After a year of lockdowns and Covid waves, I managed to visit London again for a couple of days in what could be the wettest May on record in the UK. May can often be unsettled and is still spring after all, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. That said, I’ve never known it this stormy.
London is renowned for its wild cemeteries with Nunhead being one of the most famous. One of my favourites is Camberwell Old Cemetery, a haven for uncommon local bird species like green woodpecker, stock dove and mistle thrush. These are species which like open, parkland style habitats with rich grasslands alongside older or veteran trees to nest in.
It has some good views of London’s skyline in places, with quite interesting correlations between tombstones and skyscrapers.
A Victorian gravestone resting against the stumpof a horse chestnut
This isn’t something that happens by accident. I can’t tell you how many times in the past I lobbied for these grasslands to be allowed to grow where possible or appropriate. Many times in May I would walk through and find the evidence of strimmed grass where flowers had flourished days previously. It’s a matter of communication with grounds staff but also the political will from people in managerial and leadership roles. There’s also the matter of complaints, the sense of things being ‘unkempt’ and ‘wasteland’.
The demand to mow everything is ingrained in English society. It’s a destructive tendency that reduces biodiversity on many levels, however much unintended. The success of initiatives like #NoMowMay are a sign that things are beginning to change and ecological literacy is developing in society. In places like Camberwell Old Cemetery it’s a ‘no-brainer’ because this is old meadowland and it’s been grown and cut once a year, or so, for hundreds of years.
It’s not just in the grasslands that flowers are appearing at this time of year. Many of our trees are angiosperms (flowering plants) and horse chestnut is one of May’s most attractive.
Up close these flowers can look like orchids, sometimes.
In England we have a tree that is also named after the month. One of hawthorn’s folk names is ‘may’. The ‘haw’ refers to the fruit, the ‘thorn’ the tree’s prickly nature. I wonder if the climate crisis may turn hawthorn into ‘april’.
It’s an exceptionally good tree for invertebrates.
In Czechia, my friend Karel recommended checking the flowers of hawthorn if you’re looking for insects. He wasn’t wrong. This tree was covered in large beetles, hornets, wasps, butterflies and bees, all nectaring on it. We lack that biomass and diversity in the UK, perhaps because we stopped allowing our grasslands to flower. At least we now have #NoMowMay to help us on our way.
There’s an old hawthorn growing in my family’s garden. That evening I had a look for invertebrates on the shrubs and flowers. It was a relief, in a way, to find the flowers of the hawthorn were being pollinated by a marmalade fly. Our hawthorn still has something to offer in the wettest of Mays.
For seven years I volunteered and worked for London Wildlife Trust at Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood in south-east London. These woods are the largest remaining remnant of what is known as the Great North Wood. During that time I soaked up a lot of information, conducting my own research into the cultural and natural history of the area. I led guided walks and gave public talks on as many areas as possible related to the natural and cultural history of the area. I have condensed much of that information into this blog post. An earlier version of this post was handed out to attendees to walks and talks on behalf of London Wildlife Trust. My knowledge of the entire Great North Wood, which Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods are the largest remnant of, is not strong enough to ‘write a book on’, but I have posted about the history of One Tree Hill, another remnant, before. This is my whirlwind around these precious woods from the time of glaciers to present day.
Wildwood: 12,000 BC
The Dulwich woods are a collection of remnant ancient woodlands in south-east London, made up ofSydenham Hill Wood (a nature reserve managed by London Wildlife Trust), Dulwich Wood, Low Cross Wood, Hitherwood and Dulwich Upper Wood. The woods are generally known as Dulwich Woods or Sydenham Woods by local people, sometimes influenced by whether they are from the Sydenham side of the ridge in Lewisham or the Dulwich side in Southwark.
Parts of the Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods are thought to have been covered by woodland since the first trees returned to Britain at the end last glacial period, some 14,000 years ago. The end of the UK glaciers came when climate change led to a period of warming. This warming melted the great ice sheets that had spread across the Northern Hemisphere and sat north of London. As the ice melted, the ensuing water created lakes, rivers and wetlands and the rocky debris carried by the retreating ice carved open valleys and new landscapes. While what is now the British Isles remained connected to continental Europe, the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine in Germany. Today, off Sydenham Hill runs the Ambrook stream, a tributary of the Effra, a ‘lost river’ which still enters the Thames at Vauxhall.
