In the 33 years since Karen Bollan moved to Bow, in the East End of London, the area has changed dramatically. “When I arrived, admitting that I lived in the East End always implied crime and poverty,” says Bollan. “The large, fancy houses had fallen on hard times. But over the past 10 years, Bow has become desirable. Now, houses are worth millions and my adult children can’t afford anywhere near where they were born and raised.”
There has, however, been one constant: a humongous horse chestnut right outside Bow Road station. “This tree must have been here for a very long time, possibly 150-200 years,” says Bollan, who is 55. “My husband, who was born in the flats just behind the tree, remembers it seeming just as large and imposing when he was a child more than 60 years ago.”
She imagines the tree as a witness to the area’s history, a silent chronicler of the area’s fall and rise. “I wish it could tell the story of what it has seen. I hope that the tree will still be around to see the neighbourhood become more equal and less of a story of wealth living cheek by jowl with poverty.”
By east London standards, Bow Road is very green and has many old plane trees, something Bollan felt very grateful for during lockdown. But none of them come close to this majestic horse chestnut. “It first caught my eye because of how dramatic it looked in the sunset. It’s a sentinel watching over the station,” says Bollan. “I love the way it looks in winter, the bare branches looking spectacular against the setting sun. I know spring is coming when the first little signs of leaves appear.”
While Bollan, who works as a manager at the Royal College of General Practitioners, is primarily captivated by the tree’s beauty, it has practical uses, too. “When the leaves are full, it provides welcome shade to anyone waiting outside the station and it’s the perfect place to stop to put an umbrella up or down.”
And while horse chestnuts and playing conkers on autumn mornings may seem unremarkable in Britain, Bollan, who grew up in rural Vermont in the US, feels the sentimental heft of the tradition. “When my son and a daughter were small, they loved finding the ‘best’ conker. There are always a few I can’t resist picking up for their colour and beauty, despite having no desire to take up conker playing.” When the children come to visit, she will still say: “Meet you at the conker tree,” and they know exactly where she means.
In recent years, Tower Hamlets council has been planting new trees and Bow’s streets are now full of young alders, beeches, silver birches and hornbeams, but Bollan is adamant that her tree could never be replaced: “There’s simply something magical about it. We don’t have many things that old left, so it would be a crying shame, if it were to go.”