When you think of wild landscapes, the images of great African Plains or rainforest canopies spring to mind. These are often seen on the fantastic television programmes that the BBC and others produce for us. But the wild landscape is all around us if you know where and when to look. Even in the centre of London, which has lots of trees and parkland, there is wildlife all around. However, the parish of Poplar is not necessarily the first one that springs to mind when you do think of wilderness. It is one of the most deprived areas in the capital, has rundown areas and also hosts some of the vast sums of money travelling constantly around the world in the financial system.
The area was named after the Black Poplar tree, which used to be common here, but has now vanished. Thankfully, there are lots of other trees and wildlife around if you know where to look or have a good guide. Bob Gilbert is that guide. His wife is a vicar in the East End parish and in this book he walks the streets seeking out the native trees and the immigrant plants that came over here when the area was part of London docks and even recent arrivals that are an aspect of that society. Each of these plants has a story behind why it is there, and he teases these out as you go through the book teaching us about the social context and the local history.
I loved the chapters on tracing the Black Ditch, a subterranean river that is under the parish. He is assisted by the artist Amy Sharrocks and they try and locate it by dowsing. There is a chapter where he follows the progress of the plane tree he can see from his home, documenting the changes through the seasons. It proves that natural history writing can be equally rich when it is centred on where you live as it is about the great spectacles of our planet. He takes part in the beating the bounds of the parish too and explains the gossamer-thin threads that link this back to the pagan ceremonies. I have only been to the area once, but my great grandmother was born in Poplar and lived in Stebondale Street, and this lyrical account makes me want to go and see it for myself.
Paul Cheney 4*
Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish by Bob Gilbert
Saraband 9781912235278 hbk Oct 2018