Daniel Greenwood

The river is all I can hear

Posts from the ‘Plants’ category

Cairnsmore of Fleet

Cairnsmore of Fleet, Galloway, Scotland, February 2014

A wading bird bursts from the bog. I watch its sharp wings cut into the wall of mist and descending treeline. I put my binoculars to my eyes and the bird is lost. The world has been reduced. All terrestrial life but for water, a few lichens, heather and wintry moor grasses has escaped. I have left behind oak woods overcome by rhododendron and cherry laurel, and Cairnsmore Burn choked by the former, its water crashing from the shadows. It was not right. Snowdrops still managed to create small rugs of white flowers and winter green leaves. Bluebells peeked through the leaf litter amongst them. Behold the denizens of Galloway’s oldest woods. Up here those are images in the mind. The life in the lap of the Cree estuary – the buses, postman, trees and gentle flowering plants are mere memory. The cover of Glenure Forest’s regimental spruce is the last notion of protection. It’s now up to willpower, my body and clothing. The path leads clear from 20 metres, visibility coming and going with cloud.


I climb over a wooden ladder and the landscape ascends suddenly from 400m towards the 711 that marks Cairnsmore of Fleet’s summit. I have not seen a single person since snowdrops. Why would anyone want to be here? I come for the brutal solitude, even if I wanted to see another person I couldn’t. I come because I know that people once had no choice but to walk this path, a path that zigzags and climbs, an uncomfortable choice of jutting rock or slippery grasses. I attempt to find a rhythm on stone. The path curves east and the winds propel me on. I see boulders and mistake them for cairns – this is not the summit. My thighs are soaked, woollen gloves, too. I took my jumper off some miles back and now need it. It’s sodden and looped around the strap of my bag. The winds are harder, colder and the rain splatters against me. What the guidebook called a nice introduction to Galloway’s hiker’s paradise has the makings of a minor ordeal. Water streams down the rocky path as I step up and through it. The music of the running water cuts through the wind, it’s almost all I hear, but for my own mutterings. I can say what I want now, no one can hear me. There will be no repercussions. I cherish that.

Cree estuary

The false sense of the summit has given me energy. I’m so hungry. I begin to see my breakfast as vital, I value it differently, as something I was fortunate to have. I see the first cairn of the summit approach and slump down behind it onto wet stone, moss and crustose lichens, barely protected from the gelid gusts. I push some cheese into a crusty bread roll and swallow it. I feel the onset, the flickering of panic. The wind and rain has thrashed me, and I didn’t realise it had or that it might. Visibility is now down to 10m, I put my gloves back on, the cold hammering without, almost burning. I think of real mountains and feel stupid. Hills aren’t to be taken for granted, either. My glasses are blotted by rain on both sides, I recall my friend’s maxim that the descent is worse than the climb. There is no notion of friendship here. The supposedly fine views of the estuary are not on my mind just now. I tread blindly back the way I came, finally removing my glasses. The path of rock, the fog, the bog, it’s all clear. There is no need for detail. I tread in hope and long to see the cloud drift and for the undetectable sound of the wind dropping. The spruce trees appear again, black and warming, even a glimpse of the Cree. From the bog two grouse explode into the air and I leap in surprise. It’s the start of a world I can live with.



Farthing Downs, London, January 2014

From the hawthorn trees comes the sparkling sound of thrush and finch chatter. All around the landscape is weighed down by weeks of rain, the sodden grey and blackness, but this conversation lightens the scene. A flock of goldfinch burst into the sky, skipping through the air in their piecemeal flock. Their yellow wingbars flash against black feathers like miniature human warning signs. I train my binoculars on the thorns and see a redwing sat in the branches, contributing to the bird discussion. As I step towards them it ends instantly and so I turn and take a path to leave them.

The stumps of ash trees glow resinous on the hillside, the felled trunks lie supine beside them, the bark darkened by rain, the green and blue lichens thrive without a care for the tree’s demise. The brash has been piled and burned in elevated corrugated iron beds, and to many people this would seem like a careless act of deforestation. But it’s not. Farthing Downs sits on a bed of chalk and is home to a vast array of wildlflowers which are disappearing from the English countryside. The City of London Corporation are here engaging in a battle of restoration. Further along the path a black-headed gull skates low over the lane – I’ve not seen them so close to the grasslands here – propelling itself up and into the wind. Its relationship to winds so cold and blustery seem uneasy, and against this vista of meadows and woods, all the more unique.


