Something strange is afoot in Lilliput. This tiny outpost on the Dorset coast—said to be named after the estate of infamous smuggler Isaac Gulliver, itself a likely allusion to the island visited by the fictional explorer Lemuel Gulliver—is renowned for its comfort and tranquility. The sand is white. The air is warm. Grab a spot on Evening Hill when the weather strikes right and the sight of boats gently bobbing on a still, sunset-bejeweled sea will easily rival any other on earth.
True, it might not be the picture-book village it once was, having long since become a district of sprawling Poole, but nevertheless, the place still exudes a sense of moneyed relaxation. A majority of the residents of Lilliput are retired. They are people who have built up their fortunes and then hit the brakes, content to see out the rest of their lives on their own little patch of heaven.
But this sense of bliss came crashing down in December, when it was revealed that Poole is slowly being poisoned. Worse still, the responsible parties are its own residents.
The saga began in 2018, when a landscape gardener contacted arboricultural officers from Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole (B.C.P.) Council and alerted them to the existence of a dying tree. The once proud 65-foot Monterey pine, planted in the middle of the last century, was impossible to miss. It stood upon an especially verdant street named Avalon, ringed with mature trees that help to swaddle its homes in a protective embrace.
The sudden appearance of a huge tangle of dead branches, looming over the houses like something from a Tim Burton movie, naturally stuck out like a sore thumb—and threatened the value of the surrounding properties, such as the large four-bedroom home belonging to retired accountant Robert Page, then worth $1.2 million.
Monterey pines don’t usually die without warning. This is especially true when—as was the case here—they are only a bit more than halfway through their natural life cycle. And this particular specimen happened to be the subject of a Tree Preservation Order (T.P.O.) taken out in the late 1980s, a designation signifying cultural or historic value, which prohibited any unauthorized trimming, uprooting, or destruction.
When the officer arrived at the scene, however, his suspicions were instantly aroused. The tree’s root collar, the point at which the trunk begins to emerge from the ground, had been suffocated with concrete. The officer also noticed the strong sting of chemicals in the air. The tree, he determined, had not died of natural causes at all. And, since damaging a T.P.O.-protected tree is a criminal offense, the B.C.P. Council began investigating what a judge later described as nothing less than the “murder trial of a tree.”
That the tree had been murdered was beyond doubt. Along with the concrete and chemicals, the arboricultural investigator had found several holes drilled into the trunk, through which it could be poisoned with herbicides. It had also been ring-barked, a process designed to prevent trees from absorbing nutrients. The culprit clearly had a hell of a grudge against this specific tree. There was only question left unanswered when the trial began: Whodunit?
The B.C.P. Council began investigating what a judge later described as nothing less than the “murder trial of a tree.”
Page was the prime suspect. As beautiful as it was, the Monterey pine absolutely dominated its surroundings. If you ever care to look the place up on Google Maps, you’ll immediately spot the tree in its prime, throwing permanent shade over Page’s home. This, you suspect, was less than ideal. Page was less than a decade away from retirement age when he bought the place, in 2006. Who wouldn’t be miffed if his perfect dream home ended up shrouded in darkness the whole year round?
Page denied everything. Although the concrete had been immediately spotted by the arboricultural officer, he told the prosecuting barrister Nick Cotter that he had never noticed it for the simple reason that he had “never looked for it.” And while it was true that Page had previously applied to the council to have the tree felled a number of times since buying the house, this was only because an independent tree officer had told him that the tree was sick and listing. The thought that it might one day collapse and fall onto some neighboring garages “terrified” him, he said.
Page had his own theories. He told the court that, in 2012, Lilliput suffered a bout of unusually heavy rain. Typically the rainwater would have run off through a soakaway drain into the sewer system, but on this occasion the drain didn’t work. “The garden was completely flooded,” Page said. Builders came to rebuild the soakaway, but according to Page, “they had to excavate under the tree” to do so. Page also hired builders to repair his garage. During the repairs, he claimed that he saw them “wheeling their wheelbarrows and pouring them out” in the area by the tree. Perhaps this, he suggested, would explain the concrete.
At one point, Page posited that a stranger might have sneaked onto his property and damaged the tree out of spite. Which sounds ridiculous, until you realize that this sort of thing really happens in Poole. It happens a lot. People in Poole, it turns out, absolutely hate trees.
