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The Great British Tree Biography – Book Review

An eclectic guide to 50 remarkable British trees and their place in myth, folklore, history, literature, sport and pop culture. Jodie Jones is a freelance writer.

The Great British Tree Biography
by Mark Hooper
Pavilion, £16.99
ISBN 978-1911641339

The Great British Tree Biography is the quirky work of journalist Mark Hooper, whose byline normally appears in the fashion press on interviews with cultural figures such as pop artist Sir Peter Blake and musician Jarvis Cocker; it is by no means your average book on trees.

By his own admission, Hooper is a decidedly amateur dendrophile, and he pays due homage to experts such as historian and arborist Thomas Pakenham, but he has clearly been extremely interested in trees for a very long time. The result is an eclectic miscellany of essays on 50 British trees that roams the hinterland between social history and natural history and will supply you with enough fascinating facts to fill any lull in conversation for many years to come.

Among the 50 trees to attract Hooper’s attention is the sycamore in Barnes, southwest London, into which a car carrying the glam rock legend Marc Bolan crashed in September 1977, killing the singer outright. Another is the Birnam Oak in Perthshire, the last remaining tree of Birnam Wood (of Macbeth fame), which may well have been standing in 1599 when a group of London players, among them a young actor called William Shakespeare, is said to have visited Perthshire.

Even older is the 1,000-year- old Oak at the Gate of the Dead, near Offa’s Dyke, which marks the approach to Ceiriog Valley. It was here in 1165 that Welsh forces under Owain Gwynedd ambushed Henry II’s invading English army; the dead from the battle are buried nearby.

This then is a book that is as much about British history and culture as it is about trees. The essay on the St Lawrence Lime in Canterbury, Kent, begins with a list of reasons to love cricket, before explaining just how the tree ended up on the boundary of a first-class cricket ground. In short, it’s an uncategorisable book that could be hard work if read in a single sitting, but is an absolute delight to savour one tree at a time.