Tuesday 10th January 2023 was one of those awful January days in London. It rained a lot, was windy, and there was no direct sunlight to bask in.
Add to this the fact that the night before a fireball enjoyed a spectacular demise in the night sky, and was easy to view across much of the UK. At the time – 20:00 GMT – I was outside, in the dark, being distracted by the massive moon and a neighbour saying she didn’t want to run me over. Somehow, I missed the fireball and lived to hear about it on the radio the next morning.
Anyway, back down to Earth. Though the woods can be ghastly at this time of year, I find them to be a decent shout for slime moulds. Not to be proven wrong, I was proved right by the sight of little (read: tiny) orange beans at the path edge on an old oak log.
These little droplets of tangerine dream are commonly known by slime people as salmon eggs. It is amazing how these declining fish can fight their way up through places where there are no rivers, to lay their eggs in a bit of wood.
You know that was a joke, yes?
Slime moulds thrive in damp, dark places, usually in decaying wood that has been saturated by winter rainfall.
Elsewhere, the smaller polypores of turkeytail and the like were ‘showing nicely’ as the birders say, though rarely of a turkey’s tail around here.
The light was low over the Arun valley. To the south the Sussex coast was a band of grey concrete, the horizon between sky and sea broken only by the pale sticks of the offshore wind farms. The Isle of Wight rested out at sea to the west like a great sleeping sloth.
On a recent visit to Streatham Common in SE London, I was taken aback by the number of December mushrooms.
In SE England we’ve switched from -5 one day, to 12C a few days later. The seasons seem to be collapsing around us, and then reviving themselves. It feels like the only reliability we may have in nature is the amount of light. At this point the Earth isn’t moving off on a different course anytime soon.
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Looking through the Common’s oak woodlands I was quite taken by a standing dead oak tree. It was such an unusual shape and it was hard to tell if it was still alive. It wasn’t, in the conventional sense.
Moving around the tree I noticed the frills of what looked to me to be a brain fungus and what iNaturalist has confirmed as Phaeotremella frondosa. It’s what keeps me looking again and again for this strange stuff. It is always a surprise, and so varied and diverse that each week can provide you with something different.
And with that, I would like to say thank you to everyone who has read and/or commented on my blogs this year. I really appreciate the support and interest.
My website’s traffic boomed this autumn as some of my fungi posts appear to have made it into search engines and held prominent positions. That isn’t massively important to me, but it is quite funny to watch readers increase almost in sync with mushrooms in the woods.
Writing and posting photos on here is a massive anchor for me. If I could do this everyday, I would. I will try my best to keep it going strong in 2023.
Thanks, as ever, for reading. Wishing everyone a peaceful and restful Christmas and New Year.
As seen on Sunday 11th December, my final guided walk of 2022 for London Wildlife Trust.
London woke to freezing fog with hoar frost in places, as temperatures stayed well below zero. These are difficult days to get out of bed, but the rewards of a foggy, frosty oak woodland are too good to miss.
In the woods the fog broke in places, shifting north, making for very tricky birdwatching conditions. We were treated to the tapping of a great spotted woodpecker searching for food in dead branches. Flocks of long-tailed tit hurried through holly and ivy.
One attendee wanted to see redwing for their annual list, which came eventually in an energetic flock high in an oak, then low by a small pond where the guelder rose berries still remained.
I was fascinated by the perspective of a couple who joined us. They were astonished to find ring-necked parakeets in their garden, a bird they had seen growing up in, and one found all across, India. London’s woods don’t sound the same without their shrieking nowadays, whatever the view is on that.
There were a few mushrooms still to be seen, mainly sulphur tuft, the allseeing fungus (it’s just so common), and turkeytail.
Unfortuntaly we didn’t manage to find firecrest or anything as outrageous as lesser redpoll, but it was still a lovely walk.
The photos shared here are taken on my Fairphone in RAW format, then processed in Lightroom. It’s pretty impressive what you can do now with phone cameras.
On Saturday 12th November I led a fungi walk for London Wildlife Trust at Dulwich Wood in south-east London. I only managed one photo on the day because I was working and leading the group around, but it was a pretty good one nonetheless.
When doing a pre-walk check I accidentally flushed a woodcock from the vegetation off the main paths. I never like to do something like that but they are so difficult to see, camouflaged down there in the leaf litter. It’s good to know they are still able to use to woods as a stop off on passage. It also suggests they are using woods nearby which have no public access, because this is one that has hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, so ones free of ‘disturbance’ must be even better.
This isn’t new in Dulwich. Local ornithologist Dave Clark once told me a story of a woodcock smashing through someone’s window and landing in their bedroom. Because woodcock migrate, often by night, they sometimes get it wrong. Their long bills and speed of flight also mean they will crack glass quite easily. The bird in question was scooped up and taken to a vet, from what I remember it survived and lived to fly another day.
There’s a really nice episode of the Golden Grenades podcast featuring woodcock that you can listen to here. It features Kerrie Gardner, a superstar writer, photographer and sculptor who is a friend of this blog!
On the fungi front, the mushrooms were very few and far between considering the time of year. There was a shaggy theme to what was there, in that two of the sightings were shaggy parasol and shaggy bracket. The most common species group were the bonnets (Mycena), along with small polypores like turkey tail and hairy curtain crust, which are all on decaying wood.
My sense is that the extreme heat and drought this summer, where temperatures reached 40C, has had a worse impact in smaller woodlands in places like London. More rural, larger woodlands are able to hold water and moisture more effectively, therefore being able to feed fungal communities far more easily. Those woodlands also have running water in the form of brooks, streams and woodlands that aid soil moisture. London’s woods look far drier in November than those in West Sussex, even after torrential rain.