Fly orchid 4

Farthing Downs & New Hill, London, July 2013

On the Downs the butterflies are immediately evident, the week old broods of meadow brown ferry amongst the long grasses, rarely stopping to feed on flowers. Breeding season is ending but still the song of skylarks comes from over the slope, some ancient language remembered, its translation lost. Greater yellow rattle blooms now, the spring buttercups lost to a swathe of Yorkshire fog and other grasses I don’t know. The suntan lotion on my arms acts as an adhesive, my skin covered with seeds. The grasshoppers are conjuring up their rickety, wooden percussion. I am hopeless in finding them, except for one that hops between seed heads, a micro Tarzan in this meadow jungle. But where are the people? A man drives a BMW sports car along the lane, revving its engine. I know where I’d rather be. Men in England are bare chested at the slightest chance and here a couple stroll along the lane drinking from big bottles of water. The tattoo stamped on the man’s back stands out in this simple landscape of slopes and flowers.


Ghostly day-flying moths spread at my every step through the long grass. Bumblebees forage on clovers, dropwort and yellow rattle, small heath butterflies appear again, two fly together, eager to fulfil their short lives with as much fornication as is possible. I cut back on to the path I know best. A chiffchaff sings in the hedgeline at the bottom of the hill, a single blackbird and a whitethroat, too. There’s no sign of spring’s willow warblers or their clutch of young. A crowd of peacock caterpillars munch through nettle leaves, leaving only the dreadlocks of flowers. A yellowhammer appears from across the lane, landing in a small hawthorn bush, its strong yellow plumage brighter than dandelions, a South American yellow, and at its brightest here. I take a few photos. Along with skylarks, this is a bird I have to travel to see, when once, before my time, you might have woken to it flocking in the hedges and fields.

Peackock caterpillar

Leaving the Downs I enter the chalky wooded hollows at the bottom of the slope, with tor grass growing along the track, an indicator of the calcareous soil. My sweat cools with the breeze that slips through here. In the dappled shade I scan the path edges for orchids, black bryony creeping out from the darkened hedges. And there it is: the fly orchid. I change lenses and struggle to get the image right, sweat dripping, bringing lotion down my face. But it’s beautiful to look at – a bit like a bumblebee pinned and proffered by the long spike, with its little eyes and short antennae. A family are passing behind the hedge, discussing how to control the dog.

‘She’s pulling me down into these weird places,’ says the mother.

‘Just let her off the lead, let her off the lead,’ the dad says.

They arrive on the path heading down hill. Their daughter warns the dog to stay with them. I only see the mother, she’s dressed in an apricot coloured dress and heeled shoes. She’s young and glamorous, so fitting with the array of flowers bursting from the hillside.

‘Who needs Box Hill when you can come here, eh?’ says the dad. They disappear down towards Happy Valley.

Speckled wood egg crop 1

I carry on along the ridge and settle on the desire line drawn down the hill and through the flowers. Ringlets move through the meadow, the first I’ve seen this year. They move at the same time and, stitched together, they are a tapestry of flickering wings. In my silence and stillness wildlife begins to move around me, perhaps more trusting. I see more plants now: twayblades, common spotted orchid, salad burnet, marjoram, ox eye daisy, rough hawkbit and bladder campion with its inflated, balloon like calyx-tubes. The wind blows through the trees. A speckled wood butterfly flaps about me, its wings audible as it hits my khaki shorts and leaf stalks. It clasps hold of a spear-like grass stem and curves its abdomen, laying a tiny pearl of an egg. This, for me, is something new.


Image 2

First published on Caught by the River

The River Avon, Bristol, June 2013

I walk along the floating harbour in search of the woodlands I know are further downstream of the Avon, high above the city of Bristol. The harbour is a story of new developments in a variety of different colours and states. One sign by a small park warns of its private nature – no sunbathing, no dogs. Another building is skeletal, multi-storey car park-esque. It always makes me laugh how the images of what a development will look like become less a promise and more a threat when they’re in this half state – it will be finished. Together, these buildings are gently grotesque. The death of England’s once great ports is a boon to the property development industry. Just like in Liverpool and Manchester, old buildings which once provided lifelong employment and were a focus of global trade have become bars, shops, restaurants, apartments and offices, transient spots for the aspirational middle classes and upward to work, frolic and recover. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a revolt against the tidying, the ornamental planting, the exclusivity and boredom. At the water’s edge is red valerian, a Mediterranean flower that has escaped into walls and pavements across England and grows here in the cracks between the stone where daisies also blush pink. Together these plants are the punks of the gentrified waterside, the Pussy Riot of the floating harbour. I clench my fist and salute these wildflowers.


