8th June 2016
The black mulberry at Charlton House should really be near the top of the “to visit” list for anyone interested in London’s mulberry trees and their associated heritage. It is, indeed, an extraordinary tree and deserves its inclusion on the list of Great Trees of London. It is quite likely to be as old as the Jacobean house itself, which was built between 1607 and 1612, for Sir Adam Newton, who was tutor to Henry, Prince of Wales - the eldest son of James I. So, at just over 400 years of age, it is not only one of the oldest mulberries in London, but one of the oldest trees in the city, of any species. And it is really easy to get to just a 10-minute walk straight up the hill from Charlton railway station. Also, coming from this direction, you see the tree before you see the house, which made me smile natural heritage before built heritage for once.
Given its celebrity, I’m left wondering why it’s taken me over six years to get round to visiting the Charlton mulberry. During this time I have often taken groups to see the Sayes Court mulberry at Deptford, just a couple of miles down the road which is the tree that got me into this mulberry venture in the first place. And two years ago I visited the equally ancient Queen’s Orchard mulberry in Greenwich Park. I could have walked to Charlton from there in 20 minutes. So why didn’t I? Perhaps it was a matter of leaving not the best, but the (almost) most famous, till last? In truth, I love finding relatively unknown old mulberries lurking in parks and on street corners, in gardens and churchyards a passion that seems to be spreading here at the Conservation Foundation. I suppose I thought I could visit the Charlton mulberry any time. After all, I’d seen pictures of it and read about it, unlike some of the more anonymous trees that are now gradually filling the Morus londinium database.
This brings me to the dual purpose behind the Morus londinium project itself. There are heritage mulberries on the one hand the veteran trees themselves and then there is mulberry heritage on the other – in particular the often lost, hidden or forgotten reasons why an old mulberry tree is where it is, perhaps surrounded by streets and houses from a much more recent era. An orphaned tree can be the starting point for a fascinating journey back in time. In the case of the Charlton House mulberry, I thought, the heritage is well documented and preserved in the form of the beautiful Jacobean House and its grounds. So, in this case, I wanted to encounter the heritage mulberry first.
It was with excitement, then, that I set off on Monday to meet the Charlton House mulberry at last. And that is exactly what it was a meeting. The encounter with a 400 year-old living organism can’t be taken lightly. It’s a bit like looking at a Rembrandt painting. You can’t just turn up, say “wow!”, take a photo, and walk on. A tree like this ideally deserves the patient eye of the artist, or the unencumbered eye of the contemplative. But I can’t draw – or at least not trees and my mind that day was cluttered with a thousand thoughts. The least I could do was let the tree teach me something about time, which it has stored up in abundance. And that meant staying a while.
I sat down on the stone steps next to the tree, sprawling like a tentacled creature inside its circular iron fence. A toddler walked up to the railings, pointed and said in a helium voice, “Look how old this tree is mummy. Look how old it is!” There was my starting point: its sheer age. Black mulberries often look old when they’re not. My reference has become the pair of black mulberries in Fountain Court, in the Middle Temple, which were planted in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee and yet look much older. The Charlton House mulberry is in a different league. Peering over the fence into the sprawled innards of the tree is like looking into a whole woodland in microcosm. Gnarled trunks and branches corkscrew in all directions under a canopy of rough, heart-shaped leaves, while the ground is strewn with wild plants, like stickyweed, bramble and bluebells.
I wanted to photograph the tree, but was continually disappointed with the result. The wide shots lost the fantastic tangle of trunks and branches inside the perimeter fence, while the close-ups gave little idea of scale. I took more photos than I’d intended and, in the end, called it a day, deciding to retire to the Mulberry Café in the foyer up the front steps of the House itself. Here I asked Donna, the caterer behind the counter, if she ever made anything with the mulberry fruit. She smiled and said that she sometimes baked mulberry pasties “If I can get to the fruit before the locals. One day I found some people up the tree, shaking the branches. I told them off. After all, you have to respect a tree that’s 400 years old.”
So, what of the Charlton mulberry’s heritage, besides the house itself? Why is this tree here? If it was, indeed, planted when the house was built, this would coincide with the letter that King James I sent to Lord Lieutenants and the landed gentry, asking them to support an English silk industry by planting mulberry trees to provide leaves to feed silkworms. According to some accounts, Sir Adam Newton did create a mulberry plantation after all, there was also one in Greenwich Park a mile or so down the hill to the west. But it is going to require a bit more digging in the archives to see if there is any concrete evidence for this, and to find where, in the grounds, it might have been. This black mulberry may, as is also often the case in other late Tudor and early Jacobean manor houses, like Hatfield House and Syon House, simply have been planted for its special fruit and gnarled, attractive shape as a landscape tree.