Storm damage and falling trees

Sally Williams
Keeper of the Inventory, London Parks & Gardens Trust

In a sudden violent thunderstorm on Saturday 25 January 2014, a very large lime tree in Ravenscourt Park in Hammersmith was struck by lightning, with devastating results. Ravenscourt opened as a public park in 1888 but its history goes back many centuries, and past owners of the once extensive estate include Edward III’s mistress Alice Perrers. A plan of 1754 shows the park in roughly its present form including the long avenue from the south to the house (later destroyed as a result of World War II bombing), and a moat that may be the basis of the present lake. In 1812 the house and estate of 60 acres were sold to George Scott, who according to local historian Thomas Faulkner employed Humphry Repton to advise on landscaping the grounds. The old lime was on the west side of the lake, and a cedar tree on its island can be seen behind the devastated tree in the photograph. The good news is that Hammersmith & Fulham’s Head of Parks has already confirmed that another tree will be planted once the stump is dead, as part of a wider replanting scheme that includes the historic diagonal avenue that crosses the park.

Aware that the stormy weather of recent months inevitably led to the loss of trees in London’s parks, gardens and streets, I started to browse through the LPGT Inventory for past storms and their effects on the landscape in preparation for this article. Of course the hurricane-force winds that affected much of England on 15-16 October 1987, particularly in the south-east, including Greater London, still live in people’s memories today. It is estimated that 15 million trees came down in all, in addition to loss of life and other serious damage. It is said to be England’s worst storm since the week-long Great Storm of late-November 1703, when in Greenwich Park many trees on the upper ground were lost, and nearby in Deptford John Evelyn recorded in his diary that the ‘house, Trees, Garden &c. at SaysCourt suffered very much’.

South London boroughs like Croydon felt the heavy impact of the 1987 storm and consequently suffered heavy losses in its fine woodland and public parks. One such is Lloyd Park, former parkland belonging to the Coombe Estate, which was given to Croydon Corporation in memory of newspaper proprietor Frank Lloyd (d.1927), who had lived at Coombe House and formed the idea of presenting some of his land to the borough for public playing fields. After his death the land passed to his daughter, who made the gift in accordance with her father’s wishes and as a memorial to him. Although damaged by the winds of 1987 and largely playing fields, much of the old parkland is still recognisable. Majestic trees in Purley Beeches and Heathfield came down although one or two oak pollards, former boundary hedge, survive on the west edge of the latter wood. On the Webb Estate in Purley, an avenue of poplars called the Promenade de Verdun, which was planted as a memorial to French sacrifices on the Western Front in World War I, lost a number of its trees, but replanting has been carried out in recent years. The grass verge is set behind low-hanging chains suspended on posts made from the uprooted poplars. Other losses in Croydon occurred in Wettern Tree Garden, Millers Pond and Upper Norwood Recreation Ground.

In nearby Sutton, Beddington Park was among the historic landscapes that lost trees and some replanting has since been undertaken there. Other affected parkland in the south includes High Elms Country Park in Bromley, formerly part of land given to Bishop Odo of Bayeux, brother of William the Conqueror, for the part he played in the Battle of Hastings. From its early days the land changed hands repeatedly until the eighteenth century, when High Elms became the country estate of the Lubbock family, who built a mansion and ornamental gardens. In the 1880s the estate was largely open farmland with a substantial apple orchard and an area of ancient woodland known as Cuckoo Wood. In 1938 High Elms was sold to Kent County Council, transferring in 1965 to the London Borough of Bromley as Green Belt Open Space. In 1967 the mansion was destroyed by fire but the formal gardens, stable block, surviving vestiges of an Eton Fives court and the ice well remained.

Other south London boroughs where much 1987 storm damage was recorded include Merton and Southwark, both of which contain exceptional parks. Belair Park and Peckham Rye Park, both in Southwark, lost mature trees, and Morden Hall Park in Merton was decimated, although replanting of the avenues has taken place in recent years. Other trees found today in Morden Hall Park include hornbeam, London plane, tree of heaven, false acacia, sycamore and three large oriental planes that overhang the northern moat of the Hall. Also in Merton, Ravensbury Park lost a number of very large plane trees. Located along the bank of the Wandle River and once the site of Ravensbury Manor dating back to the thirteenth century, this was later the estate of an eighteenth-century house called Ravensbury Manor House, together with calico printworks. When the estate was broken up for housing development in the 1930s, the Councils of Mitcham, Merton and Morden purchased the remaining grounds to safeguard it for the public.

