Deep in the depths of an old wood stands an enormous tree. Its girth is such that it takes six people with arms at full stretch to hug it. It is Amazonian in size and yet this is not the Amazon; this is the lovely, leafy locale of Barnes, London
and this is Barney. I was first introduced to Barney at the launch of The Woodland Trust’s ‘Ancient Tree Hunt’, an initiative for people to go out into their local parks, woods and forests to measure trees. The idea was to get people to enjoy these ‘testaments to time’ and also to see if they could find any undiscovered ancient or notable trees. You would need several tape measures and some help to gauge Barney’s girth. So, what is Barney and why is he here?Barney is the largest and oldest London Plane tree and possibly also the most hidden tree in London which is quite an achievement considering his size.
The London Plane is a true Londoner; as London as a red post box or Big Ben. You can spot one by its distinctive camouflage bark. These shades of beige, brown, grey and green allow the trees to blend into the background allowing the more obvious red buses and telephone boxes take full glory. They are
everywhere and account for more than half of London’s trees. The tree is a hybrid between The American sycamore and the Oriental Plane – a nod to the extensive travel of the 17th Century where specimens were being gathered from all over the world and brought back to the UK. It took a Vauxhall nursery gardener, John Tradescent, to discover that this tree had indeed been the result of a London-based cross-pollination of these two far-flung varieties.
Later, as the Industrial Revolution took hold in London, these planes were planted in large numbers to add some greenery and charm to a rather sooty and smoke-filled London – a gentle nod to the Parisian tree-lined boulevards. The tree was hardy enough to withstand pollution, shedding bark in small quantities to allow the tree to ‘breathe.’ There are many places to see fine London Planes, including Berkeley Square, where the trees, planted in 1789, are majestic and monumental. However, my personal favourite is Barney whose astonishing girth of 8.2m makes it undoubtedly the oldest and largest London Plane. It dates back to about 1660 and it is strange to think that this would have been a mere sapling during the reign of Charles II. And here it is has grown, away from prying eyes, in a tiny area of woodland, just outside the London Wetland centre and just over the bridge from the urban chaos of the Hammersmith gyratory.
The easiest way to find Barney is to stand at the junction of Castelnau and Queen Elizabeth Walk and look slightly to the right of the entrance to the Wetland centre. In the distance you will see the treetops of the nearby wood and you should notice one that stands head and shoulders above the others. The trick now is to walk into the small wood and not get lost in your quest to find the grandfather of London Planes.
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.