Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts from the ‘Woodlands’ category

Scotland - September 2019 djg lo-res-21

Strathyre Forest, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland, September 2019

I’m in Strathyre Forest, a Forestry Scotland plantation in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The view of Loch Lubnaig comes and goes as the mist travels between the hills with the cars, lorries and motorbikes along the road down below. I’m sitting on a lump of rock, surrounded by the dead trunks of spruce trees, their successors rising below at their rotting toes. Around old spruce stumps felled by foresters, heather grows and flowers. Birch saplings and rosebay willowherb enjoy this pause in the blanket of monolithic trees.

Looking up for a moment, I’m given a shock by the sudden appearance of the loch and the surrounding hills. The mist has cleared and the shape of the loch’s marshy edges, fringed by the Lego shapes of a caravan park, where the river winds its way in, has appeared. A single spruce stands broken and dead, a mast of decay over Strathyre. A bird flies up, gradually picking a spot to perch on. It sits on the top branch and calls out.

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On the slow and drizzly ascent up to this point, I’ve spent most time on ground level photographing mushrooms. Under the dark monoculture of spruce red russulas are fruiting in profusion. I take photos using the camera’s timer so need to be really still so as not to disturb the camera, otherwise the picture will blur.

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The details are very fine and sometimes the focus is on a very small thing. This means stillness for me.

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My stillness meant birds flocking nearby came very close: goldcrests in their tens, with one within reach of my hand, then a young robin in a half-youth, half-adult plumage.

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It flew right at me and swooped away to land on a branch. It followed me back out onto the track and, perhaps, led me to a the biggest Boletus edulis I have seen. ‘Stick with me,’ I said, ‘and you’ll see mushrooms.’ I didn’t see the robin again after that.

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Away from the dark stands of plantations mosses, lichens and smaller mushrooms flourished at the buttresses of huge spruce and pine trees. One of the largest fly agarics I have ever seen opened like an upturned umbrella amidst its little brothers and sisters. There was light and life here that the close stocking together of trees does not allow.

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There I found lots of small mushrooms like deceivers, webcaps and plenty of others like milkcaps and lots of boletes sodden by days of rain. They reflect the attitude of a woman I heard in the pub last night as she discussed the wet forecast over the coming days. She would still be going out and enjoying her holiday. ‘It’s just water,’ she said.

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Ebernoe Common, Sussex Weald, August 2019

Looking out of the window at work one morning, a colleague agreed with me:

If there are no mushrooms after this rain, then something is very wrong with the world.

Fast forward a few hours and there is something ok about the world.

Stepping out onto the track and into the woods there was a clear indicator of a mushroom party with lots of Boletus-like species typical of the season. This time, I was invited. All too often looking for mushrooms can be like arriving at a party the morning after when everyone is discarded like shells around the living room and slime coats the walls.

There was still slime on the walls on this pleasant summer’s evening at Sussex Wildlife Trust’s magnificent Ebernoe Common. It’s part of the Low Weald, an area or ancient woodland that is very much intact and once connected Canterbury with the New Forest. The slime here was the real deal, with beautiful splodges of slime mould spreading across fallen oak trunks.

Further inspection with my trusty macro lens showed the intricate beauty of this slime mould. Trouble is I don’t have the field guide yet so I’m stuck for an identification. But really does it matter? I’m not a scientist in the traditional sense and it’s their beauty I cherish most. Scientists, while we’re here, don’t even know where to put slime mould in their taxonomic kingdoms. That sounds like one hell of a euphemism.

This walk was a blitz of about 3 miles with eyes scanning the woodland floor alongside the path. By pure fluke I found this small mushroom, not dissimilar to something like a funeral bell, popping out of the soil. It is surrounded by the most beautiful palmate leaves of star mosses. The wonders of macro photography allow this world to be glimpsed and indeed shared. Macro photography is an art (not necessarily in this case) as fine as landscape photography.

I also had my larger DSLR slung round my neck with a wide angle lens. The golden hour is not quite so golden in an August wood, but it’s still worth appreciating. Notice the growth of lichens and algae on the north-facing side of this beech here for 10 points.

