If Trees Could Talk

Ben Simon gets spruced up for a jaunt through Belfast's woodland history

This is a superlative endeavour to tell a story that is not easily pieced together. Although today, in the era of global warming, we are more aware of the importance of trees than ever before, they have never been central to anyone’s narrative. Trees themselves can tell us a limited amount, thus the oldest tree in the Belfast area is an oak in Belvoir Park dating from 1642, as we can establish by tree ring dating. Ben Simon has himself surveyed all our woodlands and provides a useful appendix enumerating all trees of three metres girth or more.

This falls very far short of a coherent narrative, and to achieve this Simon has had to rely on in depth trawling through an extraordinarily wide range of archives and sources in London and Dublin, as well as Belfast, for often fleeting references to trees. These are found in places as diverse as account books, diaries, travellers’ narratives, guide books, newspapers, government and Belfast Council records, maps, drawings and paintings. The latter are used to splendid effect, including previously unpublished rarities, presented in full colour in an otherwise lavishly illustrated and large format book.

Simon establishes that the surrounds of Belfast were well wooded in the late 16th century, though Arthur Chichester soon had his eye on the commercial potential of Lagan valley timber. To the Chichesters and then Donegalls we owed the gardens around their original castle, and the Deer Park on the Cave Hill. Simon is able in some measure to reconstruct both with fascinating detail, such as the measures taken to prevent youths tearing branches off the town garden trees for May Day festivities, or the green uniform with buttons purchased for the keeper of the Deer Park.

The town centre garden had gone by the end of the 16th century, as had the large trees in the Deer Park, though the deer themselves lasted to 1859. With the coming of the new Belfast Castle in the 1860’s a renewed forest landscape on the Cave Hill emerged. Amongst the many other areas Simon explores are the long vanished Cromac Wood, and key survivors such as Belvoir Park, Purdysburn, and even Clandeboye, as are later plantings at locations like Collin Glen.

Much of the town’s surrounding terrain was rapidly overwhelmed by its breakneck expansion to city status in the 19th century, and Simon charts the growing demand for city parks, describing the evolution of the Botanic Gardens and the first civic acquisition of Ormeau Park in 1871, one which the city fathers found difficult to digest. As others followed, lawns rather than trees prevailed.

As the city moved into the 20th century trees lost out. In 1926 they covered 2.5% of the area, but by 1951 a mere 1.3%. Idealistic garden villages, and tree planting along streets provided a limited countervailing tendency, but urban expansion was in any case only part of the story. Following land reform at the beginning of the century, the big estates with their longer term planting strategies were dissipated, and the new generation of owner occupying farmers, while they might plant around the farmhouse, were more likely to sell off timber elsewhere. Even the surviving major woodlands only escaped by the skin of their teeth in the Second World War; on the Cave Hill, at Belvoir, and around Malone House, the value of trees as camouflage for military operations fortunately intervened.

Moving fast forward Simon charts the revival of the tree planting impetus, notably from the 1970’s onwards. He describes the gradual recognition at government level of its importance, and the greater priority given to tree planting by a now expanded City Council Park’s Department, although often in the face of extensive vandalism. An additional thrust was provided by the voluntary sector, as reflected by Forest of Belfast, publishers of the book.

In this narrative of constant change very little remains as it is, but Simon does not omit the original remnant woodlands of hazelwood and hawthorn high on the Belfast Hills. To native species we have added imports, some of which have brought their own problems, including sycamore, laurel and rhododendron, and the destructive grey squirrel.

Even in taking a relatively optimistic view of the outlook now, Simon has to concede new losses, including that of fine city gardens to speculative infill development. He might have added the baleful effect of unfettered speculative development in the unsustainable urban sprawl of outer Belfast and areas like Newtownabbey, Dundonald and Carryduff.

This certainly makes the case for those like Ben Simon who can talk for the trees, when we have been in thrall to a generation of politicians who prefer to talk to developers, and are all too cheaply dismissive of tree huggers.

This book would be good value at twice the price. Buy it now for £10, published by Forest of Belfast.

John Gray