Ayse Melis Goksan

"The Totteridge Yew"

Section MS5, Bahar Noorizadeh

Keywords: environment, time, writing, performance

How would it feel to be the oldest thing living in London? To have seen so much? To see an entire city change? To be always there, still, whilst everything around is on the move?

For my project, I will focus on the Totteridge Yew, which is the oldest living thing in London. It is actually a she as it is a female yew tree, bearing red berries from autumn to winter. For almost 2000 years, she stands in the courtyard of St Andrews Church in Totteridge. The church is a 5-minute walk from the War Memorial (1922). 

I took a trip to North of London on a sunny day to see this tree which has seen the Roman era (43-410 AD). At first, my idea was to mediate historical evolution through the tree's own history. Let her talk about the vast history behind, through her inner rings. The markings in a tree can tell so much. They record climatic data just like icebergs do. 

However, once I saw the actual tree, I was so amazed by the veins that show on the surface: The openings she had in intriguing shapes like no other. How beautiful yet unique can the oldest thing living in London be? Somehow the tree's spirituality and sacredness show through. 

Now I am hoping to tell the story of the tree through these surface indentations. I have a video with a written text and some samples from the tree. I would like to have the video projected on the wall and have the samples presented on a wood panel in front of it as I go through the text.

As I serve as the voice of the tree, I become the mediator between the Yew tree and the audience. Also, the tree itself is the mediator as she tells her story through time. I think mediation is getting to an understanding of the other and starting to see from the other's perspective. Thus, I am hoping to communicate the vast history of this ancient tree and let the audience perceive “a tree” from a different perspective.   This tree, as a symbol of immortality, becomes a mediator in telling the local history. She has her own story to tell through her skin, and all that we can do is to try to listen to what she has to say.

The Totteridge Yew:

I am an old tree. I have been here for almost 2,000 years.

I am the oldest tree in London. Actually, the oldest living thing in London.

When England was in Roman occupation in 43 AD, I was here. Londinium was so much different then.

The whole scenery was different. It was only green lands. Trees in the vast landscape.

Romans built a road network to move troops and military equipment faster, which then they used for commerce and transportation of fine pottery, jewelry & wine.

You could take the Ermine Road from Londinium to Eboracum (today’s York), and I was there on the way.

Romans didn’t stay, they just passed by. I saw so many things being carried away. Back and forth. After Roman reign ended in 410 AD, it became so silent. I could only hear the birds chirping once in a while. And the sound of the wind.

Rain would wash away my branches, how I liked that. Then in 12th century some people walked by. They were talking about something, something that I couldn’t understand.

Later that week some people came with so much wood and piled them up in the corner. Sometime later I could see the form of a church.

It was St Andrew’s Church, got completed by 1250 AD. That year was also when the Court of Hundreds’ meetings started to take place under my branches. People from different villages came here to discuss and make legal decisions, it was a primitive court system one can say. This continued till the 17th century.

Meanwhile I started seeing these horse-drawn carriages passing through. The horses moving with such dignity, making rhythmic sounds on the rocky roads. Then silence.

Severe storms came around in 1703. The church suffered some damage, but my branches were somehow intact, even though the wind was pushing so hard. They had to work on the spire in 1706.

1722 was a strange year. I saw one lady covered with so much clothing leave a baby beneath my trunk. The baby was there crying for almost 10 minutes till someone from the church ran over to see what was happening. The nun took over the baby in a caring way. It was quiet again.

The little boy would run around in the churchyard once in a while. Chasing squirrels, whistling to birds and collecting sticks to play with. He managed to hide for hours. Noone know what happened to him after age 9.

1778 was the year of yet another great storm. I like it when it rains, but storms are scarier. The never-ending winds must have damaged the church again that in 1790 they rebuilt some of it and enlarged the church.

Also, with the Great Northern Railway Station opening in 1872, I must say that there were many late Victorian and Edwardian mansions being built around. When the railway station was converted to an underground station for Northern line, our village population was around 844 people yet in 1951 it became 4500, so almost quadrupled.

In 1875 though, I met this very unique person. This girl walked past me, carrying a hard case with her. It was the first time that I saw her around, I think. She walked towards the church on a Sunday morning, and after a while I could hear the most beautiful violin sonata.

For a while, she stopped by every Sunday, so I got her name from one of the conversations: Fiammetta Wilson. She played as part of an orchestra, in such a young age! Sometimes she would come around when she’s upset. Then she would hide in my hollow trunk. I would wrap her around with my branches when she cried.

Many years after, I saw her looking at the sky with some device. I think it was around 1910. She was looking at the sky for more than 6 hours. I looked up and tried to capture what she was looking for. Starts were always there, but I sometimes saw the stars falling. Perhaps she was an astronomer. Her desire to gaze at the beyond intrigued me.

She always walked with her dog by her side. It was like she became someone else at night. Standing still. Looking up.

Then came war. That Sunday in church, everyone was crying. So many young men had to leave for the World War I. The idea of never coming back was simply shocking. They must’ve gone through so much pain. Some wives and kids tied up ribbons onto my branches to make wishes for their loved ones.

I hope they returned back home safely. I couldn’t see some of them after 1918. In 1920’s was when they removed all the rocks in the road and decided to use wooden blocks instead. This way both horses and cars could pass easily.

Till 1930, there was so much smell of gas coming from the church every night. I guess they were using some kind of gas lamp. Thanks to the discovery of electricity, from 1930’s onward there was no smell at all!

Meanwhile I was growing from the inside, new branches next to the remains of the old, dead branches. People call me a symbol of immortality. I guess it must be about this. I never lost my energy to grow. Even though I have a hollow trunk, I keep having new branches out every year.

Talking about green, it is quite nice that in 1968, much of Totteridge was designated conservation area, so no major developments got built around since then. It is still quite green, even with a couple of houses here and there.

In 1950’s asphalt came. It smelled much worse than gas when they were making the road. And the cars came with all the black fumes they puffed out. In 1952, the church tower was rebuilt, so there was some work around.

Most importantly 1999 was the year that I was accepted to register as one of the “Great Trees of London”. In 2001 they measured my girth as 788cm, almost the same as when Sir John Cullum measured me in 1677.

Today, I am the oldest tree in London. I’ve seen so much. Maybe I couldn’t say much about it. Have seen so much life & so much death. So many marriages, so many babies, kids.

So much life around me. So much life is still in me.

I wonder now how much more will I be able to see for the rest of my life. Will I keep my reputation as the oldest tree in London still? Maybe I’ll have much more to tell in next 15 years. Time will tell...