It’s also very mild, around 15-18 degrees on the 12th November, which shows just how far-reaching climate change already is. The milder weather may mean mushrooms fruit for longer though, with the colder temperatures held off until maybe January or February. It’s just so hard to predict these days.
One interesting thing that a couple of people on the walk discovered was a species that was new to me. On a scaffold board used for steps, a small blue polypore (example photo above) was peeking out. Having seen it elsewhere on social media in the last week, I can confirm it was blueing bracket. I’m back there soon so will aim to get some *actual* pictures next time.
In this episode, I am delighted to welcome Chantelle Lindsay and Sam Bentley-Toon. Chantelle and Sam are environmental professionals who worked together on London Wildlife Trust’s Great North Wood project. You can also listen via these podcast providers:
Chantelle and Sam share their experiences of protecting and managing south London’s ancient woodlands. They talk about their passion for volunteering and some of the challenges that woodland conservation in London involves.
We also discuss rewilding in a London context and whether beavers could possibly be returning to London.
Since recording this podcast, Sam has moved on to work on London’s rivers and Chantelle has become a minor-celebrity with her brilliant appearances on Blue Peter and a Great North Wood-focused segment on BBC’s Springwatch.
People like Sam and Chantelle are lesser known in the conservation world, but they are having big impacts at a community level. Their contribution to our understanding and enjoyment of landscapes is really special and should not be underestimated. Of course, you can say the same for many people the world over, and just it’s such a pleasure to be able to feature people like Chantelle and Sam on this podcast.
Thanks for tuning in and I hope you enjoy the episode.
I’m really pleased to say that I’m in the process of launching a podcast. It’s called Unlocking Landscapes and will, unsurprisingly, be about people and landscapes. Below you can listen to the podcast intro:
I grew up in the historic territory of the Great North Wood in south-east London, so this subject is of big personal interest for me.
It’s pretty daunting starting a podcast and also fairly cringe-worthy listening to your own voice. I’m hopeful of posting the first episode on Monday 8th February. It’s an hour long and I’m still working through the edit. The first one will be the most difficult because of all the work submitting it to podcast channels and getting used to editing audio again.
The podcast is now being accepted to podcast providers so it should be on Google, Apple and Spotify in the next couple of days. Please subscribe!
At the moment this is a labour of love and is totally funded by yours truly.
The episode will be of particular interest to those who live in south London and are keen to understand more about London’s rural and cultural history. It will also be of interest to those who want to learn more about the how human history has impacted woodlands over time.
I’m a Londoner and I learned most of what I know about fungi and nature in London. Take that in physical and psychological terms, having spent most of my life there. One Tree Hill is a Local Nature Reserve in south-east London that has offered many happy wild hours (ecologically). I visit One Tree Hill as often as I can and did so to find some Christmas shrooms this year.
One Tree Hill has a weird history of being a remnant ancient woodland that had been cleared of trees and then has re-wooded itself in the past 60 years. It has old oak trees and new oak woodland spread across areas of old acid grasslands, which are rare but not in good condition anymore. It provides one of the best views of London you can find. You can read more about it here.
December is never a good month for the most exciting fungi species because it’s cold and they struggle to fruit without milder weather. But I found a few species that I look for at this time of year.
This photo was actually taken over Christmas 2018 at One Tree Hill but it’s one of the more photogenic things you can find at this time of year. They grow out of the fissures in bark, most of the time on oak. I’m not sure of the species.
I think this is the same species but growing from a horizontal position in the late summer.
In the more open, grassy areas atop One Tree Hill I found something I’ve not seen before. This is a deceiver (Laccaria laccata) with gills growing out of the top of the cap. I don’t know what the name for this ‘deformity’ is and an internet search definitely didn’t help.
Deceivers get their name because they come in many different shapes and sizes, looking like different species each time. This year I saw huge numbers of them in the Sussex Weald. Here’s one in better condition:
Buckland Abbey, Tamar Valley, Devon, November 2019
At last the rain has stopped. Buckland Abbey, once home to Sir Frances Drake (1540-1596), climbs out of its nook in the hillside, reflecting the stony skies above. Drake is known for ‘his’ ships which battled the Spanish Armada in the 1500s, for circumnavigating the earth and for his role in the slaughter of civilians on Rathlin Island in 1575.
I first heard about him from spending time in south-east London’s remnant ancient woodland known as Great North Wood. It is said that some oaks grown in the Great North Wood were taken to the docks at Deptford and used in the building of some of Drake’s ships. It has never been verified. One thing that was verified at Deptford was Drake’s knighthood in 1851, on the ship named the Golden Hind, something I only learned at Buckland Abbey.
The fields around the Abbey are pocked by small cream sheep that run like chickens as we pass them on the track. In the distance the dammed River Tavy reflects the sky again, the dark woods flowing across the slopes to where the river enters the Tamar. Looking at the Ordnance Survey map, something stands out. To the north-west is a large woodland named The Great North Wood.
Could this be simply because it’s so large, or because of Drake’s links to that area of south London? The name is said only to have been popularised in the Victorian period and could have been given to differentiate the once vast area of woodland to that of the Weald that covered most of south-east England in the Anglo-Saxon period. Perhaps this local wood was also named by residents of the Abbey in the 1800s.
Redwings are established now, flocking in the fields. I hear my first fieldfare chuck-chuck-chucking over the Abbey. Down in the woods beech trees burn even without the aid of sunlight. They brighten the most glowering corners. Hazels are yellowing and even the odd wych elm with its almost bulb-bright leaves. It’s here saying, ‘don’t forget about me.’ Many elms have gone, but wych elm survives.
The rain threatens specks again as the light, if you can call it that, dwindles further. In a combe of a field a grey heron flaps its wings, either a slice of Buckland Abbey’s grey exterior breaking free, or a slither of sky lending itself south, to the glassy Tavy for the night.
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.