One morning late last summer, I awoke to the sound of a chainsaw angrily working its way through one of the large mature trees that overhang my back garden. I went out in my pyjamas to remonstrate with the chainsaw wielders, who, two houses down, were now hacking away at a hundred-year-old specimen. Initially they refused to talk to me, but they eventually relented: the tree’s roots had destroyed a wall, the owner of the house was fed up, he would plant a sapling, it was none of my business, this wasn’t a conservation area, and the tree in question was, in any case, “an unpleasant species”. “Humans are an unpleasant species”, I muttered to no one in particular, and went back inside, where, as the day wore on, I tried to shut out the terrible noise of splitting branches, the sickening thud as they fell to the ground – the end result, to my mind, being equal to the carnage left by a particularly bloody, if ultimately one-sided, battle.
Unable to identify this particular species of tree, I could not testify to its inherent unpleasantness – I only knew that it was first in my line of vision when I opened my eyes every morning, and that in summer the pigeons would bounce contentedly on its branches. By early evening, the deed was done, and nature seemed to retreat: the birds’ twittering became subdued, and they called to each other in puzzlement, as if from very far away.
Less than 200 miles from where I live in north London, my isolated and half-hearted protest has been replicated with much more fervour dozens of times over the past few years. In 2012, Sheffield’s Labour-controlled council signed an agreement with the private contractor Amey to fell thousands of street trees deemed diseased, dying or obstructive. A Save Sheffield Trees campaign was mounted in response, claiming that healthy trees were routinely being felled. The increasingly toxic daily stand-offs between the city’s residents and the police and security guards deployed on behalf of the council, it says in response to “increasingly dangerous tactics” by a handful of people, have escalated to such an extent that they bring to mind the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s. (The conflict has been dubbed “our Orgreave” by some, in reference to that pivotal confrontation between police and pickets in June 1984.)
I grew up in Sheffield during this period, and while those unfamiliar with the city may struggle to conceive of it as a place of arboreal bliss, that is precisely my own experience. Ironically, the same council that dubbed Sheffield the “greenest city in Europe” now threatens up to half of its 36,000 street trees (according to a recent freedom-of-information revelation); these are trees that grace and protect streets with names of lyrical cadence: Hangingwater, Ringinglow, Abbeydale, Endcliffe, Ranmoor, Whirlow, Beauchief. In Chelsea Park in Nether Edge, while supposedly revising for A-levels, I committed to memory much of the poetry of John Berryman, his “small trees in mist / far down an endless green” easily relatable to the wooded vista before me. This tiny park lies around the corner from the scene of one of the more urgent Save Sheffield Trees protests: that against the removal of the Chelsea Road Elm, a Huntingdon Elm which houses a rare White-letter Hairstreak butterfly colony. Other trees – some of which, among them “Vernon Oak” and “Duchess Lime”, have been given their own Twitter handles – have not held out as long. In Western Road, Crookes, trees planted to commemorate local people who died in the First World War are also under threat.
Last week the Guardian reported that a woman had been detained by police for playing a (red) plastic trumpet too close to the “designated safety zone”. The deployment of thirty police officers to remove a few protesters at a time of squeezed public services might be one of the reasons the local community has united against its council. Another is that they feel unheard, and excluded from the decision-making process. As the nature writer Patrick Barkham commented in the Guardian last September: Sheffield shares with other UK city councils “a tragic inability to see street trees as an asset rather than a liability. They’re also ignominiously failing to use new tools at their disposal to calculate the real value of their trees”. It was not always so dismal. Many urban green spaces, particularly in the manufacturing centres of the industrial North which flourished throughout the nineteenth century, owe their existence to the city’s metal trades. In Sheffield the dominance of the cutlery industry earned it the sobriquet “Steel City” (some tree protesters are now renaming it “Stump City”, which may well stick). These landowners set aside woodlands and gardens for recreational use, for the safeguarding of biodiversity – a small attempt at offsetting the grime, soot and poor housing.
Now, it seems, those gifts are being revoked in the crudest way imaginable. Sheffield has always been far from utopian, of course, although it has frequently attracted those with independent minds and alternative lifestyles. Essentially it is two cities in one (which goes some way to explaining the narrowness of its vote in favour of Leave in the 2016 referendum); the grand villas and elegant botanical gardens that John Betjeman referred to as part of Sheffield’s “sylvan expansion” in his woozy poem “An Edwardian Sunday, Broomhill, Sheffield” contrast sharply with the 1960s high-rise estates such as the brutalist, now Grade II-listed, Park Hill. Among those objecting to the tree-felling programme are the Sheffield musicians Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker, and Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove (the Labour leadership, perhaps nervous of weighing in against Sheffield’s cash-strapped council, remains conspicuously silent).
Hawley is writing a musical about Park Hill, to be staged next year at the Crucible Theatre, which in 1966 saw an earlier part of Sheffield’s history recreated in The Stirrings in Sheffield on Saturday Night, a spirited musical dramatization of the Grinders’ Union strike of the 1860s. Twenty years before, in 1840, Sheffield had been the backdrop to an early Chartist uprising. I like to think of it as a place of rebellion still, and hope this latest incarnation of its spirit will prevail. For now – the council says for safety reasons but perhaps also under public and media pressure or, more cynically, with an eye to May’s local elections – the tree-felling programme has been paused (apart from “essential” works). There is talk of a “people’s audit” to hold the council to account. The Save Sheffield Trees movement’s hashtag #theworldiswatching shows this battle to be a litmus test for other UK cities: a frustrated population is fighting against urban deforestation and the myopic vision of those in charge. “The hand that signed the paper felled a city”, wrote Dylan Thomas. “Hands have no tears to flow”.
Catherine Taylor is a freelance writer and critic currently working on The Stirrings, a cultural memoir of Sheffield in the 1970s and 80s.