirrels or cats must have been playing with those balls, because they came & went, moved about by unseen paws.
The woodland grew up to the fences of this and other gardens. One day in spring, watching an aerial display of squirrels through the treetops, RF said ‘We don’t know how lucky we are! All this, in the heart of London!’
The little woodland disappeared unexpectedly, within a week in 2003, over a Mayday bank holiday.
Arsenal Football Club had a huge operation underway at nearby Drayton Park, where its new stadium was being built. The Council, builders McAlpines & the football club gave us weekly news through our mail slots : what was happening, future plans, noise levels, dust levels, how to raise an objection or apply for a job with McAlpines.
Some said the little woodland was owned by the Arsenal. Estate agent searches on behalf of new neighbours had found nothing worrying about the site. When the new stadium was done & Arsenal FC able to use it, a huge operation to pull down the old Highbury Stadium and build flats on the site began. There were still protests & legal objections ongoing about that; plenty to keep attention focused on the Very Large Neighbour.
To paraphrase H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘No one would have believed, in the first years of the Millennium, that this little plot of woodland was being watched keenly and closely by (!@#!!) property developers…’ It was not Martians who landed on the little woodland, but men hired by Paul Simon Developments to chop down, flatten & burn everything that lived or grew there.
Their wrecking crew began work near the entrance to the woodland, where a neighbour’s lilac was in full bloom, spilling over their back fence. The men hacked the lush flowers & greenery back to the larchlap fencing. They carried on across the woodland, unmoved by neighbours’ protests.
There was an Arsenal Matchday at Highbury Stadium for the holiday, with the usual sell-out crowd. Some neighbours had gone on holiday with their children. Others, at home & seeing the woodland behind their gardens being chopped down, tried phoning the Council to ask about any planning plans. But Council offices were closed for the holiday.
By the time they opened again, virtually everything had been cut down, burned or taken away, including much of an old asbestos-lined structure in one corner. RF’s bags of gardener’s leafmould, a store of twigs and branches kept against our fence as a logpile, the brightly coloured rubber balls and everything that had had a life in the little woodland had gone, including the old Elder behind our fence. (see ‘A Tree for the Garden – The Elder‘ and ‘The Chief Crow’s Courting Tree’).
After the first day’s slashing and burning had finished, I went out to find the father Fox dead and traumatized neighbours in tears. The chopping, sawing & burning carried on hour after hour for days, as the men moved inexorably towards the back of the enclosed site and the Foxes’ den.
The Fox cubs were not yet ready to leave home. But they were given no choice, as the men reached their den on Arsenal Matchday and set about demolishing it. The cubs had to escape into the sell-out football crowd of
38,000 football fans. Later, the team at the Ecology Centre said a young Fox cub had turned up at Gillespie Park; they were about to take its photo when it died. Poisoned, they said. Developers?
Neighbours were appalled and angry. Most of us only knew each other by sight, to nod & smile & go our separate ways. Now we were talking with each other, meeting up to share our frustration & rage. The men from Paul Simon Developments lied to many of us about what they were up to. A neighbour on Elwood Street had heard the truth from one of the wrecking crew, who said that the developers had deep pockets & were prepared to wait a very long time to have their way & build on the site.
Many neighbours had felt safe with the overgrown woodland behind their gardens. Some had put up openwork trellis, to watch the wildlife. One couple planted cherry trees in the wild land on the other side of their back fence. They were chopped down, trashed and burned with everything else.
We met in the local church hall & formed a group to fight the developers. This involved finding out who they were; writing letters of objection to the Council about their plans to build on the site; collecting signatures for letters of objection; getting Tree Protection Orders for four mature trees, all within adjoining gardens, all with root systems spreading into the woodland site; engaging a planning solicitor; & attending an appeal by the developers to the Department of the Environment in January 2006 and a Public Enquiry in January 2009, both held in the Council’s offices. Both appeals were rejected; the site was found unsuitable for buildings.
The Public Enquiry decision gave 34 separate reasons for rejecting the developers’ plans. Roots of the protected trees, growing in people’s gardens but known to extend out into the woodland site, were deemed important, as the Council’s tree experts showed. Digging for building work would disturb the roots of these trees (Ash, Pear, Lime and Sycamore) with their TPOs (Tree Protection Orders).
” 17. As older trees are less successful in adapting to new conditions, it is particularly important in this case to respect the RPAs (root protection areas), to maintain the health of the four protected trees.’
19. The RPAs of the Sycamore… and the Lime, which are on opposite sides of the site, are very close to one another. On this evidence it would be unwise to build between the two trees. “
In ‘FORGOTTEN FOLKLORE – MYTHS AND MAGIC IN ISLINGTON’, Richard Meyers tells of the legend of the Elder Queen, a tree spirit said to visit misfortune on those who disrespect her tree. Our Elder was only one living thing among many chopped down by the developer’s men. But it was very old, & was the chosen tree for the Chief Crow’s courting dance. Has Paul Simon Developments or any of its operatives suffered misfortune since they disrespected the Elder? Who can say?
There was talk of our writing a Midsomer Murders script, with Chief Inspector Barnaby visiting a friend in our local police force. The Chief Inspector walks with the force as they approach the ex-woodland site, where one of the developer’s men has been found in a dreadful state. Barnaby winces as he takes in the grisly scene. ‘But who would have had the motive to do such a thing?’ he asks. ‘Take your pick, Sir…’ says a PC… probably everyone in the neighbourhood.’
Years passed. The woodland site was sold on to another developer, and then another, and now in October there is fresh hacking and chopping and wheelbarrowing away of what had been allowed to regrow.
This amounts to demolishing a human high street, shopping mall and several playgrounds for our neighbourhood wildlife. Insects will have laid their eggs in the greenery, all of which would have been available for birds and other creatures through the coming winter. As would the blackberries on the bramble bushes & the seedheads of grasses, shrubs & wildflowers. Mice living in the regrowth of vegetation on the site, where they were hunted by local crows, will have been driven again into surrounding gardens & houses. As will the squirrels. Deja vu all over again.
4th December, 2015
Today new owners of the site, a firm of architects, are ‘digging trial holes with a mini-digger’, doing ‘soil investigations’. These architects are intent on getting rid of the Ash tree, Tree Preservation Order or not.
16th December, 2016
Now, in the run-up to Christmas, the architects have apparently posted letters to owners of all properties round the site, announcing their intention to submit new plans after the holiday. Making planning submissions close to a holiday is a developers’ tactic this neighbourhood has seen all too often. It increases the likelihood of those who might object being away from home or having other things to be getting on with.
Rather than the best solution – in which the site is given to the Council’s Ecology Centre to plant with native trees & shrubs, creating something to benefit the environment and the community – we can look forward to finding the latest architect’s plans for this former mini-woodland coming through our letterboxes after the hols.
Wherever you live, if you enjoy your local trees, find out whether or not there is a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) in existence for them. If there is not, make an effort to secure one. It may not guarantee the tree’s continued existence, but it may help deter a slash-and-burn developer, or a firm of opportunist architects.