Today we mourn an icon.
Trees hold a very special place in our hearts and you only have to look at how important the Bethnal Green Mulberry is and its value to the local community to see what imagery and emotion they conjure. Permission was given to remove this historic tree from its current site (being there between 150 – 400 years) to allow a developer to build flats on the site of the old London Chest Hospital and local people have quite rightly contested the proposal; evidence suggesting moving the tree will either kill it or lead to it falling apart.
But the tree I speak of today is protected and its demise is a sorrowful end to a magnificent existence. You may not know about it (as far as I know it’s not a Great Tree of London, although it should be), for today we say goodbye to the beautiful Cedar of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery.
Cedars are supposedly to have been introduced here by John Evelyn, who in his Silva states that he received cones and seeds from the mountains of Libanus. J. C. Loudon, a titan of Victorian gardening and cemeteries, supposed the cedars that stood in the Chelsea Physic garden until 1904 and those in Chiswick House were probably the oldest mature examples in the country.
The tree actually dates from before the cemetery was even laid out, for the tree was originally part of Sir William Ashurst’s estate. Ashurst’s impressive country pile was borne from the fruit of his success as Lord Mayor of London between 1693 and 1694; he was also a former director of the Bank of England. By the 1720’s his magnificent estate became dilapidated and the Church of England bought the land, buying the top piece closest to Highgate Village to build St Michael’s church and allowing the grounds to become fallow. The Cedar remained the constant throughout this, growing, watching, as the parkland and landscaped gardens slowly turned into pasture.
From the earliest historical image we have of it in the 1820’s, the cedar was already sizable and had sheep grazing under its canopy. It’s also multi-branched – I’m guessing something happened to it in its youth and much like a coppiced tree, it sent up replacement branches which over the years have merged into the slightly twisty cedar that it is today.
The London Cemetery Company bought the land in 1830’s and under the unstoppable enthusiasm of King’s Cross creator Stephen Geary, the cemetery we know today eventually came into existence. Geary loved the tree and made it the very heart of his project – excavating a wide basin around it and inserting a series of tombs into its roots, essentially turning it into a massive bonsai plant. Back before Highgate was the wild woodland it is today, the tree was visible from miles around and its roots became the last resting place of people such as Henry Pearse Hughes (died 1865).
The tree then witnessed a renaissance in its surroundings and slowly, stone monuments were erected around it – almost in worship of this majestic conifer from the eastern Mediterranean basin. It was not alone in being a cemetery dweller either, one is in Brompton and another was in Abney Park; its trunk apparently absorbed a scythe that had been embedded in it years beforehand.
But sadly, time has not been kind. Its multiple merged branches have allowed rot to set in and it never really recovered from the snowfall we had in 2017. Yesterday I was invited to be one of the select few to say goodbye to it and cemetery director Ian Dungavell commented:
“When the tree surgeon said this was wrong, that was wrong, that was wrong, THAT was also wrong, it became clear that it didn’t have much time left.”
One half of the tree is supporting the other through cables and if one side goes, the whole thing will collapse, bringing destruction to the tombs beneath.
I mused how many eyes had seen it over the years and how, as loyal guardian of the dead, its own time had now come. Legend suggests, much like the ravens of the Tower of London, that if the cedar falls, the Highgate Vampire too will also vanish.
Cedars of Lebanon reputedly live for a thousand years, however as commented by James Herbert Veitch in his Manual of the Coniferae, it is suggested that we’d probably only have them for 300-400 years tops as they are essentially an exotic plant here. Once the tree is removed and the soil thoroughly cleansed, a replacement will be sought –maybe the new one’s lifespan will be closer to those on Mount Lebanon with our warming climate?
A real shame that such an iconic part of a historic cemetery’s landscape is now going the way of the people it has grown over after all these years.