Once upon a time a great forest of oak trees covered a ridge of hills from near the Thames down into Kent. The oaks and hornbeams grew thickly down the slopes and into the valleys below, standing tall and proud, some for perhaps six hundred years. This was the Great North Wood.1 (This was an article which I wrote over the winter for the London Gardens Trust.)
Aha, you might think, a story of myths and legends but the forest was on a ridge of hills only 4 kms south of what has become a sprawling capital city. London has always been an important city and expansion was inevitable, expedited by various factors: an increasing population, improvement in roads, enclosure of common land, development of the railways and a changing demographic. And therein lay the challenge – the relationship between people and their natural surroundings. And in this relationship lay other factors perhaps, such as overriding greed and carelessness about the consequences of our actions.
Eastern side of the ridge
On the eastern side of the hills the woods were cleared of large oak trees by the 19th century. The wood was taken down an old road from Forest Hill to the dockyard in Deptford to build ships, particularly ships for the Royal Navy. Land cleared of trees could be farmed, or enclosed and with enclosure the land passed into private ownership. As London grew the landowners started building houses because this was more profitable than rental income from farmland.From the mid-1800s the demand for energy was also changing and firewood and charcoal were no longer sufficient nor sufficiently powerful. So managing the woods as a wood farm2 was unnecessary; the woods were becoming expendable.
Are there any hints of the Great North Wood on this side of the ridge? In Mayow Park there are ten very old oak trees3 which probably marked field boundaries (this was once farmland, and before that woods). The nature reserves along the railway cuttings, which were once in the Great North Wood, give us a sense of woodland but this is secondary woodland, i.e. new growth on land which was previously cleared.
Western side of the ridge
On the western side of the hills a swathe of nearby sites remind us this was once the Great North Wood.
Streatham Common lay on the eastern edge of the Great North Wood and has a surprising number of Veteran oak trees which are 150-300 years old. Unigate Woods is secondary woodland today; Spa Woods almost certainly are ancient woodland; Convent Woods are closed to the public but are ancient woodland, i.e. woodland which has existed for at least 400 years. Grangewood Park was once in Whitehorse Woods (the name lives on the in the field below the park) and although it is an elegant green space there is no undergrowth and it feels more like a sculpture park than our magical forest. Norwood Park offers views and breezy grassland. It is only in Biggin Woods that we find a hint of magic in the tangle of trees, the musky-sweet smell of damp leaves and the hordes of nesting ring-necked parakeets.
In the south the links with the Great North Wood are historical. Long Lane Wood4 is pleasing but it seems more like parkland and the trees are not old; Betts parks is recreational but it was once woodland and includes a small section of the former Croydon Canal; and in South Norwood Lake and Grounds there is a smattering of secondary woodland and a reservoir which used to feed the canal.
The top of the ridge
It is much easier to build housing on flat land, close to transport networks and other facilities. Steep hillsides and remote hilltops ridges were more likely to be untouched and so it is no surprise that this is where we find the largest sites of the former Great North Wood. Here, where the undergrowth is left relatively undisturbed, the trees find their own way and we can see many plant indicators of ancient woodlands. If we allow ourselves to respond to the surrounding atmosphere there is a feeling of ‘rightness’. The trees enjoy company as much as we do and we share in that calm, balance and enjoyment in these less disturbed sites.
So in the end we have a happy ending to our story, but there is also sadness. In the words of Sir Walter Besant in 1912: the ‘pathetic survival of the beautiful woods … that crowned the steep hills of Norwood, Penge, and Sydenham, reminds one again of the wanton destruction of natural beauty which the indifference of Londoners has sanctioned until too late’.