The Story Behind The Wood Street Tree
On the corner of Cheapside and Wood Street stands a lonely London plane tree. But this isn’t any old tree, it’s become a symbol of The City and has witnessed dramatic London changes.
Why is it here?
The real question should really be, why is this shop here. Or rather, how on earth has it survived?!
In a prime spot that I’m sure developers drool over, this branch of Cards Galore is the latest in a stream of corner shops, the first called the ‘Long Shop’ which was around in 1401!
Image from a Spitalfields Life blog selecting pictures from Wonderful London edited by St John Adcock c.1920s. The image isn’t dated.
Some reports suggest the shops are originals, but other sources seem to think the second great fire of London (29th December 1940) put an end to them before they were rebuilt in the same style and size as their earlier counterparts.
The tree though, has survived bombs, fires and property tycoons. Which means -thanks to this 70ft Plane tree – these small shops are able to plod along.
Never heard of the London Plane? There’e more on London’s remarkable lungs here.
A Protected Tree
That’s because it’s one of several London trees with a protection order – like an Historic England listing – so it can’t be cut down.
Surrounded by its metal railings, you’d be forgiven for thinking this spot of land has always hosted this tree, but not so.
What was here before?
Look closer and you’ll start spotting clues that this was an old churchyard, specifically St Peter Cheap (named after Cheapside, not because he was a notorious penny pincher).
St Peter himself and his symbol (the white crossed keys at the top) decorate the railings outside.
St Peter Cheap was one of the 87 unlucky churches that didn’t survive London’s Great Fire of 1666 and missed out on being rebuilt by Christopher Wren.
There are conflicting source to whether the parish was combined with St Vedast Alias Foster (the closer one) or St Matthew Friday Street, but in any case the space was transformed into a graveyard, with railings installed in 1712.
So how old is it?
So can we assume that the tree was planted after the Great Fire? Could it really date from the late 1600s?
The truth is no one knows for sure. Even the authority that is Peter Ackroyd quotes in London: the Biography;
“Consider the plane tree at the corner of Wood Street and Cheapside. No one knows how long it has existed on that spot … but in extant documents it is termed ‘ancient,’ and for centuries it has been a familiar presence.”
There’s a record of The City of London purchasing the tree for sixpence ‘over 250 years ago’, putting us in the 1760s. But there’s no indication of how big the tree was when they bought it, or if the tree already existed and simply passed into ownership of The City.
Berkeley Square sometimes boasts it has the oldest collection of Plane trees in London. They were planted in 1789 and out of the 30 in the square the largest was valued at around £750,000 by the Evening Standard in 2008. This one might just pip them to the post though…
Another piece of evidence, used to prove its age and status, comes from a William Wordsworth poem from 1797;
At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years
Poor Susan has pass’d by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the bird .. A mountain ascending, a vision of trees
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.
Today the tiny park is used as a quiet lunch / cigarette break spot, one of over 200 ‘pocket parks’ in The City.
Discover more secrets of The City
The City: Power and Sacrifice is my 90 minute walking tour through the most exciting hidden gems of the City of London. We’ll wind the hidden alleyways of the Square Mile, meeting the heroes, villains and martyrs of history, discovering stories of religious fanatics, unfathomable sacrifices and even viscous vultures. Find upcoming dates and book below!
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