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One of the recent additions to my mushroom portraiture war-chest is an LED light. It’s a pretty fun way to add a new layer of interest to photos, especially of mushrooms. I also have a mini tripod for it so it is a bit like a pet android that wanders the woodland floor for me illuminating fungi. This shroom was growing down between two big boughs of a fallen beech tree. It was land of the mosquito and I made substantial donations to their bloodthirsty cause. This does look rather angelic if I may say so.

A trio of bonnets were evidence of the recent rain. Up they spring before collapsing not long after.

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Have you ever noticed just how long bluebell seed casings linger after spring? It’s a good way to identify an ancient woodland out of season. This flower was present on the edge of the woodland where a field opens out. The sun poured in and lit the tulip-like papers of the bluebell.

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My dad said he read my last post and had to look up what ‘bokeh’ is. It’s the circles or light in this image above that are caused by isolated areas of light. They are most pronounced when you have a wide aperture, so f1.4 on my brightest lens but usually f5.6 on most SLR lenses. It creates a beautiful blurred effect. Of course, I couldn’t resist it here. Looking at this image being photographed in the moment, what you can’t see is the twinkling of the light as the leaves moved in the breeze and the sun slid down. It took the breath far more than the image ever will.

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Epping - 17-8-2019 djg-15

Epping Forest, Essex, August 2019

Unlike most, I’ve welcomed the wet weather of recent weeks in southern England. In August, this means mushrooms. Hopefully not only an early burst in August but a good autumn clutch. ‘The coming of the fungi’ in autumn is an event in nature’s calendar that I would put in the same bracket as the first migrant willow warbler, swallow or swift, or the first butterfly. Autumn is a time of plenty. When mushrooms arrive en masse, we are witnessing a spectacle many millions of years old.

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A weekend visit to family in Essex meant a chance to visit the famous Epping Forest. This woodland is very close to London and is owned by the City of London Corporation (other sites outside London in Surrey and Hertfordshire also belong to them. I think they do a very good job). The Forest shows the scars of this proximity to one of the world’s biggest cities, namely the M25. It was interesting talking to family recently who grew up locally and their reminiscences of putting ‘stop the M25’ posters up in their windows. Epping Forest is also prey to nature writers (guilty as charged, but not published) framing their own ego against this ancient wooded landscape. The Forest and its mycelia feature in Robert Macfarlane’s recent award-winning book Underland, a book from a writer I love reading and admire greatly. However, I must to admit to disappointment in the lighting of a fire in that book. Even more so when I saw a tent and a fire in the Forest when I visited. The two obviously are not linked, but having been an urban woodland warden where fires were lit both in ignorance and violence, it is hugely galling (no pun intended). Leave no trace people, seriously.

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I mentally (and verbally) built up my visit to Epping Forest due to the rain throughout the week. The mushroom boom in my eyes (let’s call it that) was spilling out from every path and Epping Forest’s many visitors were tripping up over them. The early signs upon entering were not good. The ground was battered by recent rain and the sloping nature of the landscape had meant the soil was scarified by the heavy downpours. Mushrooms, washed away. The first wildlife encounter of any note was the above robberfly which I noticed out of the corner of my eye on the brim of my (it needs to go in the wash) sunhat. These predatory flies (not of humans) have had a good summer and I’ve seen more than I ever have before this year. #LifeGoals.

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It was only getting near to Ambresbury Banks (Aims-bury) that the mushrooms were in any way ‘common’. A slug-munched Boletus edulis or cep lay prone at the trackside. Then, half eaten, I found this:

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Moving my little camera around to the right angle, you would never know the cap on the other side was almost completely gone. This is a tawny grisette (Amanita fulva). This was probably the least photogenic specimen I’ve ever found, but with the green flow of woodland behind and a bit of bokeh, anyone can look good.

