I said that I would begin my arboreal adventure by getting to know the trees in my neck of the woods. So it seems about time that I told you the story of the Seven Sisters – the trees my area of London is named after – and the story of how I came to know it.
If you are familiar with the London Underground then you will probably know that many of its stations have designs on their platform walls depicting images relevant to the station’s name. At Baker Street there is a silhouette of Sherlock Holmes. At Warren Street there is a maze. And at Seven Sisters there is a simple mosaic of seven trees.
Seeing this image each day rooted the idea in my mind of a connection between the place I live and a mysterious group of seven trees, but it took me a little while to find out what those trees had been, where they had stood and what they had stood for. The first piece of the puzzle came from a pocket guide I picked up to London’s Lost Elms, produced by The Conservation Foundation. It told me that Seven Sisters in Tottenham, Haringey, had taken its name in the 18th century from seven elms, which once grew in a grove in the area.
A visit to Bruce Castle Museum in nearby Bruce Grove filled in the rest of the details. No one knows who planted the elms, states the museum’s Information Leaflet No. 5, when they were planted or to what end. One tale tells of seven sisters who planted seven elms as a token of their time together before going their separate ways, while another version has it that the elms were planted by seven daughters of Robert the Bruce, who owned lands in these parts back in the 1300s.
Then again, it’s possible that the elms were not planted at all. As elms do not seed but sucker, a circle of elms can form naturally when a single elm sends out suckers from its roots in all directions around it. When the mother elm dies, the next generation grow on to maturity in the arboreal equivalent of a fairy ring.
While the origin of the first Seven Sisters remains a mystery, the tradition of planting seven trees by seven sisters in the local area has lived on. When the elms died, they were replaced by seven trees planted by seven sisters from the same family in 1852. Sadly, these trees did not survive for long and so the ceremony was repeated in 1886 and again in 1955. For the 1886 planting, 2,000 people turned out on a muddy March day to watch, sinking up to their ankles in ground ‘as soft as butter’, while the 1955 event was filmed by the BBC.
The last tree planting ceremony took place in 1997 when seven hornbeams were planted in a circle on what is believed to be the exact site of the original elm grove. That time, seven sisters from the same family could not be found so the planting was carried out by seven sisters from three local families.
But where are today’s Seven Sisters? Information Leaflet No.5 pointed me to a patch of common land known as Page Green Common. It is an unassuming spot, at the junction between Seven Sisters Road and Tottenham High Road, sandwiched between the tube station and South Tottenham Tesco Superstore.
The ground is usually scattered with sliced white for the pigeons and the air perpetually carries a strong aroma of fox and marijuana – occasionally softened by the scent of cherry blossom. Hundreds of people traverse the common every day – en route to the station, the post office depot and Tesco – with scarcely a glance at the small cluster of hornbeams on a raised mound of grass in the centre. I must have walked past the grove a dozen times before I twigged it.
While I am a little disappointed that the ancient elms are long gone, and the current hornbeams are not yet twenty years old, I’m glad that the tree planting legacy has endured. Hornbeams were a good choice, I think. They are indigenous to our local ancient woods – Coldfall, Queen’s, Highgate and Bluebell, they line many of our residential streets and they seem to grow well in our clay soil.
The tree planting tradition has spread throughout the borough. Haringey has over 11,000 street trees alone, and the number of trees in its parks, commons and streets is rising every year. We can thank the council’s tree officers for this, as well as the Haringey Tree Wardens, one of The Tree Council‘s Tree Warden groups, and of course, Tottenham Trees, who actively stick up for the local tree heritage.
All these trees and tree-minded folk help to make this place feel like home. The Seven Sisters trees and their tile mosaic depiction are a centrepiece, a hearthstone of this bustling, changing community and a reminder of the need to go on planting trees.
I can’t deny it: the name and the story appeals to my whimsical side too. I recently heard tales of another Seven Sisters – this one, a group of seven yews in Scotland steeped in just as much legend and symbolism. And who knows, perhaps there are others too, in other parts of the world? But I think I will save them for another blog post…