Tree of the week: ‘Generations of families have played under this willow tree’

Standing ‘like an elderly grandparent watching all the life around it’, a willow in Peterborough offers a symbol of calm in troubled times

When Toby Wood’s son and daughter turned four, he took them to Central Park in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, to teach them to ride a bike. There he watched as they went on their first tentative cycle around an asphalt path that surrounds a grand weeping willow tree. “It stands there like an elderly grandparent watching all the life around it,” he says.

The 69-year-old retired headteacher learned to ride a bike in the same spot, but when he was a child, there was an elegant bandstand there instead of a tree. After the bandstand was demolished in 1964, the weeping willow replaced it. “Initially, there was much local disquiet about the tree,” he says. “Over the years, people have grown to love it. Generations of children and families have met, played and had picnics under the tree.”

He now brings his four grandchildren to the park. “Every time I go, there’ll be some young couple with a child on a bike with stabilisers riding around. I have a little smile because everybody does the same thing.”

Wood has known the tree since he was 13. When it was planted, it was 12ft tall; it has since reached about 30ft. “It’s like a huge umbrella, almost like a gigantic Beatle haircut because it’s cut short at the bottom so that people can sit underneath it,” he says. “In very high winds in the winter, fairly large branches get blown off and the park staff have to get rid of them.”

When he was working, he would schedule meetings in the park by the tree, and he now visits up to five times a week. He likes to sit down with a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper, listening to the radio or “talking to my wife about what we’re going to do in the future”.

Seeing the tree always puts him in a good mood. “Whatever my state of mind, I feel more at ease with the world, ready to think more clearly and tackle problems more confidently.”

Wood lives a 10-minute walk from the park, which provided a welcome escape from his home during lockdown. “The willow tree became a symbol of calm in troubled times,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s rainy, or we’re worried about the economy, or we’re worried about Covid, it’s reminding us that there’s a nice solid base to our lives.”