The Avon bends north and in the distance I see the mighty Clifton suspension bridge bursting from the wooded limestone cliffs. But I’m getting lost on my map in trying to locate the path to Leigh Woods, confused by the A370’s spaghetti junction. I cross a footbridge and then a few roads and find the river itself, a prehistoric mud swamp that’s brown in its entirety. Gulls are making prints, lesser black backs, herring and common gulls, they rule this city totally. When I opened the door to the room where we’re staying I looked out of the window and met the fierce eye of a gull. I cross a bridge plastered with posters protesting against plans for buses to pass through. Gulls below see me and act a little tentative – I wonder if they get any trouble from people up here, in this well hidden spot, maybe kids with air rifles. Parkland opens up, the suspension bridge now clear, I aim for the trees. The Avon and I both flow in the same direction. The wheel of a trolley reaches from beneath the mud, as does a traffic cone and a road sign, fragments of a world of transport now mired. I pass underneath the bridge and its black strip across the sky catches in my vision through the leaves of the trees. Up ahead comes a left turning and the entrance into Leigh Woods.

Clifton suspension bridge CBTR

The path appears carved from the gorge. The banks are denuded of trees, covered in hartstongue fern, panting as they soak up the light. The path is steep and wild, riddled with chunks of the limestone that defines this landscape. The slopes become more wooded as I climb, hazels grow amidst single ash trees, with a good number of wych elm and some oak. A chiffchaff sings somewhere, as does a blackbird, a song thrush pipes its beginnings. A month ago there would have been much more, but the breeding season is beginning to take its toll on the songbirds, they are growing quiet. That said, a moment of rest and silence brings more songs: the aborted music of a coal tit, a robin squeezing its thin medley out through the thicketed scrub of young trees. A trio of East European students pass me where I sit, a young woman speaking pointedly. They don’t notice me, so involved in their conversation. The Poles I know all speak in their native tongue with such passion, you’d think their world was at stake.

Image 3

I happen upon a settlement that the interpretation board renders some 2300 years old. The banks were perfect for the defence of the river. I walk along the ridge lit by red campion and struggle to imagine the scene. Farther over on the other side I find the first common spotted orchids of my summer, taking them by the throats with the tips of my thumb and finger.

Back amongst trees, the wind blows through and I notice the rumble of the city, the searing sound of cars around the River Avon. I wonder how the hunter gatherers would have lived in dense woods like these. People today are enlivened and stressed by the proximity of others, as well as their distance. The woodland peoples, before they began exploiting the clearings at the edges will undoubtedly have been driven by a fear of wolves and bears, creatures that were made extinct in England. I ask two ladies and their dog in passing if they know how to get back onto the riverside and they shrug, they don’t know: ‘I think you just have to find a slope and go for it.’

I head on down a side track and the limestone rocks return, cutting out a steep, rugged path into the wooded hillside. At the end there’s some light, colours move across the gap. I’ve found the edge. The view opens out and the murmurings of vertigo appear with the river, the road and the gorge. It is a bizarre and beautiful sight. An oak is dead and beheaded above me on the precipice, how frightening for the woodlander who had to cut that off. Slick ferns grown from its mossy trunk like attempts at wings and feathers. The track isn’t at an end here and so I sense an exit. On the way down it crumbles under foot and so I’m thankful for the fistfuls of hawthorn wood that I can hold as I descend. And as I do I think of the settlers rushing to defend their land from an invasion on the Avon, flying down to the river with spears, arrows and other weaponry to hand. You see, I only have a camera and binoculars. I live in the age of observation.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2013
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Dartford Crossing

As featured in The Earthlines Review:

