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7 trees dotted across Canterbury's Cathedral City form the shape of a crucifix

by Helin Tezcanli

Following the winding roads and side streets, becoming distracted by the pretty boutique shops in Beer Cart Lane and the stone walls of Canterbury Castle, it is easy to miss some of the city’s greener gems.

Hidden in plain sight are seven very special trees.

Originally planted as London planes more than 150 years ago and having survived two world wars, they are now known as “baobabs”.

Sadie Palmer next to the Baobab in Westgate Gardens
Sadie Palmer next to the Baobab in Westgate Gardens

An unknown viral infection has caused the trees to develop striking bulbous bark and unusually wide trunks, similar to the African trees of the same name.

The locations of the baobabs branch out across 2.5 miles.

They can be found in Old Dover Road, near Beer Cart Lane, by Canterbury Castle, in Westgate Gardens, alongside the Cathedral and next to St Gregory’s Church.

Trying to locate them all is like an eco-friendly Easter egg hunt into the past, nervously travelling down unfamiliar pathways and being rewarded with sights of the lusciously green and towering trees.

Once you find one, you feel the need to complete the seven-piece set, even if your tired legs disagree.

To fully absorb the baobabs of Canterbury - and allow time to take several breaths - two hours (at least) are recommended for the trip.

Thank goodness library volunteer Sadie Palmer, 32, a tree enthusiast who has written a report on the baobabs, wanted to sit down to talk about them.

Glancing at the Westgate Gardens’ baobab, she explained that while studying her English literature degree at Canterbury Christ Church University, and being an avid walker around the city, she became interested in the trees and their story.

Through her research, she believes it is possible that the Westgate Gardens tree could be the “parent tree” of the baobabs in Canterbury. It is about 200 years old, and the girth of its trunk engulfs families taking photos next to it.

A map of the Baobab locations, which make the shape of a crucific across the city
A map of the Baobab locations, which make the shape of a crucific across the city

Sadie believes a local Victorian botanist and landscape designer, William Masters (1796-1874), was responsible for planting the trees around Canterbury in the mid-19th century.He has already been recognised by Canterbury Cathedral for planting the baobab on the Cathedral grounds, as well as the baobabs in the churchyard of St Gregory’s Centre for Music.

She said: “I think it’s a safe bet that he planted all of them, especially given the shape of their landscape.”

At first, it’s unclear as to what Sadie is talking about. From the ground and walking around, the locations of the baobabs appear random. But from above, the bird’s eye view shows they form the shape of a crucifix. Sadie, being one of the first people to stumble upon this, believes it was a purposeful move by Masters, despite there being no records suggesting if he was religious.

“Canterbury has always been a centre of Christianity so it could be that he was maybe honouring that heritage rather than him having any religious aims,” she said.

Sadie Palmer with the statue in The Beaney of William Masters, who planted at least three of the trees
Sadie Palmer with the statue in The Beaney of William Masters, who planted at least three of the trees

She believes Masters’ primary aim was to promote his alternative interest - in public health and sanitation. During the 19th century, in order to prevent the spread of cholera and to reduce pollution, many London plane trees were planted.

“I think that the trees came to symbolise that for him,” she said. “That this was a movement and a part of improving public health.”

Walking around the baobab in Westgate Gardens and strolling along the River Stour, Sadie suggests most people are “tree-blind” in Canterbury, but that is slowly beginning to change.

“People walk around Canterbury all the time looking at buildings.

“Now they can look at trees too,” she said.

“Trees are still part of the history.

“Trees are living artefacts, really - they’re just not in a museum.”

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