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Cheered by the sight of a half-eaten mushroom I checked out the swampy dog-poo realm alongside a path. There I spied these beautiful white parachutes (Marasmius) in wet soil amongst bramble twigs. My books are telling me they are Marasmiellus candidus AND Delicatula integrella. A woman passing by on her Saturday jog asked what I was looking at. She said how much she loved spending time in the Forest and that she was moving away soon. She said how important is was for her to see the seasons changing and how different the trees were in different parts of the Forest.

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She’s not wrong. The bizarre pollard areas near Ambresbury Banks are unique. Their pollarding stopped as a local practice some 150 years ago due to a wrangle of Acts of Parliament – who could lop what and where. They are of significance to the whole of Europe (ecosystems are European-wide, people). In some areas holly dominates and things get a lot darker.

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In one of the those areas I found an oysterling (Crepidotus) on a twig and found a nice tree to perch it in for its close-up. The gills look like flames to me and not of the campfire kind. See the darkness of high canopy beech and holly understorey? Creepy. A deer was hiding away here.

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Ambresbury Banks is always worth visiting. This is an ancient earthwork or Iron Age Hillfort, which was likely created by the pre-Roman (-AD43) inhabitants of Britain. Legend has it that Boudicca battled the Romans here in AD61 but people say that about so many hills in London, trust no one. Also for anyone espousing ‘Indigenous British’ as a phrase about themselves as a pedestal for their polticial views, those Britons who built Ambresbury Banks were probably the last group of people who could say that. It is now populated by ancient beech pollards which have no view on Brexit, other than that it may remove their Natura 2000 protections as a site of European Significance. But then again we may not have food and medicine by 1st November.

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In all fungal seriousness there were actually a pleasant number of ‘shrooms around this Iron Age propaganda ditch. Spindle shank (Collybia fusipes) was bubbling up nicely at the roots of beech trees, likely nibbling away at their wood under the soil. Bridges of beech are likely to be built across those ancient earthworks in the decades that come, if you get my drift(wood).

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For photography brittlegills (Russula) are one of the most annoying. I have seen grey squirrels pull them from the soil and chew their gills down like some turbo corn-on-the-cob eating contest. Slugs also love them. Thankfully for you I found this Russula largely un-squirreled with some pleasant bokeh to be had in the world above. I lit the gills with my phone torch.

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Another sign that autumn is not actually here yet was the state of the Amanita mushrooms. Two years ago I found many, many of these beauties near Connaught Water in the holly woods (nope, not that Hollywood) and they were in the same state. If I’ve learned one thing from mushrooms it’s:

You can’t hurry poisonous fungi

There is no basis of fact in that. Not that it matters nowadays. Fake ‘shrooms.

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When you see so many Amanitas pretending to be beech nuts, you know autumn is tickling your toes. Winter is snoring.

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This cheery chap was reaching out from under a ghastly bit of deadwood to say good afternoon. I’m not sure of the species and it will require a bit of rifling through the field guides to get a general idea. Answers on a postcard in the comments box please.

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A beautiful morning in Epping Forest but what did fungi teach me? If you just walked in and found everything you ever wanted in fungi terms there would be no fun and you wouldn’t learn anything. Also, appreciate every chance you have to spend time in these special places and try not to make a campfire. Next up: Autumn.

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Shelleys - 26-4-2019 djg-4

The Sussex Weald, West Sussex, April 2019

I visited a small woodland in the Sussex Weald after work to make the most of a break in the showers. My aim was to catch the bluebells in the early evening light when I think they look best. The forecast was for cloud but it was windy enough for some sunlight to break through. This woodland is coppiced and was where I photographed the wood anemones last month. It is the bluest bluebell woodland I’ve ever seen. My friend always tells me, ‘no, it’s purple!’. He’s right.

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Bluebells are a huge draw for anyone who has a camera (so that’s everyone). It’s part of the traditional spring experience to go to a bluebell wood, in most places that still have them. That’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, ancient woodlands like those in the Sussex Weald are being lost, despite the fact that they are irreplaceable habitats. Their species diversity has evolved over thousands of years. At a coppiced wood like this, their ecosystems have coalesced with our management of them for wood products. The oak above might be a coppice, but it could also be three oak saplings fused together.

