Essay: In south London, a place reclaimed by weeds

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.