Crystal Palace, London, March 2013

It’s 6:30 am. We’re strolling along the Crystal Palace ridge, a chunk of wild land made up of all kinds of plants, a few notorious for their invasive, disruptive nature. Bramble and nettle are frost-encrusted, brightened as the ice turns to dew in the occasional spillage of sunlight that greets us from the south. When it does appear we bathe in it like a gift from the gods, droning as maybe druids would. The willow catkins are clean through now, many dew-laden, droplets elongating as gravity weighs. Last spring we listened to the call of a lesser whitethroat as it dinked in and out of these willows, its common cousin, the whitethroat, performed mating rituals in a bower of buddleia, diving into the cover of bramble at the farthest tip of the palace’s former standing, now marked by a solitary white bracket. Buddleia grows on the ridge in large sprigs, still harbouring last year’s brown cones of flowers that will be purple in a few months. Elder leaves escape their buds a little early in this still wintry weather, green sleeves unfurled but perhaps thinking the better of it. The mutilated stalks of Japanese knotweed are the only signs of intervention but for discarded beer cans and a few muddy desire lines. The scene is punctuated by crows sat idly in birch and sycamore trees that have grown in the cracks of the palace’s old stairways, immortalised in stone. These walkways, presided over by headless statues and sphinxes, are now engulfed by green and yellow lichens. As for the living, we aren’t the only people visiting: dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, commuters all make their passes before us. A dog with a stick in its mouth accosts us out of curiosity as we regard a song thrush singing in an ash tree, the dog turning its head and smacking fellow birdwatcher Lisa on the back of her leg. It seemed to hurt.

The view below is of open parkland where crows and black headed gulls saunter, pulling worms from the always waterlogged ground. Every so often the crows leave their perches in the palace’s trees, returning a few minutes later with large morsels of white bread in their bills. It’s almost impossible to see if a bird returns to its perch, such is their uniform blackness. This is the highest point in south London, higher still is the television mast that reaches upwards into the sky. Last year we watched a peregrine falcon using the mast’s very top as a perch, a pair of sparrowhawks coasted from even higher. The memory brings vertiginous feelings. The view is south to the North Downs, the Dartford Crossing to the east, visible in the orange morning sky. Chimneys and flues are blowing white smoke up into the air, beyond the Crystal Palace athletics stadium, a site that without the development of the Olympic Stadium in east London would be England’s national athletics arena. Unbeknownst to most, a long distance marathon has taken place here for millennia. Migrant birds have historically chosen the Crystal Palace ridge as a spot to drop in on, with swallow, redstart, willow warbler, chiffchaff, blackcap, whitethroat and wheatear having been recorded in recent years.

Long tailed tit

The Crystal Palace’s relocation to Penge from its original siting at Hyde Park was completed in 1854 and caused a global stir, attracting visitors from all over. The Crystal Palace High Level railway was built to serve the palace, a trainline which has now been reclaimed by nature in the form of Sydenham Hill Wood, Brenchley Gardens and the Horniman Nature Trail. The Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936 and the trainline was closed in 1954, leaving a footprint of paths interrupted by housing estates at the ghosts of Lordship Lane and Upper Sydenham stations. Train tunnels were built underneath roads and excavated through the ancient Dulwich and Penge woodlands, now home to bats like the brown long-eared. Go back a few hundred years and Crystal Palace would be entirely different, even further than its enclosure as Penge Place in the early 1800s, and its original incarnation as Penge Common. Penge translates from the Gaelic as ‘the end of the wood’, a wood that was known as The Great North Wood, a landscape of commons and coppices that stretched from Deptford to Selhurst. It was deemed ‘North’ because it was the great wood north of Croydon, a thriving market town. Locals from the surrounds would make trips here to Penge Common to listen to nightingales, a bird that has disappeared from the area, and is suffering similarly staggering declines nationally.

Perhaps there is some irony in the fact that Crystal Palace fills me with a sense of nostalgia, for the Arcadian past of Penge and the Great North Wood. It’s an emotion that the Victorians made their own as a visit to nearby Dulwich Upper Wood and Sydenham Hill Wood proves. The Victorian villas built along the Sydenham Hill ridge are now gone, their footprints straddled by regenerating hornbeam, oak and new woodlands of sycamore and ash sprouting from the basements, as well as the invasive laurel and rhododendron planted in their gardens. At Sydenham Hill Wood a small folly remains, a remnant of the Sydenham Hoo and a feature of its vast ornamental garden. There’s a picture on the Internet that shows this very garden, with a small shrubby evergreen which now stands as a mature cedar of Lebanon. I share Victorian nostalgia instead for a world that much of their development denuded. The Crystal Palace brought unprecedented change to the Great North Wood. But then there are records from the time of the Crystal Palace High Level railway suggesting that in the immediate aftermath of the development birdlife still thrived. Bullfinch, tree pipit, wryneck, spotted flycatcher and wood warbler were all known to nest in the area, and some locals will point to the fact that bullfinch and spotted flycatcher only stopped breeding in the area in the late twentieth century following a national trend. In the grounds of the palace tree pipit and hawfinch were breeding birds, the latter thought to have bred in Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods until the 1980s. What concerns me about the run off from the Crystal Palace’s legacy is how the ridge will be treated in the next 100 years.

