Looking for birds in the frost and fog 🐦

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.

Thanks for reading.

London | Fungi | Bookings

Flushing woodcock in Dulwich 🦆

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.

John Gerrard Keulemans, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Some more phone pic bonnets on fallen oak 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.

© jonatan_antunez, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)

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.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading: Fungi | London

New book: London in the Wild 🦡

It’s official, I am now ‘published’!

Along with several experts on London’s landscapes, wildlife and habitats, I contributed my own chapter to London Wildlife Trust’s London in the Wild: Exploring Nature in the City. It is now available to buy.

My chapter, as you have probably guessed is about fungi, with a focus on south-east London’s woodlands.

I attended the launch of the book along with my family at Camley Street Natural Park in mid-October. It was great to hear Kabir Kaul read his chapter about a young person’s perspective on the future of nature in London and to be in a room with so many people who care so much about London’s wild spaces.

Mathew Frith outlines the book’s place in London’s nature publications, October 2022

I’m grateful to London Wildlife Trust for reaching out to me and asking if I would like to contribute back in January 2021. Particular thanks to Laura Mason, Mathew Frith and David Mooney.

The journey to appearing in print has been a long one for me. I wrote a piece for a book a decade ago, my first paid gig as a writer. Being paid for writing is something that I have never managed to maintain, so it was a big deal. I pre-ordered the book from my local bookshop and marched in there on publication day. I picked up my copy, opened it and leafed through every page in the book.

I couldn’t find my piece.

In its place I found a generic (sorry) article about the landscape I had been asked to write about, and an illustration that looked like it had been chucked in last minute (again, sorry). That was a devastating experience for my writing career, and probably killed my confidence for years and in many ways stopped me from ever wanting to pursue writing as a career. The editors never contacted me to say it wouldn’t be included or to give any explanation. Publishers, that’s not a good way to do things.

There is something poetic about being published in the first book of an organisation that I have such fond memories of, and that gave me opportunities and a sense of trust that can be hard to come by in your working life.

You can buy London in the Wild from the big players and the indie bookshops too. I’m not sure Waterstones are doing so well with their online ordering systems at the moment so I would check that out beforehand.

Thanks for reading.

Latest from the Blog

Salmon egg slime mould 🐟

This is not a fungi post. If it’s anything, it’s probably closer to animals. It also may exhibit signs of memory despite not having a brain. Sounds like you’re in the right place.

Winter oyster mushrooms 🍄

A walk around a wet woodland reserve where the river ran free of its banks, merging among poplars like something from prehistory (i.e. no Internet).

Unlocking Landscapes podcast: south London’s ancient woodlands

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:

Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/unlocking-landscapes/id1551547335

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/3fkXaryfdB1g0PVdz6WPMb

Podbean: https://unlockinglandscapes.podbean.com

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.

Links:

Chantelle on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Chan_Naturelle

London Wildlife Trust’s Great North Wood Project: https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/great-north-wood

London Wildlife Trust’s Keeping It Wild Project: https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/keeping-it-wild

Chris Schuler’s Great North Wood episode: https://unlockinglandscapes.podbean.com/e/the-wood-that-built-london-londons-historic-great-north-wood-with-chris-schuler/

#FungiFriday: online fungi talks this spring

There may not be many mushrooms around at the moment but I do have some good fungi-related news to share. In April and May I’m giving fungi talks on Zoom for two London-based charities!

On Tuesday 6th April at 18:30 I’m giving a talk entitled The Weird and Wonderful World of Fungi for London Wildlife Trust. This is part of the Trust’s Great North Wood festival. The talk is going to be focusing a lot on London’s fungal ecology in terms of woodlands, in keeping with the theme of the festival.

You can see more on the Trust’s website. The event is free but donations are welcome. London Wildlife Trust is a fantastic organisation dependent on the support of people who care about London’s wildlife, so please donate generously!

