Who do we think we are? Peter Coles

We ask all the Urban Tree Festival contributors to tell us about themselves and the events they are running. This is the first in an ongoing series.

Mr Mulberry: Peter Coles is one of the UK’s leading experts on our remarkable Mulberry heritage

I’m Peter. I’ve had a deep love of trees ever since I was a child, growing up on the edge of an ancient beechwood in the Chilterns. Having lived most of my adult life in cities, though, I’ve found the trees of the streets, parks, gardens and surviving pockets of woodland essential for my wellbeing. As a writer, researcher and photographer, I am particularly fascinated by old urban trees as witnesses to a past that may have been buried long ago under developments. This is why I helped to set up the Morus Londinium project to document, preserve and raise awareness of London’s mulberry trees and their fascinating heritage. Old mulberry trees always have a story to tell.

Q. What events are you leading during the Urban tree Festival?

I’m leading three walks. One of them is a circular walk around Blackfriars and St Pauls that takes in several old mulberries in the City, planted where there were once monasteries and priories, ending in the esoteric gardens of the Inner Temple. Another walk joins up mulberry trees in Deptford and Greenwich, which have links to trees planted for King James in the early 17th century for a silk industry that never really got going. The third walk is an old favourite, created a few years ago with friend and colleague Andrew Stuck, where we creep up on a remarkable ash tree in the churchyard of Old St Pancras church, following the path of the Fleet River, now buried underground.

Q. Why are you supporting the Urban Tree Festival?

In the Greater London area there are roughly as many trees as there are people – about 10 million. They provide us with shade, sensory pleasure, food and shelter for wildlife; they soak up pollution and are silent witnesses to change in a fast-moving urban world. When a notable urban tree is under threat from development it can provoke massive local opposition. The Urban Tree Festival is an opportunity for us to appreciate this natural heritage, to learn about the 300 different species, to enjoy the peace and quiet they can engender, to use them as contexts for creativity and fun and to discover a hidden past, sometimes going back to the Middle Ages and even Roman times.

Q. Tell us about the locations for your Urban Tree Festival events

The area around St Pauls and Blackfriars is the heart of the old city of London, built around monasteries and priories that were destroyed by Henry VIII. The names of the streets echo this history. There are squares, gardens and cloisters hidden behind high walls. And behind the modern buildings of St Pancras lies the oldest church in London, once nestled on the banks of the Fleet River. Its churchyard and exceptional trees have many fascinating stories to tell. Across the river in Deptford and Greenwich we are in a part of London steeped in royal history, going back to Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James I, intermingled with multi-ethnic communities and street markets.

Examining a Queen’s orchard black mulberry in Greenwich, 2016

Q. Which event that isn’t your own would you like to join?

I love trees, photograph them and know a lot about one particular species – the mulberry. But I’m not a tree expert and would love to know more. So who better than Paul Wood, author of a fantastic book on London’s Street Trees to show me the amazing diversity of species right on our doorstep. I’d go on any of Paul’s walks with pleasure.

Images and words: Peter Coles

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