Chainsaws woke me on the Saturday before Christmas. My neighbour was taking down the Lawson’s cypress. It wasn’t a good looking tree – the ‘false cypress’ of seventies suburbia, unaccountably prized for its virus-style variegation or miniaturised to sit on the rock garden. But this big creature from the far side of North America had become part of my view.
I was shocked when it went. Why, when clearance must be hard-wired into our psyche? The Green three streets away is a product of it. When the cypress went I could, for the first time, just see, over the jumble of roofs and aerials, the bare lopsided crowns of the lime trees which march along its western edge. It’s not actually a village green, but a scrap of the great heath which curved down from the north between two rivers, the Crane and the Thames. The woody plants on this alluvial soil would have been birch and gorse. Archaeologists say that back in a warm period between the Ice Ages, this mound between the rivers was treeless tundra or steppe. Then, after the ice, came the trees. And then came humans and millennia of tree clearance and grazing, and the mound between the rivers evolved into lowland heath, that enigmatic ecosystem of southern England.
The heath was vast. Four thousand acres stretching from the hunting forest of Windsor to the west, north of Staines moor, bound by the Thames to the east. Follow the Crane north west from here through soggy woods of oak and ash and you reach the remaining fragment, a patchwork of acid grassland, reed bed, poor pasture and – yes, even now – heather, the dull low scrub that spills violet pools of flower in the bleached brittle straw of the long grass of late summer.
It’s no wonder that Shakespeare took King Lear to a heath to lose his marbles. Even this small remnant meddles with your wits. In spite of the sun and the tower blocks and the planes lumbering down to ‘Heath’row (only the name now – the place lost under tarmac), you quickly lose your bearings among the scrappy birches and hawthorns, between the dense mounding brambles. The tattooed sunburnt couple, their flimsy polythene bags still straining with unopened cans of beer, can’t tell you how to get out, even though they try, blearily. It’s disorientating. I push my bike three times past the same young oak before I realise I’m going round in circles. Parallax lost. Unmappable. No wonder that in the fifteenth century the value of Hounslow Heath was not weighed by the acre but by the number of swine it could support. Despite being the basis for the Ordnance Survey’s primary triangulation, from which the whole of the British Isles would be mapped, the Heath is just an irregular white space on the map. The Romans ignored it too. Set a straight road across it, the fastest point from A to B, taking them to richer lands out west. The Roundheads garrisoned their Model Army here in the civil war. Then the highwaymen came later.
In the last three hundred years the Heath has been tamed, reclaimed, ‘improved.’ London’s nineteenth century market garden spread, brought order and straight lines to the land, new technology detaching farming from the soil it worked, from the subtle waves of geology that express themselves in floristic gradations and disjunctions. The folk memory of flooding and drought in this place or that seeped away. My bit of the Heath, the southern curve between the rivers, has been drained, levelled, enclosed and divided. First came estates for grand houses – weekend retreats for wealthy Londoners. Then, divided again for worker’s cottages, divided again by the five ‘Cross Roads’, running north-south between the old thoroughfares to Staines and Hampton Hill. The workhouse, stables, Regency villas, Victorian terraces, small factories here and there, Edwardian maisonettes, ‘thirties apartment blocks, ‘fifties council houses backing onto the allotments: every building has its bit of land.
In spite of this, things still grow. Substantial trees, shrubs, herbs and bulbs. The garden I look onto is boxed in by others of the same size and shape, long and thin. The area of back gardens between our road and the next must add up to three acres, disputed territory for the cats and foxes that scale the wooden fences without effort. The great British passion for gardening has brought in cedars from the Levant, maples from Japan, magnolias from Sichuan, gum trees from Australia, cabbage palms from New Zealand, conifers from North America, figs from the Caucasus. Looking from my window over this suburban cornucopia, there are such textures and colours, such diversity of flower and form, so far from the simple palette, the limited variety of the Heath. You might think that these back gardens together make a thriving natural oasis of abundant biodiversity. And that this must be replicated in suburbs all over London. But they are no more than the sum of their parts. The false and Monterey cypresses may approximate to our native conifers – yew, Scots pine and juniper. It is a poor approximation though. They are good enough for birds to land on, nest and shelter in but further down the food chain, not much cop. I planted a ninebark, a suckering shrub from North America. I love it for its graceful arching habit, its corymbs of creamy flowers, the glossy deep red composite heads of fruit that come afterwards and the way the mature stems shed their skin in coppery ribbons. This is just decoration. The ninebark co-evolved with two moths and a handful of insects of other orders, indigenous to its native land. Now, somehow, it seems to me to be a lesser thing, growing here in southern England, without its dependants. Our two native oaks support more than two hundred species of invertebrate. If they grow for even a fraction of their nine hundred allotted years, imagine the bird life their teeming ecosystem can support. Lowland heath is the dwindling refuge of the Dartford warbler, woodlark and nightjar, of the rare sand lizard and the smooth snake, of the ladybird spider and the southern damselfly and the black bog ant. Where will they go when all the Heath becomes a golf course?
The people who chopped down the false cypress in my neighbour’s garden did it carelessly, violently. Afterwards the silhouette of the tree persisted like a ghost image on my retina. Parallax suspended. Over the days that followed, the birds made sense of the new view, cross hatching the space, rebuilding the three dimensions with movement and sound. The lilting flight of the goldfinches led my eye past the Indian tree of heaven to fruit trees in a neighbouring garden that I had never known were there. I caught the stop-start of the rowdy gang of long tailed tits in the shifting Australian eucalyptus several houses away before they burst through the lilac under my window. I could see for the first time, five doors down, behind the old tyre business, the dark stand of Monterey cypress – another American west-coaster – alive with fieldfares, feeding on the red fruits of the cotoneaster below. I hung out of the window to listen to their dense communal chatter. But it’s the flaring crowns of the lime trees over the Green that have drawn my focus beyond the Disneyland concoction laid out under my window, drawn me up and over and back and through to an older man-made landscape, a monument to a time when we were precariously close to the land, now supplanted by the relentless expansion of the megacity.
I can admire all these exotics, enjoy their exuberance, their beauty, their vitality in spite of their displacement. But as the earth tilts on its axis and we hurtle towards Spring I have made resolutions. Here’s what I will do. I will make sure that the council has a tree preservation order on the big old ash several gardens north. And alongside the fig and the coral bark maple, the mock Orange and the ninebark, I will grow holly, hawthorn and birch, closing the gap between the handsome, sterile treescape and the ancient heathland whose rhythms still pulse in the river gravels beneath us.
Katherine Price wrote the Kew Guide (2014) for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and her writing about plants, gardens and natural habitats has been published in Litro, The Plantsman, The Alpine Gardener and The English Garden. Her first novel, The Greening of Louise Long, is being represented by agents Richford Becklow. She worked as a horticulturist at Kew for ten years and is now in the comms team at SOAS, University of London.