On Tuesday 18th May at 19:00 I’m giving talk for Bell House, a learning charity based in Dulwich, south-east London. This talk is entitled Fungus amongus: common mushrooms in England and will be about common mushrooms you can find in the UK. This will be more about the basic identification of species rather than the myriad avenues you can disappear off to in the world of fungi.

You can see more on the Bell House website. There is a suggested donation for this event of £5.

If you can’t make it don’t worry as there will be YouTube recordings to follow.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

Unlocking Landscapes: London’s historic Great North Wood with Chris Schüler

I’m delighted to be able to post the first episode of my podcast, Unlocking Landscapes.

This episode is with author Chris Schüler about his upcoming book The Wood that Built London. It’s about London’s historic Great North Wood, which I have posted about many times on this blog.

It’s a long episode, but that’s because it’s local interest, with a lot of detail to fit in. I hope it’s useful to people with an interest in London’s history, city woodlands, and nature in general.

You can subscribe to the podcast via the links below:

In this episode we talk about the following things:

  • What inspired Chris to write the book and how he went about it
  • How the Great North Wood (GNW) was managed
  • How the GNW differs from other southern English wooded landscapes such as the Sussex Weald
  • The violent history of the GNW
  • How the plague impacted people living in the GNW
  • The GNW’s celebrities
  • Some of the now rare species recorded in the GNW centuries ago
  • The concerns about invasive species are not as new as we think
  • The attempts to eradicate hedgehogs and polecats
  • How the GNW will be viewed in 100 years

Links to references:

Thanks for reading/listening

Tag: Unlocking Landscapes

#FungiFriday: how I first discovered mushrooms (not literally)

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Fungi Friday 29th May 2020 via November 2011

This autumn it will be 9 years since I first began photographing fungi. I want to share how I found a passion for these incredible organisms and show the first photos I ever took of fungi.

I owe thanks to several people for tuning me into the world of mushrooms. David Warwick, who led fungi walks for volunteers and the public for London Wildlife Trust at Sydenham Hill Wood, shared his knowledge with his fellow volunteers and helped me to gain an interest. That was where I learned about fungi and, over 7 years, had the opportunity to watch them pop up and fade away across the nature reserve.

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Turkeytail

The biggest thanks of all go to Ashley White who was the Project Officer who managed the Wood when I was a volunteer. For anyone who has ever volunteered, you will know that the person who leads you is as important as the thing you’re volunteering to do. Ashley inspired many of us to follow our interests in many areas of conservation and ecology.

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Velvet shank

My first real attempts to photograph fungi took place in November 2011 during a volunteer day. I used a Nikon D60, a 10 megapixel camera (the equivalent today is double that) that I was given as a birthday present in 2008. I had no editing software and the photos here are as they were taken in the camera, which you can probably appreciate.

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Sulphur tuft

One of the more memorable images that I contributed to London Wildlife Trust was this happy bunch of sulphur tuft. This species is probably one of the most common in the UK. It’s toxic but charming to look at. I respect its ability to show up in the street and in all manner of other locations.

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Bonnet with a droplet on top

Photography has always been a way for me to learn about much more than cameras. To identify the majority of species of fungi, you’ll need to undertake all manner of experiments that I am way too lazy/skilled enough for. I want to spend as much time outside in the company of the things I enjoy photographing. Too much time is already spent indoors. All these are excuses, I know.

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Parachute

I think one of the most interesting things about fungi are their diversity. This doesn’t just mean there are a lot of species (over 120,000 accounted for on Earth, probably more than 1,000,000 in reality). It also means they appear in all kinds of places: leaf litter, holes in trees, the ground, the pavement, sometimes even inside your house. That’s not really what you want.

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Brittlestems out of focus

After autumn volunteer days I would seek out fungi anywhere I could find them. I had begun to notice some growing down in the leaf litter. As you can see from the photo above, it’s difficult to take photos on the ground without a reticulating screen. Mine was fixed which led to classic images such as the above. These are brittlestems. Over the years at the Wood I would notice this family of mushrooms popping up in damp patches under leaf litter.

