Trees on Blackheath

Michael asks:

Not sure whether you’ve seen but a number of Silver Birch trees/saplings have recently been planted on the Vanbrugh Park/St John’s Park part of the Heath.

I was under the impression (possibly wrong) that the Heath should essentially remain treeless and what trees there are were either self seeded of planted at a time when it was less regulated.

I spoke to the Greenwich Council gardeners at the time and they said that the council had been asked by “the friends” to plant the saplings as a result of fire damage of the summer although no trees were damaged in the summer.

Personally I would rather see the natural bracken be given a chance to thrive. Any thoughts?

The Phantom replies:

Sadly I haven’t got up to the heath for weeks so no, I haven’t seen them. But I’m not personally too worried. I’m not sure which ‘friends’ asked for the trees (Westcombe Society? Blackheath Preservation Trust? No idea…) but if you’re going to have trees up there, silver birch are, I believe, quite appropriate for heathland.

Of course  the heath looks very different to how it was even 60 or so years ago. It’s only been the smooth green billiard table it is now since it was pretty much ‘filled in’ with rubble from bombed buildings after World War II – before that it was the classic romantic wilderness you generally associate with the word ‘heath,’ complete with dips and hollows, like the dips that still remain at the top of Maze Hill, gorse, bracken, mines, caverns, the odd windmill and, of course, the traditional dandy highwaymen. It was a dangerous place to travel through, let alone walk, but really rather wonderful.

If you want to read more, Neil Rhind’s book The Heath is definitive – and has many pictures, several of which include trees that look suspiciously like silver birches. Obviously the heath would never have been a forest of them, but small clumps would not be topographically ‘wrong,’ I believe. Perhaps a proper plant historian can put me right? Mr Bowes?

We’ll never get back what the heath used to be – and so many people use it as it is now, smooth (and, IMHO slightly boring in the middle) that it’s not even something most would desire, but introducing a few examples of native species around the edges seems like quite a good idea to me, and wouldn’t preclude allowing the bracken to grow.  And it will help to screen the houses up there from the incessant A2 traffic.

But what does everyone else think?

6 Comments to “Trees on Blackheath”

  1. Nigel Jones says:

    I’d say that whatever the history books tell us, its a long time since Blackheath has been a heath in the horticultural sense of the word – you certainly wouldn’t get much kite surfing or football played on a true heath! Therefore, it may be time to reconsider the possibility of tree planting on limited areas of the ‘heath’. Heathland is created my man intervening in the natural environment, so if people want a few trees on the ‘heath’ as part of that environment, as long as they are the right species and in the right place, (perhaps combined with more of the heath avoiding the grass cutter) I think thats a great idea.

    Nigel Jones
    Medlar & Cob Landscape and Garden Design

  2. PiratesPatch says:

    totally agree, native trees are great, love silver birch…also throwing some wild seed back down, natural grasses etc may stop the place looking so brown every dry summer. some trees will help keep a little more moisture in the ground.

  3. Steve says:

    I think turning Blackheath into an urban park would be a superb idea. Such a large area planted with trees, not just round the edges, would create a stunning open space for locals to use (how many people stroll across the tree-less Heath compared to Greenwich Park?) and even make a bit of a dent in the noise and pollution coming off the A2.

    Green space is precious in the metropolis and the heath is an underused asset.

    How about some Acer or Cherry trees to bring spectacular vistas of colour in Spring and Autumn?

  4. BoneyBoy says:

    Friends from outside London visited us recently. They hadn’t seen the Heath before but said they thought it looked too bare and stark and would look better if softened by more trees and “soft” landscape areas.

    The openness, light, and vistas of the Heath are important elements of its character, but I think a better balance could be struck between the current open and somewhat sterile caracter and a softer landscape with more trees and heathland vegetation. Personally, I would prefer a softer less open landscape, althought I would want to keep many of the vistas across the Heath.
    Planning a transformation to preserve the best of Heath’s current character would be a challenge, but a debate leading to managed change must be better than trying to fix the current landscape of thee Heath for ever.

  5. honest john says:

    Trees certainly were damaged by fire there in the summer. Having summound the fire engines myself for a small fire in the late summer I can confirm that. Whilst investiagting the source of the smoke it was apparent that there had been several fires in that same spoty previously and that several trees had been damaged.

  6. Joe says:

    The Dips area is the only reasonably original remnant of the heath, so it’s a shame that vandals have repeatedly attacked the site in 2011 (including during the dry spring we had). my guess is this is an attempt by the council to break up the gorse a bit so fire spreads less easily and also looks less tempting to arsonists. It’s a great area for wildlife, native grasses, nesting birds, butterflies etc and should definitely be valued more rather than damaged by dog mess and littered with beer bottles!

    Personally I think the Birch trees are probably suitable, but I’m assuming the council has had an ecologist’s advice on that..? Too much tree planting there, however, would remove the wild grasses and shade it too much, so hopefully now it’s about right.
    More native tree species, wildflowers and less of a golf course style feel would be great in my opinion, encouraging wildlife while leaving plenty of areas for football and kite-flying too.

    Personally, I think the drunks throwing bottles around during the holidays are the main problem, they make it really unpleasant to walk there and for kids to play safely when there is broken glass around.