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Something felt quite gentle and warming about this oak plugged in amongst bluebells. Perhaps it’s the slight lean, it’s almost an invitation to pass by. The mental and physical benefits of spending time in woodland are great.

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I’ve noticed the flush of new green oak leaves and how quickly that freshness is lost to the stiff darker shade.

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Take these two oaks in the High Weald from a week earlier. Their new green is incredibly fresh but will now have darkened. You have to enjoy every moment of spring before it goes.

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Back to the wildflowers. Before visiting the wood I spoke to a colleague whose job it is to survey woods. He said he’d seen very few early purple orchids this year, possibly due to the colder than average January and then sudden heatwave in February. I said I would report back on my findings. I discovered a patch of about 10 flowering on the wood’s edge with plenty of other spotted leaves yet to produce flowers. I had seen them in the same patch a couple of years ago so knew where to go.

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I find orchids that grow in woods to be twice as exciting as those out in the open landscape. It’s a personal thing, because the diversity is far greater out there. There’s something about woodland versions of other species, birds or butterflies for example. There is something so interesting about the fact some species have made a niche for themselves in certain types of woodland only. Don’t get me started on firecrests. It’s even more interesting when these species, especially the wildflowers, escape out into the surrounding landscape.

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It’s not possible for the flowers to do much of that in this slither of the Sussex Weald because it’s surrounded by a monoculture of oilseed rape. On the contrary the farm is making its way into the woodland through the run off of fertiliser and water being piped in. You can see where the wildflowers are being pushed further into the woodland, away from the polluted areas. It’s something happening to almost every small woodland in England in one way or another.

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Photographing the orchids was tricky because it was windy, dull and the plants were small. I used a telephoto lens and tried to maximise the bokeh around the flower. These flowers are beautiful even when out of focus.

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The woodland flowers felt as if they were at their peak. Elsewhere yellow archangel spread amongst bluebells.

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The details of a wood at this time of year are incredible. If you look closely it’s not just the bluebells that will attract you, the fronds of bracken unfurling are worth investigating. These primitive plants reproduce through spores and pre-date flowering plants like bluebells by millions of years. It’s a tough plant and can be a bit invasive. Oliver Rackham reckoned it was the most common plant across the whole of the UK.

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People often say they spend a lot of time trying to remove pendulous sedge from their gardens. It gets around. It’s actually a resident of ancient woodland and can be found in the wood. I passed this community of sedges on my way out as a few bands of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit their drooping seedheads.

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That light broke free as I made my way out again, illuminating bluebells either side of tree trunks. It was a reward for gambling on a grey sky.

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Introduction

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.

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Wildwood: 12,000 BC

The Dulwich woods are a collection of remnant ancient woodlands in south-east London, made up of Sydenham 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.

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Doggerland (via Wikipedia)

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.

Peckarmans Wood

The coppices known as Peckarmans Wood in the 1800s, what is now Dulwich Wood

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’.

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Woodland workers removing the buttresses of an oak before felling. Coppice poles can be seen in the background

Woodland industry

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 Law and 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).

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Margaret Finch in Norwood

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.

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Samuel Matthews (Steve Grindlay)

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.

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An elm tree enclosed inside the Crystal Palace in 1851

Enclosure: 1720-1830s

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.

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The Hoo on Sydenham Hill, now returned to woodland in Sydenham Hill Wood

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.

Wood anemone

Wood anemone is an indicator of ancient woodland in the Dulwich woods

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.

Further viewing:

The Dulwich Society archives

Mapping the Great North Wood – video

 

 

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Epping Forest - 11-8-2018 - djg-45

Epping Forest, Essex/London, August 2018

Saturday morning in Epping Forest and so often a trip to the woods feels like leaving a world behind. The weekend shoppers, cyclists, children feeding ducks in the village pond. The open plain. Rain came yesterday in stormy downpours. It was so wet a local garden centre roof couldn’t contain it. Today the sun beats down on the still scorched grasslands, small copper and common blue butterflies drinking from ragwort flowers at the path’s edge.