Trees spread by seed on the wind or with the assistance of jays (‘scatter-hoarding’), red squirrels and small mammals. This ‘wildwood’ provided habitat for returning wolf, bear, lynx, elk, beaver, otter and deer, along with birds, mushrooms, insects and wildflowers. Hunter gatherers followed their prey into this more hospitable landscape and made settlements in the woods by clearing trees and creating more open areas to live in.
By 6,500 BC the ice had melted to such an extent across Europe that sea levels rose and flooded the low-lying plain between Britain and Europe, creating the British Isles as islands physically separate from Europe. By the Neolithic period (4,000 BC) the wildwood had been much reduced and people exploited nature’s resources like never before. The growth of farming, developed in the Middle East and spreading through Europe, meant that populations were increasing and the hunter gatherer’s way of life was disappearing.
The Great North Wood: 500-1500 AD
The Dulwich woods are the largest remaining part of the Great North Wood, the early name given to what was left of the wildwood in south London by the Anglo-Saxon period (AD 410-1066). These remnant ancient woods straddled the clay ridge running from Honor Oak to Beulah Hill. The Romans had come and gone (AD 43-410), forging new roads and making use of the Great North Wood’s resources of oak, hornbeam and hazel, mining its clay for brick and pottery. It was the ‘north’ wood because it was north of Croydon, a thriving medieval market town. The Anglo-Saxons also wanted to differentiate between the Great North Wood and the Weald, another extensive woodland landscape that sits between the North and South Downs, running as far as Hampshire in the west and Kent in the east.
It was only later that placenames related to the woods began to appear: Selhurst and Brockley being two good examples. The use of ‘hurst’ at the end of a name indicates a wooded hill, possibly a place where timber was removed or used to some specific purpose, whilst ‘ley’ means a clearing or settlement in woodland. ‘Brock’ is the old English word for badger, an animal which still clings on today in secrecy. Names like Forest Hill are deemed artificial, though it likely refers to the wooded ridge of Sydenham Hill. The Great North Wood was no forest at all, unlike the New Forest, Ashdown Forest or Epping Forest, it was not created for the purpose of a royal hunting ground. ‘Norwood’ is arguably the single truest reflection of this ancient landscape. Penge is London’s only Celtic placename, meaning ‘the end of the woods’.
The Dulwich woods have been patrolled or cared for by a warden since as early as the 1200s. One of the key industries was tanning, where the oak bark was peeled off and taken to the tanneries and soaked in with hides to make leather. From the 1600s to the mid-1800s it was the second largest industry in England. The tannery at Bermondsey was the destination for much of the woodland produce. Oak trees were harvested after some 80-150 years to build ships, therefore allowing the British military to ‘rule the waves’ and put the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, as some people say. Britain’s oaks ships were the upper hand in battles waged at sea against the Spanish, the Dutch and attacks against the Chinese mainland.
Britain’s isolation as an island protected it from land invasion after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the end of Anglo-Saxon rule. The harsh strictures of Forest Lawand later royal protections for woodland meant that up until the Napoleonic Wars, the oak resources in England enjoyed some stability. To make one oak ship today would likely require the entire felling of Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood combined, some 25 hectares of woodland. Needless to say there is no appetite for such. We should also remember that the Dulwich woods were never ‘forest’ in the Norman term, despite what the word means today.
Colliers were charcoal burners who lived in the woods, an industry of huge importance to London and local villages. Trees like hornbeam were coppiced or cut down to their stump to form multi-stemmed trees that could be harvested for wood indefinitely. The wood was stacked into a kiln, in this case made from clay, and burned to create charcoal. Other woodland products included poles, posts, bavins (bundles of twigs for firewood known also as faggots), birch twigs for brushes and withies (long, thin hazel shoots).
The Norwood Gypsies and other local characters
One of the more interesting local placenames is Gypsy Hill, in reference to a camp of ‘gypsies’ who were famed for their presence there. Margaret Finch was known as ‘queen of the gypsies’ and was visited by the Victorian middle classes to have their fortune told. It is said she was so ‘decrepit’ she could only ever crouch. Other notable dwellers within the woods included Samuel Matthews, the hermit who lived in a cave dug near where the Cox’s Walk footbridge is. He was murdered in 1802 for his wealth collected as a jobbing gardener in nearby properties. He was said to be a popular local figure but his murderer was never convicted.
Local literary figures include William Blake, whose vision of angels took place on Peckham Common, possibly after a visit to the Dulwich woods in the 1760s (and maybe the ingestion of some magic mushrooms?). At the bottom of Cox’s Walk the poet Lord Byron studied at Dr. Glennie’s above what was then the Grove Tavern pub in 1799. John Ruskin walked in the woods during the time of the Crystal Palace, lamenting the place of the building on the wooded ridge.