Stadium and tree (2)

There is a masterplan to redevelop Crystal Palace Park and bring the ridge into the same aesthetic bracket as the lake and waterfall features that remain from Joseph Paxton’s pleasure gardens down at the bottom end of the park. In previous decades there were proposals for a casino and other grandiose leisure complexes which have disappeared from the agenda due to public opposition and lack of funds. Some of the park, registered as Metropolitan Open Land, is being earmarked for the development of apartments, a decision upheld by the High Court in June 2012, to the grave disappointment of the Open Spaces Society, the Crystal Palace Community Association and London Wildlife Trust. What makes the Crystal Palace ridge unique is the lesson it can teach us about our design, about what truly lasts. The Crystal Palace was a grand and ambitious venture but like the villas painted across the Sydenham Hill ridge a mile away, it was too grand to last. Looking here at giant stone stairwells with pioneer woodland trees like birch and sycamore escaping from the cracks, headless statues reawakened by the figure of a perching crow, and the only remnant of the palace’s outer shell sitting alone on the wildflower-enveloped ridge, the feeling is not one of defeat. Over on the grass banks of Crystal Palace Parade where buses terminate and begin journeys to places like Elephant and Castle and Blackheath, a line of plane trees was planted to signify the footprint of the old palace. The masterplan includes proposals to plant a new tree palace along the ridge and to landscape it. If this is handled without due care and consideration, it could lead to the loss of good, wild habitat home to breeding song thrush, dunnock, blackcap, chiffchaff and whitethroat amongst all the other wild plants and creatures thriving in a space where wildlife has been allowed to thrive without much intervention. The palace has grown back in its own way, in the birch and sycamore palace escaping from the cracks in the steps, yet to reach the old palace’s heights. In truth, I wonder why we are so desperate to master the land, to make a statement of it. There is more pleasure in observing the movements of wild birds each spring, in listening to their songs, than in attempting to control them. I hope there comes a point where we can step back and allow the land to recover from our past mistakes. For us birdwatchers it will be a case of watching, listening and waiting.


Ivy leaf

I remember when I first became interested in woodland. Through my lack of knowledge and understanding I thought ivy was a tree-killing force that scaled a trunk like a cancer and had no other purpose. I looked at the fat stalks of ivy growing on a poplar in a nearby park and thought it might be an idea to cut them. In my local area there are people who go around doing just that.

The fact is that ivy is fantastic for wildlife. When ivy grows up the front of a house and sparrows are nearby they’ll use it. Blackcaps, one of my favourite songbirds, nest in it. Entire bat colonies can roost in it. Hoverflies, bees, butterflies, they all use it for different means, be it a leaf to perch on or flowers to drink nectar from. Walking in Crystal Palace Park recently I was passed by a man remarking to his friend about a line of trees with ivy growing up them:

‘Look at those trees,’ he said, his companion turning to look. ‘The ivy grows up them and just kills them off. I’m thinking of writing a letter.’

This is one of the biggest misunderstandings about ivy – it is not merely some dark demon from a tree-hating underworld, it flowers, too. In fact, the main reason it is even anywhere near a tree is because a songbird or woodpigeon has sat in the tree and evacuated its seed. It produces food eaten by a good number of birds and attracts insects that birds can feed to their babies. Beautiful and exciting birds like firecrests target it for food and shelter in winter when they pass through parts of the British Isles.

A tree brought down in a wood will give life to wildflowers and wake some that have lain dormant in the soil

Ivy does add extra weight to a tree and, in some cases, can weigh a tree down making it more liable to windblow during a storm. But the issue isn’t with the ivy it’s with us, Homo sapiens. In woodlands, it is completely natural for a tree to fall down, it’s good. The new light that will hit the woodland floor will improve the structural diversity, particularly in British woodlands that, since the Second World War, have gone largely unmanaged and have become overgrown as our economy has grown to rely more and more on imported materials.

