Tag Archives: Tree

London Slant: Walk with Vincent van Gogh through Brixton

“I walk here as much as I can…it’s absolutely beautiful here (even though it’s in the city).”  This is how Vincent van Gogh described his neighbourhood when he lived in London as a 20-year-old man. The Dutchman arrived here in 1873 and spent several months working as an art dealer, well before he headed to Paris and Provence. Some of his first stirrings as an artist date back to his London years, when he discovered illustrations in newspapers that would later inspire some of his masterpieces in paint.

Van Gogh Walk

Lavender, irises and olive trees on the street that’s become the Van Gogh Walk.

Now his compliment to the area in Brixton where he lodged has been repaid. A short street opposite his home has been turned into Van Gogh Walk, a garden oasis with planting inspired by his paintings. There are irises and lavender, and trees arranged to mirror his famous cypresses. Art installations and sculptured seats reinforce the theme. I don’t doubt that some sunflowers are sprouting as I write.

Van Gogh in London

Trees inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings of cypresses.

All are interspersed with excellent panels describing Van Gogh’s months in London and apt quotations from his letters home beautifully carved in stone. As he wrote: “There are lilacs and laburnums blossoming in all the gardens, and the chestnut trees are magnificent.” Although Van Gogh had not yet embarked on his quest to become an artist, he clearly appreciated nature in what was then the largest city on earth.

Van Gogh in London

The house where Van Gogh lodged in London, with its blue plaque.

The nearby house where Van Gogh lived, 87 Hackford Road, has a shiny blue plaque, but could do with a good lick of paint and more substantial restoration work. It was recently sold to a Chinese buyer who indicated his intention to turn it into a centre for art. I trust it will be spruced up soon.

Van Gogh was sacked from his London job, and went on to work as a lay preacher in Isleworth and as a teacher in Ramsgate, before returning to Holland where he began to study art. But his stay in London came at an impressionable age, and it was at Hackford Road that he fell for his landlady’s daughter, although the sentiment was not returned.

Since I visited the new Van Gogh Walk I’ve been delighted to see that it has been highly commended in the Living Streets awards. And it’s not just the street that merits an accolade. I was also taken by the clever bicycle hangers, for safe storage in an area where it’s often difficult to bring bikes inside.

Van Gogh in London

“Bicycle hangars”: what a great idea.

Hopefully Van Gogh Walk won’t just be a pretty spot to linger but may also inspire local people on art adventures of their own. After sitting beneath twisted olives branches you can follow the route Van Gogh walked every day to his Covent Garden workplace, but stop off at the National and Courtauld galleries instead and see how he interpreted these trees in paint.


Join me on a walk through fields and woods from Leicester Square. But forget mega-cinemas and heaving bars. We’re heading 80 minutes south of central London to Penshurst village, the “original” spot to sport the name.

London slant Leicester Square

Leicester Square at Penshurst, Kent: a world away from its London namesake.

Early on a spring morning we set off from this cluster of ancient houses named for the Earl of Leicester who lived in adjacent Penshurst Place. We climb the hill above this 14th-century manor house and its gorgeous gardens.

London Slant: Penshurst place

Penshurst Place: a grand English manor house with a spectacular Great Hall.

The track eventually dips down to follow the Medway River. It’s the classic English scene: yellow kingcups at its edge and moorhens building their nests. But hey, what’s that nestling beneath the trees? Astonishingly, this leafy glade was a target for invading forces during the last war. All along its banks are fortified pillboxes, too firmly embedded to be removed.

London slant Medway River

Ready to repel invaders: a pillbox lurks under trees by the Medway River.

We swing left to the cricket pitch at Leigh and skirt its edge so as not to be hit. Just ahead is the magnificent park of Hall Place, an Elizabethan house. We make a note to come back on either 26 May or 16 June, two rare occasions when its gardens open to the public.

London slant bluebells

Bluebells line our way.

We continue past towering rhododendron bushes and bluebell woods, between banks of primroses and fields bright with dandelions. May blossom foams over hedges and violets nod beside streams.

We arrive at the olde-worlde village of Chiddingstone at noon—and not a moment too soon. The Castle Inn is one of those rare gastro-haunts where the food just keeps on getting better and customers follow suit. Turn up any later and every table may be taken. What a treat to rest our feet in the garden with a glass of cider and roast lamb that falls off the bone.

London slant Castle Inn

Aaah: a seat in the garden of the 600-year-old Castle Inn.

Now comes my favourite part of the walk: the long, slow descent through the aptly-named Eden Valley with sweeping vistas across emerald countryside.

London Slant Eden Valley

The Eden Valley. The conical oast houses on the horizon were once used for drying hops but are now largely converted into homes.

Penshurst Place and its ensemble of garden rooms beckon. We stretch out under the magnolia trees, take off our boots and dream back over the day.

This 10-mile walk (Ordnance Survey map 188) is taken from the excellent 10 Adventurous Walks in West Kent by Raymond Hugh. The book was published in 1994 but, apart from the occasional instruction to walk through a long-gone hop field, is still surprisingly accurate. The book is one of a series featuring walks of 10-15 miles around London—by far my favourite set of walking guides.


Imagine what it’s like to be a tree in London. Not a pampered sort that sits in parks and gardens, but a rough, tough plane or elm out there on the street. A tree that lives in a small quadrangle of earth and spends all day overhanging cars and inhaling their fumes.

Blossom on my doorstep: a London street cherry in full bloom.