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Fairy inkcap

Many of the mushrooms in an urban woodland like Sydenham Hill Wood are common species that can pop up after a decent amount of rain. These fairy inkcaps are often found at the base of steps. The steps in the Wood were constructed by volunteers using wooden sleepers, planks for the edges and then filled with gravel. These mushrooms like steps so much I have even found them growing in Clapham Junction station on steps! For those who don’t know, this was once one of the busiest railway stations in the world. Thousands of people rush up and down these stairs every day.

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What’s not to love?

For all the negativity around nature conservation in Britain – and for me all contact with nature in the UK fosters a relationship with conservation – fungi gave me a sense of nature’s attitude of I will show up where I want, when I want. For anyone who has ever felt constricted by the physical environment we are forced to live in, nature is always looking to re-align it. As with fungi, it just takes time.

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A miniscule fairy bonnet on a piece of mud

Fungi says to me (not literally) that life does not stand still. Fungi are a part of life processes which have no end. Fungi are always building and feeding a new world whether we like it or not. Perhaps that’s what seeing those fairy inkcaps on the steps of Clapham Junction station taught me. We may be extinguishing a beautiful diversity of life on Earth, first with large, charismatic animals. But nature is complex, unknowable in its entirety, and it will never stop.

Thanks for reading. Have faith.

More mushrooms

 

 

#FungiFriday: 5 reasons why fungi are good for us

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Fungi Friday 22nd May 2020

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week. We all have mental health but in general many people lack an awareness of it.

In the UK this is not helped by hundreds of years of toxic interpretations of masculinity and the systematic oppression of women in society. There’s a grave stigma attached to even discussing mental health, due to centuries of extreme societal, political and, indeed, medical responses to psychological ailments.

In recent years, despite severe cuts to mental health services in the UK, the conversation has begun to change.

Nature, or at least our sense of it, has become a counsellor, allowing us to detach ourselves from societal roles and see ourselves as a single species in a vast web of biodiversity. Nature helps us to feel human. Fungi are a big part of that.

While this post is definitely not about hallucinogenic mushrooms or any such trips, dude, I thought I’d take the chance to share how fungi offers ideas that help me to cope with the stresses and anxieties of ‘normal’ life.

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1. Fungi and the diversity of life

Knowledge is one of the most important ways to overcome mental illness. For many people a diagnosis is crucial to overcoming a condition. In trying to cope with life generally I have found that small, incremental improvements to my own knowledge, especially around the natural world, can help to build a foundation of resilience through understanding. In a time when we are faced with the potential for a Sixth Mass Extinction, it’s important to appreciate that there is an immense diversity of biological life on Earth worth fighting for.

A big part of that diversity is fungi, it has a Kingdom of its Own. British conservationists are renowned for pummelling themselves with the lack of biodiversity we have. Yes we have lost wolves, bears and lynx, but we have an immense diversity of fungal life in comparison to other groups such as mammals.

In the UK there are thousands of species of fungi, in the world there are known to be around 100,000. Scientists believe there are in fact over 1million species of fungi with a huge percentage of them yet to be identified.

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2. Looking for fungi is good for you

Above is a photo of a fungi walk I led in 2017 for London Wildlife Trust. These walks had to be capped each time and extra dates put on (rock’n’roll) because the interest was so high. We are attracted to fungi by its mysteriousness, its beauty, the fact it feeds us, underpins the biosphere, and also that they kill us on rare occasions.

While opinions around foraging fungi are fairly divided, the act of looking for fungi can have a huge impact on your wellbeing. One of the most rewarding elements about spending time ‘in nature’ is that you are distracted by the largely artificial worries that we face in modern life. By that I mean the deadline you have to meet at work, the email you didn’t reply to or the fact you haven’t hoovered your bedroom for a month.

An appreciation of fungi can also help to deal with seismic moments in life. A recent book has shown how learning about fungi and seeking them out can help to overcome bereavement.

