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Beautifying Britain's roads

Flowering cherry planted by the Roads Beautifying Association fifty years ago. Image ©GardenPhotos.comAlong a busy road near Hampton Court Palace, King Henry the Eighth’s sixteenth century residence on the southern edge of London, there are some cherry trees. All the way along a wide straight stretch of suburban road, on both sides. But these are not any old cherry trees.

They represent one of the successes of the Roads Beautifying Association which was set up in 1928 to improve the look of the many new roads being built as cars became more popular. Its dedication to roadside planting was the contemporary equivalent of the current enthusiasm for planting wildflowers along new roads. Interestingly, part of their rationale for tree planting along roads was to stop drivers being distracted by looking at the landscape.

It’s years since I’ve been in England at the right time to see them in flower, but it’s obvious that those cherries are now well past their best. I’d say that they were planted in the 1950s so many have already died; cherries are relatively short-lived trees. But trees that have died have been replaced, and it’s clear that the remaining trees are being looked after. I suspect that without the historical connection they would all have been replaced but instead some careful tree surgery has been undertaken and even those with only a few branches remaining have been retained.

Planting blowsy Japanese cherries along new roads would be frowned upon now. But the Roads Beautifying Association began convinced people that roads needed beautifying, did the job and even produced a book called Roadside Planting.

One final interesting point. The Roads Beautifying Association, which finally ceased to exist in 1963, was founded by a dermatologist called Wilfrid Fox. He also founded and planted one of the finest arboretums in Britain, at Winkworth in Sussex. And my dad and I used to fish for trout in the lake at the arboretum before I was ever interested in plants.

Flowering cherry planted by the Roads Beautifying Association fifty years ago. Image ©