Back in 2010, a Poole resident named Steve Bransgrove told police he was awakened in the night by a series of loud chain-saw revs. When he raced outside, he discovered that an unknown offender had sawed down a 40-foot Scots pine on his property. It was one of eight attacks on trees that happened within a short space of time, and the perpetrator has never been caught.
Six years later, in neighboring Bournemouth, police were forced to investigate the mysterious death of two Scots pines in a park, both of which appeared to have had poison injected into them through drill holes. Again, the culprit or culprits remain at large. “It is quite incredible what lengths people will go to if they want a particular tree removed,” the chairman of the local residents’ association marveled.
In September, two 80-year-old oak trees in Poole’s Whitecliff area were killed by unknown attackers. Both trees, again, had been drilled and poisoned, an act described as “vandalism of the worst kind” by a local counselor. It isn’t completely unreasonable to theorize that Poole and its surrounding environs are being plagued by a single serial tree killer; an arboreal Jack the Ripper driven to bouts of boiling rage by anything covered in leaves.
It’s also worth pointing out that, in 2009, Poole’s $19,000 town-center Christmas tree was defaced in the dead of night, and it wasn’t even a real tree. Could this also have been the work of the town’s mysterious tree hater? We can but guess.
“It is quite incredible what lengths people will go to if they want a particular tree removed.”
Some cases have been closed. In 2012, auctioneer Neil Davey was fined $170,000 for paying a neighbor to chop down a T.P.O.-protected tree. And in 2019, businessman Samuel Wilson was fined more than $50,000 for hopping up onto a T.P.O.-protected oak and lopping off a 12-foot branch with a chain saw. Davey and Wilson share a common motive, a motive that can probably be attributed to every other case of tree vandalism that has ever blighted Poole: greed.
Wilson chopped off his branch because he’d just installed a balcony on his property, and the tree was denying him sunlight. Davey cut down his tree because it blocked the ocean from his hot tub. Steve Bransgrove likewise enjoyed an improved view after the unknown, chain-saw-wielding attacker felled his pine. The Bournemouth poisonings happened in a park with views of the beach. The Whitecliff oaks were almost certainly killed by residents who wanted a better view of the sea from their house.
When I mentioned earlier that Poole was affluent, I have to confess to underselling it a little. There is a road in Poole, Sandbanks, that is known locally as “Millionaire’s Row.” Its residents include TV stars and football managers. John Lennon bought his Aunt Mimi a home there in the 1960s on a plot that, when it went on the market, in 2018, it was listed for $9.7 million. Indeed, in 2018, it was also reported that per square foot, Sandbanks was home to the most expensive coastal property in the world.
When you live in Poole, you pay a premium for the view. A house with an uninterrupted view of the harbor can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than a house without. If you’re rich and used to getting what you want, and the only thing standing between you and a windfall is a tree, it only seems natural that you’d pop out for a little midnight landscaping.
It is greed, too, that appears to have motivated Robert Page. It transpired that Page had reached an agreement with a property dealer to sell his house for a six-figure profit, so that it could be bulldozed and rebuilt as luxury apartments. But the Monterey pine had to be dealt with first.
This would explain why Page applied to have it removed, and why, when the request was denied, he took matters into his own hands. That said, his card might also have been marked by the fact that, when the arboricultural officer arrived at his house, Page was overheard telling his wife, “Don’t tell them anything!” Both Page and his wife declined to be interviewed for this piece.
The destruction of a T.P.O.-protected tree carries an unlimited fine, and in giving his verdict, Judge Robert Pawson was unable to stop himself from ripping into the defendant. “You deliberately decided to get rid of that tree, and you were hoping for another deal with the developers,” he said. Then he added, “You sat there and lied through your teeth. It displays a certain arrogance.” At the end of his four-day trial, last month, Page was found guilty of tree murder, and fined more than $100,000.
But just because one perpetrator has been caught and punished, it would be foolish to assume that the verdict will stop—or even slow—the poisonings. The B.C.P. Council talks a good talk, with a spokesperson telling Air Mail that “we are committed to protecting our outstanding natural environment,” but the fact of the matter is that entitlement comes baked into the local house prices. These are very wealthy people who aren’t used to being told no, and no amount of fines or council grandstanding is going to stop them from getting the view they want, regardless of the trees that get hurt in the process.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Lilliput.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL