I've been busy tracking down the History Trees in the Olympic Park.
There are ten History Trees altogether, each planted alongside a main entrance to the park as part of a legacy art project. Each tree supports a large metal ring in its crown, six metres in diameter and made from either bronze or stainless steel. Engraved on the interior face is a loop of dense text capturing an ephemeral snapshot of the surrounding area. The History Trees were the brainchild of British artists Ackroyd and Harvey, whose website has full background details, including what species each tree is supposed to be.
Some of the trees are quite well hidden, having been placed in locations the artists assumed would be important after the Games. To find all ten you'll need a map, for example the map at the back of the 60 page booklet 'Art In The Park'. I kept a pocket version of the map handed out when the project was launched in 2011, as well as a postcard issued by the artists, and took those with me on a walk round the park's perimeter. It proved a good orienteering challenge.
Let's start at the southwest corner of the park, near the Stadium, and work clockwise.
Western Access Approach (Greenway):Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
This is one of the three History Trees planted before the Games, ready to be seen by spectators after passing through security at the Victoria Gate. It's located just off the western end of the Greenway on a minor path alongside the Old Ford Waste Water Recycling Facility. A decade ago planting an ash tree here seemed like a good idea, although dieback may sadly mean this specimen never reaches full maturity. It looks OK at the moment though, and is supporting the half tonne metal hoop with ease.
Monier Road Approach:London Plane (Platanus x acerfolia)
This tree is located opposite the end of the footbridge crossing the Lea from Fish Island, and was accessible for a few years after the Games. Last year that footbridge was removed, and the road bridge due to replace it is still marooned beside Marshgate Lane awaiting the completion of strengthened abutments. The tree itself is similarly cocooned inside what will one day be the residential neighbourhood of Sweetwater, so unless you're a hardhatted employee of Balfour Beatty you won't be standing underneath this plane tree any time soon.
This is the only tree beside the Lea towpath, so you may have cycled or jogged past it. It's designed to be seen by those crossing the footbridge from Wallis Road (whose warehouses are being sequentially demolished and replaced by flats). But this tree is again the wrong side of a temporary fence, this time shielding a large temporary shed intended to be known as Clarnico Quay. Recently (inexplicably) rebranded Hackney Bridge, this pop-up/start-up "cultural destination" has been royally stuffed by viral shutdown.
Waterden Road Approach:Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)
This is the tree I took longest to find. It was planted to mark the approach from the Lea Interchange but had the misfortune to face Northwall Road which, you may remember, has since been sealed off at both ends. A thick copse shields it completely from within the park, so it's only really noticeable to the odd jogger or cyclist, and even then doesn't particularly stand out. A work of art wasted.
Eton Manor Approach:Common lime (Tilia europaea)
This is another pre-2012 tree, planted early for the benefit of those trooping in from the Eton Manor coach park on the East Marsh. It now occupies a dominant position round the back of the Hockey Centre. Because it's possible to stand directly underneath I was able to look up and read some of the historical inscription on the inside of the hoop. It's quite eclectic.
Clay Tobacco Pipes Overgrown Verge Wick Field Common Comfrey Ginger Beer and Ink Bottles Silty Clay Deposits
Electricity Pylon Celery-Leafed Crowsfoots Sawn Cattle Bone Iron Fork With Bone Handle Manufacture of Buttons
All these things were located nearby, or found round here, before Olympic Park transformation began. And this list is barely a tenth of the items around the Eton Manor ring, because the designers used a really narrow typeface and the writing is quite small. Alas this makes it very hard to read the text from ground level, and nigh impossible except in direct sunlight, wasting much of the effort put into inscribing all that history in the first place.
It's a fair distance to this next tree on the far side of the Olympic Village alongside Temple Mill Lane. It's supposed to mark "the main connection from Leyton into the site", but has instead found itself at odds with local building plans forcing the nearest block of flats to curve around it. The neighbourhood of Chobham Manor is still very much under construction, which may help explain why this tree has been the last of the ten to burst into full leaf this spring, having initially looked like it might even be dead.
Olympic Village Approach:Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Here's another easily spotted tree, located within the main body of the northern half of the park close to the Timber Lodge cafe. This triangle of grass was originally pencilled in for a redwood, but Ackroyd and Harvey appear to have shuffled a few of the intended species during the period between planning and planting, so the gumtree destined for Waterden Road has somehow ended up here.
Stratford City Approach:Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
This is the big one, this is the redwood located at the main entrance to the Olympic Park which everyone striding in from Westfield walks past. Ackroyd and Harvey intended their metasequoia to have an extra-special feature, a bronze inlay on the ground which "momentarily aligns" with the shadow of the ring on July 27th to commemorate the opening date of London 2012 Olympic Games. A lovely touch, and I remember seeing an elliptical inlay on the ground soon after the Games, but subsequent repaving appears to have removed all trace. Even were it still present, the shadows cast by the International Quarter's newly-erupted office blocks would likely snuff it out.
Carpenters Road Underpass Approach:Turkish Oak (Quercus cerris)
This tree's round the back of the Aquatics Centre, specifically at the back of the car park, which is now a lowlier spot than the artists originally intended. I tried staring up at the inscription from underneath but the lettering was again far too shadowy so I only know what it says because Ackroyd and Harvey's website includes an illustrative six-page pdf. Decorated Saucepan, Foraging Bats and Hanson Premix Concrete Batching Plant are amongst the illegible inclusions.
Finally we're back on the Greenway again, this time just to the north of Stratford High Street, at the hardest of the ten History Trees to inspect. It's one of the three originals planted to delight spectators arriving on foot from West Ham, but this footpath into the park was sealed off after the Paralympic Closing Ceremony and has yet to be reopened. The Greenway alongside finally reopened last year, so by looking over the fence you can now see this lone tree amid a blank building plot, but nobody'll be reading its inscription again for years.
“Trees mark the passing of time through their yearly ring growth. The artwork will transform as the seasons change, reflecting the evolving nature of the Olympic Park. The trees embrace metal rings which have been engraved with a record of the site’s history, held in branches for successive decades to come.” (Ackroyd and Harvey, 2011)
In one final artistic twist, the History Trees are accompanied by a series of audio recordings which can be found on the website mappingmymanor.com. These were created by local artist Lucy Harrison who worked with people who lived or worked near to each of the 10 locations, and are designed to be listened to in situ. Unfortunately, being 2011, all the files are mp3s so have to be downloaded in advance and nobody's ever thought to translate them into modern streaming-friendly format. In less than a decade technology has sidelined the digital part of the project, whereas the trees themselves should survive in perpetuity.