To the west, London’s historic landscapes saw trees damaged or uprooted in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Richmond Park, Hampton Court Park and Bushy Park, where replanting of lime avenues had begun in 1986, only to be devastated. Adjacent to Richmond Park, a number of trees on Kingston Hill on the boundary of Dorich House in Kingston blew down, including a large oak near the drive; others were subsequently taken out as the drive was widened, but in 1996 new chestnut trees were planted.

The landscape north of the Thames did not escape, with mature trees lost at significant sites like Gunnersbury Park in Hounslow and Forty Hall Park in Enfield, where the historic Lime Walk has since been replanted. Also in Hounslow, the ancient village green at Bedfont, once described as ‘littered with conkers’, saw its horse chestnuts and other trees devastated. Harold Wood Park in Havering lost many large species, including elms that were also ravished by Dutch Elm Disease; tree planting since 1988 has led to a new Weeping Willow Avenue between two sports pitches, partly to assist with drainage as the park suffers from waterlogging. Wanstead Park in Redbridge – whose seventeenth and eighteenth century pleasure gardens were the work of some of the most influential garden designers: George London, Humphry Repton and Lewis Kennedy – suffered losses as a result of both the 1987 gales and Dutch Elm Disease, but in 1992 the park’s historic avenue of sweet chestnuts leading up to The Temple was replanted.

Closer to the centre of the capital, London’s Royal Parks Regent’s Park, Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park all lost mature trees. Smaller historic gardens and squares were similarly devastated, including Chelsea Physic Garden, Eccleston Square, Cadogan Square Gardens, where ornamental trees have subsequently replaced lost plane trees, and Porchester Square Gardens, where Indian horse chestnuts have now replaced damaged trees. In Postman’s Park in the City of London an oak that blew down had been planted in 1973 to commemorate the first issue of a British stamp to show a tree; a new one has since been planted.

It is good news that alongside the many tales of trees lost to the devastating wind are these stories of renewal. The streets of the pioneering Brentham Garden Suburb in Ealing remain tree-lined despite losing nearly 70 trees, replanted through sponsorship by the residents themselves. In the allotment area behind the Drapers’ Almshouses in Haringey is an oak planted from an acorn after the loss of the old oak in the storm. In some cases the fallen trunks have become the subject of community carving projects. An example is found on Tooting Common close to the old Yachting Pond where there are a number of sculptures created from storm-blown trees; other such sculptures are also found in nearby Bedford Hill Woods.

It was not only trees that sustained injury and the Inventory provides details of some of the built structures that suffered. Following storm damage and other depredation, the eighteenth-century Vale Mascal Bath House in Bexley was fully restored in 1990, funded by English Heritage with contributions from Bexley Council’s Heritage Fund. Once within the extensive Mount Mascal estate, whose grounds may have been laid out by Capability Brown, this diminutive gothic building is now at the rear of suburban housing. And at Lancaster Gate in Westminster the Christ Church War Memorial, which was originally on the footpath outside the church, incurred damage during the 1987 storm. It was later moved to its present location and restored as part of the street improvements scheme, and unveiled on 11 November 2002. Designed by Sir Walter Tapper RA and sculpted by Lawrence A Turner, the memorial was originally unveiled by the Bishop of Kensington on 27 March 1921, and commemorates residents of the Metropolitan Borough of Paddington who died in World War I.

As can be seen, the mature trees that crashed to the ground in parks and gardens across London in the early hours of 15-16 October 1987 proved a good starting point for my perusal of Inventory entries – those readers wishing to find out more about any of the sites mentioned can dip into London Gardens Online!

Fallen lime in Ravenscourt Park
A fallen lime in Ravenscourt Park