Breaking into Epping Forest, the temperature sinks and the dampness swells. I’m here to photograph mushrooms, hopeful that the rain has prompted the fast-acting fungi to fruit. Last August autumn came early and Epping Forest was bursting with boletes, amanitas and russulas. Every step meant mushrooms. Over the past year that memory has spread through my mind like the hyphae of a fungus in the woodland soil. Today, the woodland floor offers the complete opposite.

Ganoderma fungus - Daniel Greenwood

Some fungi don’t need much water but for the majority of species it is fundamental to producing a fruiting body, otherwise known as mushroom or toadstool. Epping Forest has many dead trees that hold their own reserves of moisture in the cool, dank shade. The fallen beech trees that lay across the Forest host tough and long-lived bracket fungi that appear as hard as stone. Softer are the oyster mushrooms splashed against the old trunks. At first they are brown-capped but as they mature the cap spreads to match the creamy flesh of the gills.

In Epping Forest our former reliance on woodland trees for simple materials and fuel echoes into the age of disposable plastic and solar panels. Approaching Ambresbury Bank, areas of the Forest open out into exhibitions of old beech trees known as ‘lapsed-pollards’. These digit-heavy trees were once cut to a high stump or pollard. Their branches were pruned back for firewood and other thrifty woodland things. Many have not been cut since the 19th century, the era traditional, pre-forestry woodland management began to fade in the UK. The old way of doing things, that is.

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In the past few years I’ve come to know someone who grew up local to here, living through the Second World War, with the Forest as her childhood playground. She remembers doodle bugs running out of fuel and crashing down to destroy a house a week away from receiving new tenants and the greenhouses where her father grew mushrooms for a living. She also remembers a man approaching her and her sister in the woods but she was smart enough to get them away as quickly as she could.

Today she said something unusual to modern language, calling the path that runs centrally through the Forest a ‘ride’. This is an old woodland word harking back to the days when large trees were felled and carried out along a wide trackway cut through a wood. This act is where the phrase ‘the long haul’ originates from.

The use of the word was proof of a life lived close to woods and a bygone way of seeing them, before they became pure recreation areas, nature reserves or carbon sinks in the minds of citizens today. Now the ride is the domain of cyclists, tyres hissing on the still wet gravel, as well as dog walkers and horse riders. Though the trees are cut for conservation and their own preservation, no timber is drawn out along this ride in the way one local native of the Forest once knew.

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A few hundred yards ahead a small desire-line appears between brambles, leading to a noticeboard and huge trench. On the banks of the trench are pollard beech trees, which are in fact much younger than the trench. This area is known as Ambresbury Banks, an earthwork thought to have been dug out in 500BC by a pre-Roman, British tribe. Its aim was probably to protect the people from invasion or as a place to keep livestock.

The creators of Ambresbury Banks were like close to the true Brits or Picts of pre-Roman Britain, the ‘painted’ people. Unsubstantiated tales (or myths) tell that Boudicca’s final stand against the Romans took place here. It’s a story adopted by several green spaces in the hills of Greater London.

Another nugget of knowledge from my native Forester came with the true pronunciation of Ambresbury Banks when I told her where I was going for a couple of hours:

‘It’s “Aims-bury”,’ she said. ‘Not “Am-bres-bury”.’

I head back to the village following the route I came in on. Saturday walkers appear from behind trees, lost in the lack of ride and clear trackway. A glade has been formed by the collapse of an old beech tree. Its limbs grew as individuals from its base. Falling, they have pulled up soil and broken smaller trees in their wake. Now light fills the break in the canopy. Dragonflies compete for airspace, hoverflies bask on the sun-baked bark. Oyster mushrooms squeeze from cracks in the dead wood. The loss of this old tree has elements of sadness but look at the life that comes in its wake.

