Oxleas Woods on Shooters Hill is the largest area of woodland on the hill and includes both secondary woodland and ancient woodland. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), one of 37 such sites in Greater London. The London County Council acquired the woods for public use in 1930, and opened the site to the public in 1934. Ownership then passed from the Greater London Council to the Borough of Greenwich on the abolition of the GLC in 1986.
A little bit of history
The woods on Shooters Hill were in the Manor of Eltham and included in the lease held by Sir John Shaw and his descendants after the Restoration of the Monarchy. A member of the family built Wood Lodge in the late 1780s on the site of today’s café. The Crown Estates took back Oxleas and Sheperdleas Woods in 1811 and leased land for hunting and as sites for new mansions for the wealthy.
A bomb damaged Wood Lodge in 1916 and the War Department took it over shortly afterwards and used it as an anti-aircraft unit. The Lodge was abandoned after the war and finally pulled down in 1932. The café replaced the lodge in 1937.
Mansions in the Oxleas Woods
There were two large mansions in Oxleas Woods. Warren Wood was the home of Col Bagnold, father to Enid Bagnold, a writer and the author of National Velvet. It was demolished in the 1980s and today there is no trace of the building.
The 2nd Baron Truro built Falconwood in c.1861. He obtained a lease of 40 acres of the woods and lived in the house til his death in 1891.
From 1908 the lessee was the Baroness Catherine d’Erlanger and her husband. After WWI they tried to convert the house into a hotel but it was not successful and by 1932 they had returned the lease to the Crown Commissioners. In the 1950s the LCC bought the site. The mansion was demolished by 1958/59. Only a grassy meadow remains today.
Oxleas meadow stretches down the hillside below the cafe, towards Sheperdleas Woods on the far side of the Rochester Way. The woods and meadow are pretty in the spring, with fresh greens. The hawthorn hedge on the right of the picture is old field hedging.
There is an underground water reservoir in Oxleas Meadows. Thames Water controls the flow from a small building at the bottom of the meadow. On Google maps it appears as a circular site in the grass and it is clear in dry weather. The reservoir feeds the water tower on top of Shooters Hill.
Oxleas Woods is the largest area of ancient woodland close to the centre of London. The woods are on London clay and are the most varied site on Shooters HIll with 32 varieties of tree. They are unique in having willow trees (grey willows and crack willows), Highclere holly, wild plums and aspens. The dominant trees are pedunculate and sessile oak trees but there are also birches, ashes and hazels, and the woods are said to have the largest collection of wild service trees in London and lots of wild cherry trees. (I am still struggling to identify wld service trees!)
The woods were coppiced in the past for income and this has been re-introduced as a means of managing the woodlands. It is particularly clear in the south eastern part of the woods.
The intermittent stream
The maps on the Friends of Oxleas Woods’ website show a stream which runs intermittently towards the east and its damp edges encourage grasses such as carex pendula, carex sylvatica and yellow Pimpernel. In July 2022 this area is barren. There is no stream and no plants – only dust.
Bluebells, wood anemones and other wildflowers grow in remoter corners in the spring.
Oxleas Woods on Shooters Hill are delightful but I can’t help feeling the woods are in danger as more and more people tramp along the paths and especially walk off the paths and across areas where there might be spring flowers. It is a difficult balance to achieve – areas of wildness and places where people can experience that wildness without causing damage.
Essential reading: Wareham, Tom: Oxleas, 2020