Blossom on my doorstep: a London street cherry in full bloom.

Fortunately such trees have one big advantage: their artless beauty. They need it to get all the support they can as they struggle to survive. And now’s the time of year when it’s deployed at its blossoming best.

Every morning for past few days I’ve stepped outside to a billowing cloud of white. It’s the cherry tree I pestered the local council to plant in the empty patch of soil just outside my door. Its predecessor was pushed over by a gang of drunken yobs. I can’t describe the delight I now take in seeing it fully grown, in flower against a blue sky. But I’ll enjoy it just as much as the summer unfolds, and with it, its bright green leaves.

Now that “my” tree has grown into a stately adult, it’s just been joined by three new youngsters across the road. What a lovely surprise it was to open my door early one morning and see tree planters digging holes.

Young tree

Vandals tore the top off this young tree. Why? But it’s fighting back and leaves have opened on its little branches.

Sadly, vandals have pulled the top off one, but the other two are sprouting skywards. The tattered tree is fighting back, though. It’s showing defiant signs of life and I’ll be ready with buckets of water to help it should we get some summer heat.

Leaning tree

This leaning tree faced the axe: campaigning locals (including a pigeon worried about its nest!) stuck notices on it demanding it be saved.

Other neighbouring trees should give it courage and inspiration. A few steps away is one that was earmarked for the axe because it leans over into the street. A vigorous campaign saw a stay of execution and instead, the pavement beneath it was extended out into the road. Quite right, too.

An even bigger hoo-ha blew up over a tree that acquired its own, suitably grand name: the Rheidol Plane. Due to be hacked down for the redevelopment of a block of flats, it became the subject of a petition. Its supporters knocked repeatedly on every door.


Rheidol Plane

The Rheidol Plane: saved to continue presiding over its sacred swathe of grass.

The plans for the flats went back to the drawing board simply to accommodate the plane and I’m happy to report that it’s about to burst into leaf once more. Yes, those trees might not have an easy life, but there’s enough of us out there to help them where we can. My trees might not feature in London’s best, and have plaques to prove it, but they’re every bit as important to those of us who live round here.


No matter how many times I visit London’s Kew Gardens (and it’s a lot) every time I go I see something new. I never cease to be amazed at how somewhere so seemingly “natural” can be so innovative. But since Kew’s all about plant life tamed and put on show, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s so cutting-edge.

Orchids at Kew

Part of a fabulous wall of orchids at Kew.

I always try to catch the annual Orchid Festival, and last week provided the perfect day for this eye-popping adventure. The sun streamed into the Princess of Wales Conservatory, lighting up walls and giant bowls dripping exotic blooms. I loved the columns of vibrant colour reflected in the central pool and archways draped in flowers.

Orchids at Kew

Orchids in and around the pool at the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Kew.

The petal paparazzi were out in force, snapping away as these showy stars strutted their stuff, flaunting their finery full force. Outside the conservatory though, nodding in the shade, much more modest flowers were also causing a stir. There may still be a nip in the air, but spring is coming and snowdrops, crocuses and even a few camellias are starting to appear.

Snowdrops and sculpture at Kew

The alien has landed: a scattering of snowdrops and looming David Nash Black Sphere sculpture at Kew.

This leads us gently into the other excitement of my visit: David Nash’s extraordinary sculptures, artfully positioned around the grounds. Nash has been doing amazing things with wood in general and whole tree trunks in particular for 40 years. He was recently invited to create new works from wood available from Kew’s tree management programme to display around the grounds alongside other pieces from his long career. One of the most exciting aspects of this show is how it makes you look at Kew’s living trees in a different, more detailed way, as if they, too, are works of art.

David Nash sculptures at Kew

Scuttlers: A David Nash sculpture on show near his outdoor studio at Kew where it was created.

In addition to works around the grounds, there are dramatic pieces in Kew’s elegant buildings. They look particularly striking among the lush foliage of the Temperate House where, as Nash says: “The exciting thing for me is to see my works in the jungle. To put them among plants, which is where they come from”.

David Nash sculpture at Kew

David Nash’s Throne in the Temperate House.

David Nash sculpture at Kew

A flame-like cone of cork bark in a Kew conservatory

A pyramid of cork bark looks terrific in an otherwise empty conservatory and there’s a fascinating display of smaller pieces in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The gallery also details the evolution of Nash’s career and includes photographs of other site-specific works, including a circle of living trees which the artist has bent inward to interweave and form Ash Dome.

David Nash sculptures at Kew

Clams? Magritte-like bells? These strange shapes seem to float in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

The last thing I expected to do on a sunny day at Kew was to sit and watch a film, but I was totally riveted by Wooden Boulder, the story of a huge “rock” that Nash carved from a tree on a remote hilltop in Wales in 1978. Beginning with still photographs and developing into an exquisitely shot art film, it relates how Nash cut the huge slab of wood, tried but failed to move it downhill, how storms eventually did the job for him and how by 2003 it had reached a river and was washed out to sea. The tale began with grainy snaps of a young man in flared trousers desperately trying to dislodge this giant piece of wood and ended with beautiful – yet rather humorous – footage of his boulder bobbing on the waves of a vast seascape. It’s a wonderful comment on the artist and his life.

Orchids at Kew, until 3 March. David Nash at Kew, until 14 April.

There’s an excellent catalogue, David Nash at Kew Gardens, to accompany the show, as well as an iPad app.