In the 1700s Acts of Parliament were put in place to remove common lands from public ownership and allow their sale and enclosure. Locally affected commons included Westwood or Sydenham Common which covered much of what is now Forest Hill, Dulwich Common which is best represented by the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill golf course, Dulwich College playing fields and Dulwich Park, and Penge Common which was enclosed as Penge Place and is now Crystal Palace Park. Sydenham Hill Wood did not exist at this time but was a series of coppices spread across the Dulwich woods in the form of Peckarmans Coppice, Ambrook Hill Wood, Lapsewood, Kingswood and Vicars Oak Coppice.
This seismic political shift has created the townscape and suburbs we see today in London. It is only through hard-fought planning battles, philanthropic foresight and good fortune that any of London’s commons still exist. The enclosures put in place the eventual development of the coppices known today as Sydenham Hill Wood. By the 1730s Cox’s Walk had been cut through an area known as Fifty Acre Wood from Sydenham Hill in order to attract visitors from the Sydenham Wells to the Green Man Tavern at the junction of Lordship Lane and Dulwich Common, site of the Dulwich Wells where natural springs rose. By the early 1800s Fifty Acre Wood had been grubbed out for farming, now forming part of the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill golf course and the Marlborough Cricket Club fields.
The Victorians: 1800-1900
Immense change came to Sydenham Hill and Dulwich with the construction of the Crystal Palace in 1854. In 1865 the Crystal Palace High Level railway was cut through the Sydenham Hill coppices. It took millions of people to the Crystal Palace’s Great Exhibition until its eventual closure in 1954, after the Palace had burned down in 1936. The Cox’s Walk footbridge was constructed over the railway line to allow the continued use of the pathway. The Crescent Wood tunnel, which plugs the southern end of Sydenham Hill Wood, was closed to the public in the 1990s due to Health & Safety concerns and later it was designated as a registered bat hibernation roost due to the presence of brown long-eared and pipistrelle bats using the crevices in the old brickwork.
In the early 1860s the construction of large villas along the Great North Wood ridge running from Forest Hill to Beulah Hill began. The coppices of Sydenham Hill Wood were separated into smaller plots of land and sold on 99-year leases by the Dulwich Estate. The residents of these houses were wealthy, with some houses accommodating more than 20 people, in this case servants for the families. Lapsewood House was home to Charles Barry Junior, the designer of newer Dulwich College, North Dulwich Station and St. Peter’s Church next to Cox’s Walk. Another house, Beechgrove, was lived in by Lionel Logue in the 1930s and ‘40s, the speech therapist characterised in The King’s Speech. A garden folly was constructed with Pulhamite, a material patented by James Pulham, in the grounds of Fairwood. The cedar of Lebanon which still remains was in the grounds of the Sydenham Hoo and can be seen as a sapling in Victorian illustrations of the garden.
The returning wild: 1950-present day
The advent of the First and Second World wars brought irreversible change. Traditional woodland management was extinct and the Victorian boom was over. Many of the houses were nearing the close of their leases in the 1950s and by 1980 all of them had been demolished. Local people had been entering the grounds of the old houses and the disused railway line since the 1950s. The landscape was returning to woodland as trees began to retake the gardens and railway cutting with no intervention taking place from either the Dulwich Estate or Southwark Council. In 1981 London Wildlife Trust were formed and by 1982 Sydenham Hill Wood had been designated as a nature reserve. This was after fraught and long lasting battles involving Southwark Council, the Dulwich Estate and local people spear-headed by London Wildlife Trust, the Dulwich and Sydenham Societies and the Horniman. London Wildlife Trust are now lease holder of Sydenham Hill Wood and each of the former mansion grounds running along Sydenham Hill. Today the Trust, Southwark Council and the Dulwich Estate are working in harmony to protect the natural heritage of the Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods with the support of volunteers.
The woods are experiencing historically high numbers of visitors, with data suggesting that over 100,000 people step through each year. It is a critical time for people to access and understand our green spaces due to the dislocation many feel from nature and the impending threats of climate change and species loss. Sydenham Hill Wood is one of the most important green spaces in London for the story it can tell about human impacts on the land, challenging our concepts of what is natural and normal. Its 10ha has seen it all, surviving through all that our species has thrown at it in over 10,000 years of human history. It bears those scars but its wildness remains. Who knows what it will see in the next 100 years.