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This is an expanded version of an article that was first published in London Wildlife Trust’s Wild London magazine

It’s a sound that stops many in their tracks, the rattling in the canopy of woods, parks and gardens. It’s a sound that brings in the new year, signs of spring breaking through as our own seasonal celebrations draw to an end. While we are still deep in recognising our need to rest in the midwinter, our wildlife is busy setting out its quest for new life. Britain has three species of woodpecker and in January we begin to hear the hammering, or drumming, of the great spotted, the sound of male birds marking new territories. It’s a bird that is becoming more and more familiar to us in London as its numbers increase.

Its favoured habitat is oak woodland with plenty of rotting branches, trunks and limbs in which to create a new hole each year, ample habitat for the biggest of our two Dendrocopos woodpeckers, the great spotted. Dendrocopos translates from Greek as ‘wood-striker’.

One thing I have noticed in suburban locations is the woodpecker drumming on TV aerials and receivers. One great spot I’ve seen has found the plastic box now employed to improve TV signals makes decent percussion. It’s a wonder that this hammering on hard surfaces doesn’t cause the birds injury, but evolution has equipped them with shock absorbers in the back of their skulls that cushion the blow. It’s not the same as banging your head against the wall.

There are four members of the woodpecker family deemed native to Britain, with one now classified as extinct as a breeding bird. That is the wryneck (Jynx torquilla), a bird that migrates from Africa each spring in small numbers still. In 1904 a wryneck nested on south-east London, what was thought by the observer to be one of the last nests in his time, in south-east London historically.

Another of our four species has declined at a rate that has baffled ornithologists. The lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor) was noted in south London’s woods up until 2008. The odd autumnal record does crop up as the lesser spots are migratory, with one seen in 2015 in Brockwell Park in Lambeth.

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Lesser spotted woodpecker

One possible theory for the decline of lesser spotted woodpeckers (above) relates to the rise of the great spot and the disappearance of starlings from London’s woods as a breeding bird. When starling numbers were higher in woods they provided more competition for great spots.

This gave more space for the lesser spots, being much smaller, about the size of a sparrow or starling. As starlings and their ruckus have left the woods, the great spots have increased in number as they have experienced less competition and adapted to the boom in garden bird food. Lesser spots require a smaller hole in a tree to nest and if a great spot chooses the nest they can make the hole bigger and the lesser spots are pushed out.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers, however, are not extinct like the wryneck as a breeding bird and they still have strongholds in the UK. The most important place for them is the New Forest, one of the mythical heartlands of ancient English woods. There the management of the woods has remained the same for centuries, pointing to another reason for the species’ decline elsewhere. British wildlife is under increasing pressure from development and the loss of available food due to wider intensified management of the countryside.

So the two factors which are most harming lesser spots, and starlings, too, are a lack of habitat and food. The loss of food is a loss of invertebrate life being driven by agricultural intensification and a tidying up of green spaces, loss of gardens and general overuse of harmful, residual pesticides. Another key change is the loss of old orchards, another traditional habitat disappearing in Britain, one of the lesser spot’s favoured habitats.

The other member of the British quintet, if including wryneck, is the green woodpecker (Picus viridis). Green woodpeckers are different to the spotted woodpeckers because they don’t hammer to mark their territories but instead call, what was known for centuries as ‘yaffling’. An old name for a green woodpecker is ‘yaffler’. It’s a call that can be heard most clearly in woods and parks with mature trees, where green woodpeckers also nest.

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Oak woodland is a key habitat for woodpeckers

The call has a prehistoric feel about it, echoing deep into woodland, as the reverberation recedes. Greens differ again from the spotted woodpeckers because of their feeding habits, spending their time searching for ant colonies in woods and lawns. Naturally grassy sports pitches with a surrounding area of mature trees are a good place to find the birds. They lie low, shooting their long tongues down into nests to find food. It’s something you are very unlikely ever to see a great spotted woodpecker do.

For those curious and unsatisfied by the array of woodpeckers in London, remember that you will have to travel to continental Europe to find a greater diversity. Arriving in France you could meet with the biggest of all the European woodpeckers, the black woodpecker and heading as far as the great ancient woods of the Czech Republic, Poland or Romania, you can find as many as seven species. In British terms, the health of London’s woodpeckers reflect the state of the nation’s.

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