21st December 2020
By Peter Coles
Lockdown in its various forms – and a desire to keep myself and others COVID-free* – has meant putting on hold a lot of the (immensely enjoyable) outdoor and social aspects of keeping Morus Londinium active and up to date. But there have still been some memorable moments since the summer.
In autumn and early winter, bright yellow leaves can flag a mulberry tree from a long way off. And this feature proved very useful in November when friend and Silk Roads scholar, Susan Whitfield, and I set off to track down mulberry trees in Camberwell, South London. Susan has become a regular companion on socially-distanced mulberry-sleuthing walks over the past year.
An inveterate traveller and walker, Susan occasionally sends me photos of mulberry trees spotted when she has been out and about, either in London or somewhere else in Britain, from Norfolk to Dorset, Exmoor to Lincoln, to add to the Morus Londinium map. Last year I even received a whole batch from the Swat Valley in Pakistan… Not for the map, this time, but as part of a shared curiosity about native mulberry species on the Silk Roads.
The trees we were looking for in Camberwell were recorded on the Morus Londinium map by a local resident, Liz Sibthorpe, in January 2017, nearly four years ago. Why so long to follow up the entry? The simple answer is that Liz’s record back then already seemed complete, with a location, description, a historical note, photographs and links to fascinating blog post. But I still wanted to go and see first-hand what promised to be three centenarian-plus black mulberries that once stood in the grounds of a long-disappeared psychiatric hospital or ‘lunatic asylum’.
View of the east Mistral Garden mulberry in summer 2016 (photo Liz Sibthorpe)
These are exactly the kinds of tree that make the Morus Londinium survey so rewarding – trees that are not only interesting in their own right but have intriguing stories to tell, with their roots in buried layers of history – and trees that often only a few people know about.
Foolishly, I didn’t look to see if I had a copy of Liz’s original email before setting off. So, when Susan and I got to the site on the Sceaux Gardens Estate – behind what is now part of the Camberwell campus of the University of the Arts – all we had to go on was the Morus Londinium map and Liz’s original description and photos.
After tramping round the estate for an hour, looking for Liz’s ‘Sceaux Gardens east’ tree, with a distinctive chimney in the distance beside a tall block of flats, we almost gave up. Just then Susan spotted the bright yellow leaves of a black mulberry tree behind a high fence in what turned out to be the Mistral Community Garden.
What we hadn’t bargained for was that, since Liz’s 2017 photos, a massive new University of the Arts building has been erected, making it difficult to reconstruct Liz's view and locate the tree. In any case, unable to get into the garden, we resolved to get back in touch with Liz and come back another day.
A week later, Susan and I found ourselves back outside the gate to Mistral Garden, as Liz came from the inside to let us in.
The mulberry tree that Susan and I had glimpsed over the fence is at the east of Mistral Gardens. The tree has collapsed, lying mostly horizontal with stems that were once branches now growing skywards. One day they may even take on a new life as trees in their own right, genetically identical to the parent, in a process known as ‘layering’. This is common in black mulberries over 100 years old. Over time they lean over and collapse, but still continue to grow and produce fruit.
Collapsed black mulberry on the east side of Mistral Gardens
According to Liz, “at one time there was a block path around the east tree and near it was a beautiful pavilion. The block paving has been neglected and destroyed by the tree's roots and the pavilion was vandalised some 10-20 years ago”.
Remains of paving that once surrounded a pavilion
Fifty yards or so away, on the west side of the garden, hidden by brambles, is another old black mulberry. This one is about the same age as the first, with a girth of 1.6 m at 1 metre above ground level. It has lost several branches, but still has an upright main stem.
Black mulberry at the west end of Mistral Gardens
Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum
Liz discovered the mulberries soon after she moved into to her home on the north side of Mistral Garden, back in 2011. While outside picking mulberries that summer, she discovered a silver mustard spoon initialled 'CH' – the first of a whole panoply of other discoveries to come. As Liz explained, "these mulberries are in the grounds of what was Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum which was opened in 1846 [hence the initials 'CH']. The hospital took over several large houses built in 1790. There is also a large mulberry tree on the opposite side of Peckham Road [in Lucas Gardens see below] behind buildings which were once more of those large 1790s houses."
The hospital closed in 1955 to make way for the new Sceaux Gardens Estate .
The account of Liz's resarch into the asylum, and her discoveries, can be found in a fascinating blog published by the South London Gallery.
Camberwell House Hospital and grounds
View of part of the grounds of Camberwell House
Plan from the Architect's Journal 1960 showing development of the Sceaux estate,
with the location of the east and west Mistral Garden mulberry trees
OS map 1893 georeferenced to show rough locations of the three mulberry trees
in the former grounds of Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum
The mulberry at the west end of Mistral Gardens stands behind what was once
Vestry Hall (the old Camberwell town hall) and is now student accommodation
The Lucas Gardens mulberry
The prospect of seeing a third mulberry with a similar170-year-old provenance had already motivated Susan and I to make up for our disappointment on our first trip to Sceaux Gardens. This one – across the Peckham Road in Lucas Gardens – was a lot easier to find,. The tree has the characteristic lean of a mature Morus nigra – so much so that it has been propped up, very professionally.
Black mulberry near the east wall of Lucas Gardens
View south in Lucas Gardens
William Booth Memorial Training College
A short walk from Lucas Gardens we had the promise of another prize mulberry, hidden in the internal courtyard of William Booth Memorial Training College, in Champion Park. This one, though, would have to wait for another day, as Covid-19 regulations meant we were not allowed in to see it. The photo (below) was posted to the Morus Londinium site by the contributor who recorded it.
Black mulberry in the central courtyard of Gilbert Scott's William Booth College
The building, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and opened in 1932, is nevertheless worth a visit in its own right, even just to see the facade. Named after the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth College is the headquarters and residential training centre for Salvation Army offficers and leaders.
William Booth memorial Training College
[Photo: Creative Commons]
Two more for the road
The route back to Loughborough Junction station offered an opportunity to check out another mulberry on the Morus Londinium map – this one in Ruskin Park, a delightful park with long views that dates back to 1907. After scouring the park as methodically as possible, we eventually spotted those tell-tale autumnal, yellow and pale green leaves in a little wildlife area on one side of the park, near the Trees for Cities centre. This one is still in its early youth and is in great condition.
A leaflet about the garden, though, does record a local resident's recollections of an old gnarled mulberry in the park when she was a child. No sign of it today, though.
Young Morus nigra in Ruskin Park community garden
Finally, as we were leaving the park,we homed in on yet more of those golden leaves still clinging to a recently planted sapling that was not yet on the map. We’d already agreed it was a Morus alba (white mulberry) when we found the tree’s label still attached. White mulberries are still uncommon in the UK but are increasingly being planted for their decorative value and as street trees. Some varieties (like this one) do not bear fruit though, and even those that do will not have the juicy red-wine berries of Morus nigra. That said, while some white mulberry taxa do have white fruit, many have black fruit that is greatly appreciated in their native lands.
A Morus alba 'fruitless' sapling, recently planted
Another good day’s sleuthing and, as the rain picked up, it was time to go home…
(text and photos (c) Peter Coles, unless otherwise stated).
*As it turned out Covid-19 did catch up with me in the end. Now in the last couple of days of self-isolation as the symptoms subside, I reckon it was the new variant, contracted by one of my kids from a classmate at school... Fortunately, it's been very mild and short-lived for both of us.