A tree brought down in a wood will give life to wildflowers and wake some that have lain dormant in the soil, unable to flower because of the previous tree’s leaf shade. In the street, however, a fallen tree could mean death, damages and lawsuits. For all our love of woodlands and forests, perhaps the sight of new woodland is something that kindles a deep fear inside us, as if the open land is being overtaken, changing at a pace and in a manner that we’re uncomfortable with. Personally I find woodland reclaiming old developments and ‘wastelands’ as something to feel good about. It tells me the world can function without our intervention and can recover. Nature can make even the most barren place into a leafy oasis given time.

The chap I overheard in Crystal Palace later remarked on a c.200-year-old horse chestnut standing tall and true, though surrounded by ground dwelling ivy. If he had seen a horse chestnut wounded by blight, a disease spreading through global trade, might he have turned his ire on Environment Minister Owen Paterson for not tightening restrictions on imports? In the case of the healthy, happy horse chestnut, does it not suggest that what we love (or this man at least) is the splendour of individual trees, their maturity, their completeness. The common understanding of nature’s life cycle is a single sapling to a mature tree, without any notion of the stuff that might happen in between, the decay and lost limbs, all part of the picture. After a recent trip to the decidedly untidy West of Ireland, I read this quote from Oliver Cromwell on the state of the Irish landscape in Neil Hegarty’s The Story of Ireland:

‘For to what purpose was it to plow or sow, where there was little or no Prospect of reaping? – To improve where the Tenant had no Property? This universal Neglect of Husbandry covered the Face of the Kingdoms with thickets of Woods and Briars; and with those Vast extended Boggs, which are not natural but only the Excrescences and Scabs of the Body, occasioned by Uncleanliness and Sloth.’ (Page 136).

Cromwell couldn’t have been more wrong, though his rhetoric is plainly political. Those Irish ‘Boggs’ are one of the planet’s many ways of storing carbon dioxide emitted by the felling of woodlands (which thanks to the English has occurred in Scotland and Ireland through centuries of invasion and land grab) and is something we as a species are scrambling to mimic. Today we look at those bogs with a greater understanding, if not thanks. In County Mayo some are being turned into reserves, home to merlin, otter and grouse. But the main thing here has been capitalised by Cromwell’s old English: Neglect.

People get angry and feel they’re being forgotten when their grass isn’t cut by the council, when the neighbour hasn’t trimmed the hedge on their side, when the ivy suffocating those trees hasn’t been cut. Often these are measures to boost bee numbers and reinstate lost habitat for birds and bats. In England, if we are to help bees, birds and butterflies, we need to address our obsession with tidiness. In the natural world it does not equal good hygiene or ‘Cleanliness’, an untidy garden means more birds, more bees and more butterflies.

In Cromwell’s case it was the language of war, a debasing of another country and culture, rather than a comment on wildlife gardening. I don’t think it’s far off, mind you. If we are to overcome our uneasiness about ivy and trees we’ll need to loosen our grip, leave the mower in the shed one year and look at the benefits of the plant, the good it does for wildlife in these most ecologically trying of times. I like to think my original, misguided concern for trees came from a good place and has developed into something more reasonable having taken time to consider the bigger picture of the natural world.

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Wood anemone

Last year I was commissioned to write this piece about the four seasons in Sydenham Hill Wood. Woodlands are beautiful, yes, but the lives of their inhabitants are not as gentle or pleasant as we might like to think. Here are my four dispatches.


Along the trackbed of the disused railway wild garlic grows. It’s a remnant of the wood’s ancient lineage, its deep green is welcome refreshment on a grey spring afternoon such as this. Every so often you find other indicators of the wood’s age. Wood anemone are growing in isolated clumps and English bluebells, too, some hybridising with the Spanish garden variety. The hornbeam standing along the track is another pointer to the old age of Sydenham Hill Wood.

Above our heads is another species sure to have been breeding here for some time. There are three tawny owl chicks sitting in the top of a large ash tree not yet in leaf, and through the bare branches we have a clear view of them. They snuggle into their plump, downy coat of feathers, calling to their parents, with rasping voices you might not expect them to make.

The wood’s bird community is watching, not least because the tawny owls are the top predator in the wood and one of the chicks’ parents is nearby trying to make a kill. Last week we found a crow’s head by the pond and it now appears likely that the adult tawny that spawned the trio above is the culprit. The birds know it too: there is an anxious din of woodland birds – woodpecker, crow, robin, great tit, blue tit, ring-necked parakeet, nuthatch – as the rufous adult tawny emerges from its hiding place.

