Tree pilgrimage & dinosaur leaves

Dear Pigeon,

I went to London. Home of the pigeons! And while I was there, I decided to make a pilgrimage to a tree I’d been reading about… one of the oldest black mulberries in London, in a private garden behind Canonbury Tower.

The story goes that King James I wanted to bring silk-making, or sericulture, to Britain, so he asked his Lord Lieutenants and various other nobles to start planting mulberry trees. Mulberry trees, he knew, were the food of silkworms. And once silkworms have munched on mulberry leaves to their hearts’ content, they make little cocoons for themselves. It’s the fibres of those cocoons that can be spun together to make silk thread. (I’m telling you all this as I didn’t really know about it until I read it).

James’ Lord Lieutenants and nobles were very obliging. They planted four acres of black mulberries in what is now Green Park and the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Robert Cecil (son of William Cecil – Chief Advisor and then Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I) even sent his gardener abroad to bring back mulberry saplings, and then planted 500 of them at Hatfield House, though only one now survives. Robert Cecil’s cousin, Francis Bacon, was living at Canonbury Tower at the time. Perhaps he asked for one of his cousin’s sapling and planted it in his garden. If true, that would make the tree over 400 years old.

James I’s silk-making industry never really took off. Silkworms, apparently, will eat the leaves of black mulberries, but much prefer the leaves of the white mulberry, which aren’t suited to our climate. But the King’s wishful, pie-in-the-sky project left behind a legacy of ancient mulberries, dotted all over London.

When I reached Canonbury Tower, the only way to see the tree was over the garden wall. I climbed up and looked over – the closest I could get. The tree is so old, its trunk has cracked and split, and lies horizontal along the ground, its branches heading skywards. Its trunk looks gnarled and reddy-brown. Being winter, it was all very leafless and bare. I wanted to go over and see it more closely, touch it even, but there was a certain magic in having to hold back and admire it from a distance. A change, from all that busy Amazon-clicking, next-day-delivery, instant-gratification. And I thought of my trip as a little pilgrimage. A way of saying hello to something very ancient, in a quiet walled garden in London, that has seen a city grow up around it.

On my way back though, I did have a moment of instant gratification. The pavement was dotted with gingko leaves, miniature yellow fans pressed into the dark concrete, gleaming up at me. Gingko trees have been around since the Early Jurassic period. They are living fossils. Dinosaurs munched on their leaves… and now here they are, being trampled underfoot, buses hurtling past, littering the ground in amongst discarded masks and crisp packets. I felt an instant hit. No pilgrimage necessary. A present on a grey day.

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