Muswell Hill, designed and built between 1897-1906, is one of the most intriguing suburbs in London. On the evidence of its architecture, it was consciously intended as an Indian hill station—that is, a deliberate re-importation of a colonial architecture that in turn had been meant as an imperial export. There are multiple layers of interaction here between what its builders wanted to invoke and remember: memories of home for those posted abroad reconstructed as a memory of abroad for those returned home.
Unlike its near neighbours Hampstead and Highgate, the suburb’s name incorporates the word hill in conscious emulation of summer retreats like Ananthagiri Hills, Horsley Hills, Lambasingi Hills and Nallamala Hills in Andhra Pradesh, Biligiriranga Hills and Nandi Hills in Karnataka, Kottancheri Hills in Kerala, and Javadi Hills, Kolli Hills and Kurangani Hills in Tamil Nadu.
The distinctive architecture of the British raj can be seen in the unusual hybridised Indian fretwork that appears in archheads of many of the larger houses in the village, and the first-floor balconies—a feature that had only previously appeared in English domestic architecture on the otherwise plain facades of some Georgian and Regency houses.
But one of the most distinctive Indian features of Muswell Hill is its incorporation of trees into the street scene. The most central roads in the village are all called avenues—Queens, Kings, Princes, Dukes, Wellfield, Elms, Grand, Firs, Birchwood, Fortismere, Leaside, Collingwood, Midhurst, Fortis Green and Woodside—and they were all called “avenue” because they were designed to be beautified by trees: not just modest little municipal trees but great arboreal wonders, to recall the profusion of greenery that hugged the hills above the dusty plains of the Subcontinent, keeping the streets shady and cool during the oppressive heat from April to October.
It is part of the intended character of Muswell Hill that in the summers, the majestic trees that were planted when the village was first laid out should link branches across the road, to form great arbours, fan-vaulted like green medieval cathedrals.
But Muswell Hill has never been allowed to enjoy this vision, because every two or three years, Haringey sends in teams of tree “surgeons” to dismember these magnificent natural objects and reduce them to ugly stumps.
The result is that, instead of reminding us of the glories of Jammu and Kashmir, Muswell Hill’s greatest roads remind us of Verdun and Ypres after months of shelling during the First World War. It’s a memorial of the British military, certainly, but not the right one.
Haringey says it has to pollard these trees to keep them under control. It doesn’t. After a century, any damage that any of them might have done to the houses on either side of them has been done; besides which, brickwork in 1900 was laid with lime mortar, which can accommodate small movements in ground conditions—heave and subsidence—caused by changes in water level. In fact, more damage is caused to soil conditions by the periodic change in the amount of water that these trees draw than would have been caused had they been left alone.
Pollarded trees don’t have enough branches to take up the sap generated by their boles, and so we end up with those monstrously over-sized leaves that line our pavements in the late autumn. They’re an insult to nature, and to the intentions of Muswell Hill’s first planners, and to us, its residents.
Until now, Haringey’s policy of pollarding has been uncontested. But then, so have other abuses, such as FGM and the tail docking of dogs. It’s time we protested. There needs to be a complete rethink on Haringey Council about this barbaric practice, and it needs to happen now, before the next round starts.