The chicks are further along than expected, they move one at a time over our heads and closer to mum or dad, their spread of primary wing feathers giving them a tactile appearance, each like a finger. The parakeets are the most successful in bothering the young owls as they shriek and dive around them, the vibrancy of these exotically coloured birds muted by the task, on a dour afternoon in the spring wood.


The leaves of trees under torchlight are sticky with honeydew, a little like our faces, damp with sweat and bothered by mosquitoes. I swat them away.  The wood is perspiring, wet with aphids. The air is thick with the funk of wild garlic that has flowered and gone. Stars are appearing in the ocean of night sky. A dot of light moves across the expanse. Is it a satellite?

A male tawny owl calls from acres away. We blow through a hazel whistle carved in a fashion to mimic the owl, and the bird itself responds in kind, edging closer and closer to us after each play of the whistle, its voice becoming clearer: What’s the time Mr. Owl? Now there is no foliage between us and anxiety stirs. We decide it’s better to stop in case the tawny thinks we’re another male. They are renowned for their aggression in protecting territory.

With the wood under the spell of darkness, the industrial world is reduced to a dreamy wash. Beyond the lining of trees could be an endless wildwood or an open pasture – the imagination runs free in the absence of engines and electric light. Some centuries ago the old woodland was felled and turned into farmland that skylarks, corn bunting, lapwing, turtle dove and cuckoo would have colonised. These birds are now absent from land that is used for cricket, golf and rugby.

From the glade’s sleeping bed of rosebay willowherb the great ghost of a hawkmoth ascends. I swoop the child’s pond-dipping net I am holding towards the monstrous insect, bringing the net and my knees to the ground. I carefully peel it away from the grass, revealing only shadows. The mysteries of the night wood remain.


We’re sitting around the moth trap again tonight. A large flock of crows are returning to a roost in the direction of Dulwich Park. There’s something about vast movements of crows, it gives the sense of an ending. In old times this would have been the signal to down tools at the close of a day labouring, ‘when the crow flies’, as they used to say.

The insect numbers have visibly dropped since summer but the pipistrelle bat hunting just above our heads shows there must be enough for them to eat. The twilight is metallic blue, stars are lanterns in the sky untouched by trees.

We’re surrounded by oak woodland, with smatterings of birch, ash, willow and hornbeam. We can only hope the darkening wood conjures something beautiful for us to behold. The leaves around us are soon to fall and even in this fading light you can sense the change, nature exhausted after the sex of spring and summer’s heat. A hobby flies the same path as the bat, catching a moth in midair.

Night falls. Nocturnal mammals begin their movement through the leaf litter, their sound much bigger than they actually are. A moth has been drawn to the bulb of our moth trap and we retrieve it in a clear plastic pot. It’s medium-sized, purple and mustard in colour. It’s the barred-sallow. This moth has evolved to match the leaves of autumn, but it’s early, many of the trees are still verdant green. We release the insect and it disappears into the dark.


A slender pathway cuts through the ground layer of ivy, most likely to have been forged by a train of foxes. A large ash has been pulled down by the wind, the underside of the ivy leaves wrapped around it are a fresh colour, like the flesh of a lime fruit. To the side a den has been made with string tied to the rotting logs that rest against a tree in a tepee form. Sometimes people spend a night in the wood and so the sign of a tent or den surrounded by food packaging and drinks bottles is not unusual. There isn’t much litter to be found tonight, other than things the ivy has subsumed, bottles or cans taken in by the soil or blown over from the road. Spiders make a home for themselves in empty bottles and the woodlouse is a common inhabitant of an old shoe. Now the leaves of premature bluebells peek through the earth and we take care not to trample.

We come upon a clearing around a large yew tree, the soil cleared of ivy and plant life by the acidity and shading of the tree’s needles. The trunk is rippled and worn like an old doll’s limb. It’s one of a line of yews that would have been a hedge in the grand Victorian garden that was once here. The villas were built in the 1800s, but too grandiose to last, they were abandoned during the Second World War and, deemed unsafe, were eventually bulldozed into the earth. The ground dips to reveal the whitish bricks of a wall and a trail of broken glass. Behind us is a group of silver birch trees, quarantined amidst layers of ivy and the yew. These birch look like they’re waiting for something.

The other side of the wall shows a support structure for the terrace of the old Victorian villa, where the slow life of the woodland has been allowed to resume. A blackbird calls in the canopy and a great tit sings its winter song down in the woodland glade. The sun is setting low through the slope of trees. It’s time to go home.


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