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Take the example above. This is a patch of sulphur tuft, one of the most common speciess in the UK. I used to pass this garden on the way to work every day. It was very manicured but these mushrooms had burst on the scene. If I were to anthropomorphise, I would say it was a big ol’ middle finger to people trying to control every inch of their gardens. Sorry if that’s you!

The act of looking is an act of defiance, of rejecting the status quo and seeking out something new. For me, what nature brings in fungi is a newness that will never end. There are too many species, too much to learn, even in Little Britain.

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3. Fungi feeds humanity

While you won’t find recipes on this website for anything other than life-affirming hiking experiences, we should remember that fungi make up an important part of our food systems. While wild mushrooms don’t really make much of a dent in that, the discovery of a delicious wild mushroom is a thought that can keep you going when the woods are far away.

I have only ever eaten one wild mushroom. It was picked by a friend in Czechia in a very large area of woodland. She gasped when she saw it, took out her pen knife and cut the cap off. ‘Are you sure that’s edible?’ I asked. She was crouched down, stopped what she was doing and glared at me: ‘I have been picking this mushroom my entire life.’

Nuff said.

When we got back to her house she battered it in breadcrumbs and fried it. It was incredible.

Fungi does also provide important meat-alternatives to help us to focus on consuming meat from sustainable, local sources. Mycoproteins make wonderful sausages and burgers. Fungi is also needed for cheese, beer, bread and wine. Now many of you would struggle to live without those things!

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4. Fungi = time in the woods

Every autumn I make sure to have at least one full day in the woods. I bring lunch, snacks, water and all the camera equipment I can carry. It’s a chance to slow down and tune into the rhythm of the woods. It’s better than I’ve made it sound.

Spending time in woodland is shown to improve our health. The air is fresh, the sounds, colours and textures give us a great feeling of calm. There are also chemicals which trees and plants release which support our immune systems.

Spending time in woodland also teaches us respect. As a woodland warden in south London I witnessed many people making their first visit to the woods and nigh-on trashing the place. They sometimes did that themselves, sometimes with their pets, sometimes with their friends. I remember one volunteer who had become an impassioned defender of wildlife at the wood, even though he probably did things several decades ago as a teenager, that he wasn’t proud of. Even when people are causing harm in nature, not through the devastation wrought by things like HS2, at least they are there and they can develop an appreciation of it. We all must learn these things one way or another.

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5. Fungi will save the world – perhaps us, too

Plastic is a blight on our planet. Fungi could help us to manage it and rid its waste from the landscape. Fungi is being developed as a disposable material to replace non-degradable or recyclable plastics. Fungi also has a role in the mass production of a bacteria that scientists recently discovered at a landfill, quietly digesting non-degradable plastics.

While fungi has an important role to play in these issues, it’s good to remember that in many ways, fungi are the world. Fungi have played crucial support roles in the evolution of woodland ecosystems, trees, plants and many more species. We should celebrate and attempt to understand as much as we can about this amazing biological group.

Thanks for reading, wishing you well.

More mushrooms

Free guided walk: trees in Dulwich Park, August 2019

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I’m very pleased to share this invite to a guided walk I’m leading at Dulwich Park in south London on Saturday 10th August 2019. The walk will begin at 11am and run for about 90 minutes to two hours, meeting at the Court Lane Gates.

The walk is free and there is no need to book.

I would encourage anyone who wants to donate to support London Wildlife Trust in their work at Sydenham Hill Wood and the wider Great North Wood and/or become a member of The Dulwich Society.

The walk is general interest and is open to all. It will be a way to learn how to identify common British trees and delve into their natural and cultural history.

I have lots more info about woods and trees on this page.

Please share the poster on social media if you want to!

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My previous posts about oak trees in Dulwich Park can be read here. This story of the historic Great North Wood (which Dulwich Park is a part of) will also be of interest.

Hope to see some people there(!).

Daniel

 

From the ice age to the Crystal Palace: a micro-history of London’s Great North Wood

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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.

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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.

Related image
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