Tonight I’m sitting on my sofa listening to the wind howl and rain strafe my window, and it’s making me remember the storm on 31st July, and what it did to the Castle Park fig tree.
There are a number of fig trees along the Avon, the Floating Harbour and even along the River Malago as they run through the middle of Bristol, brought into the city through trade from the Mediterranean, and they’re all thought to be seeded by accident, whether from fruit dropped off boats, or seeds brought in as ballast that floated down the river, catching hold in cracks in the harbour walls.
There are at least two fig trees in Castle Park, and the huge one, opposite the old brewery, is one of my very favourite trees in the city. It’s thought to be the oldest of the figs, maybe helped to grow from the hot water that was let out of the brewery into the Harbour. It’s visible in historic photos going right back to the beginning of the twentieth century, over 100 years ago – here are a couple of photos from Know Your Place, showing the fig trees in the walls in 1905, in the 1920s and in 1930 – and a very different image, after the neighbourhood that used to stand in the Park that was destroyed in the World War II bombing, and left the site devastated in 1951.
I love it in every season, and it’s something I look at every time I walk through the park. I’ll always try to pinch the leaves between my fingers to get that gorgeous aroma. Figs take two years to ripen, and it’s not yet warm enough for these ones to last through the winter to get fully ripe (yet), but I’ve used the leaves to infuse in custard to make deliciously figgy ice cream.
So when I heard that half of it had been pulled out of the wall by that July storm, I was devastated. On 2nd August, Vik and I went to see what had become of it. I took some photos of what we saw – mouse/swipe over the first picture for a slideshow, or click through to the album.
For a comparison, check out the size of what it looked like back in April, before the leaves came out:
and here’s the “after” photo:
It felt like a real punch to the gut to see it like this – especially because one of my plans for ages has been to take photos of it. The new footbridge to Finzel’s Reach opened just last year, giving access to these views directly opposite it, and one of my nebulous plans was to come and do some proper “portrait” photos of it over the summer, when it was in full leaf. I’m gutted I never made that happen. But even moreso, I was really worried about the city losing this glorious tree.
Since then, I’ve been back to see what it looked like – here it is on 24th August:
and as I walked through Underfall Yard, I watched the piles of fig debris grow, as the Harbour Master team slowly pulled the remains of it out of the water and dragged it back to be able to get it out of the water and dispose of it.
It was so sad to see the tree come to this – and wow, you wouldn’t believe how bad it smelled, after sitting in the water for most of a month! I really felt for the workers who had to live with that stink for so long. But talking to them as they finished off pulling some in, I had some good news.
What they told me was that this isn’t the end of the tree, instead it’s part of a regular cycle. Apparently the fig grows slowly, getting bigger and bigger, and then every ten years or so, there’s a storm, and parts of it will be pulled out like this, and it will start growing all over again. This is why it’s not that much bigger than it was in those hundred year old photos, and I guess how it doesn’t damage the walls.
I was so relieved to hear this. I guess I just need to change my perspective, and make a “portrait” of the tree that covers years and decades, rather than thinking in terms of days, or seasons. It’s a relief to know that it’ll out-live me, and most likely still be there in another hundred years.
There are some facts about the fig tree, and other trees and wildlife in the area, in the Bristol Council Castle Park tree trail, and the Avon Wildlife Trust City Centre Wildlife Trail.
I spent a really fun hour looking at all the different photos of the Castle Park area on Know Your Place, the most wonderful resource for discovering more about Bristol and the South West. If you want to know more about it, the first Avon Stories podcast was an interview with the brains behind it, Pete Insole.
I very much recommend looking up Castle Park on KYP, both to check out how the area has changed through all their different historic maps, and also through all the different layers of photos and drawings, especially the ones that show the impact of the Second World War. It’s amazing that the Harbour survived the blitzes, and I’m thinking about all the people who died in the bombing campaigns that turned it from a thriving neighbourhood that had been the centre of Bristol since Medieval times, into a wasteground, and now a park. Having the chance to see those changes is what makes KYP so special, and I always appreciate it, even as I lose hours at a time exploring it.