Canterbury loses its tree, 2005

The end of the lime

In the early hours of January 8, 2005, there were widespread storms across Britain, and summer afternoons at Canterbury felt very distant. But at some time in the darkness, Kent's most regular and durable spectator suddenly gave way. The cause of death was technically the howling gale and ganoderma, a heartwood fungus. In truth, it was just old age.

No one was about on such a night, and it was dawn before the body was discovered. "To be honest I'd been out in the middle sweeping the square for about 20 minutes when I looked up and thought `Something's missing,'" said the head groundsman, Mike Grantham.

It was the lime tree, which had stood guard on the Old Dover Road boundary - at wide mid-wicket or deep backward point - ever since Kent first used the St Lawrence ground in 1847. It was already semi-mature then. It grew in stature, girth and reputation to become the most famous tree in cricket, matched only by Parr's elm at Trent Bridge, which was blown down in 1976.

But Parr's Tree was behind the stands. The St Lawrence lime was inside the boundary, and the Laws of Cricket had to be adapted to allow for it. Sir Charles Igglesden in 66 Years' Memories of Kent Cricket (1947) refers to an incident in which a Hampshire batsman was caught off the tree. "Was the batsman out? He was given out as the tree was not the boundary. You can imagine the annoyance of the visiting team and the heated annoyance around the ground."

This episode apparently led to the local rule that hitting the tree is neither six nor out, but four. David Robertson, the Kent archivist, assumes this must have been before 1910, when the vague law regarding boundaries began to be tidied up.

Robertson's records suggest only three men have ever cleared the tree in first-class cricket: Sir Learie Constantine, playing for the West Indians in 1928, Jim Smith of Middlesex in 1939 and Carl Hooper, on his Kent debut in 1992. But in his book Hit for Six, the historian Gerald Brodribb tells the story of the renowned big-hitter, Colonel A. C. "Jacko" Watson of Sussex, who in 1925 reportedly drove "Tich" Freeman over the lime tree. It then bounced off the inside of a catering van and into the bushes, where it was found next winter with bits of china embedded in it.

The fall of the lime was a shock but not a surprise. Kent were aware the tree was ailing; they were also aware of "public liability issues" - what if it fell on the crowd in the middle of a one-day international? - and in 1999 E. W. Swanton planted a sapling close by, ready for this moment. That is now 15ft tall, and Kent were planning to shift it on to the field before the season to replace the fallen sentinel. The old tree is being cut up to provide souvenirs.

Some believe it a mistake to replace the old tree. The new lime could be damaged by a full-blooded shot; and, whereas everyone knew the old tree was there, a young one might not be obvious to a fielder, who could end up damaged himself. Others think the legend should be left alone, and that it won't be the same with the new tree. It won't, not for many decades.

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