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.