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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is an expanded version of an article published in the winter 2017-18 edition of London Wildlife Trust‘s Wild London magazine
As autumn draws to a close, the bare branches of trees stark against wintry skies, we find ourselves on the tail-end of a mast year for London’s acorns. Mast is another name for nuts or seeds, with beech nuts often referred to as ‘beech-mast’. It means a time when the weather and temperatures in spring and summer have created the right conditions for a bumper crop.
Oaks are wind-pollinated, one of nature’s first reproductive mechanisms for plants that evolved very early on land with the arrival of spore-bearing mosses hundreds of millions of years ago. Trees like cherry and others in the rose family, are pollinated by bees, butterflies, moths and flies.
Though cherries are far tastier than acorns, the oak’s fruit is one of the most important to us for several reasons. When acorns fall many of them will simply fail in the leaf litter or decay away to feed the soil. Birds like jays will stash acorns and plant thousands of them to keep them alive over the winter. Grey squirrels do exactly the same.
If you think about it, and scientists have been, this is one of the most important vehicles for woodland creation on Earth. It’s also one of the reasons that oak woods were able to recolonise the Northern Hemisphere after the end of the last glacial period some 12-14,000 years ago.
If any of those jays died or forgot some of their acorns, they sprouted into trees and woods, many of which would eventually form great woody landscapes adapted and exploited to what we now know as the Great North Wood, Epping Forest, the Weald and the New Forest.
In North America there were entire cultures of Native Americans who built their lifestyles on a diet of acorns. Beneath their shells acorns are nuts that can be ground down for flour, coffee or even jelly.
In Britain the hazelnut is one of the single most important food sources for our species, especially before the advent of farming when hunter gatherers relied on foraging to survive. Archaeologists have found regular evidence of hazel nut shells at prehistoric settlement sites, sometimes in vast numbers. There is also evidence that our ancestors cooked hazel into a paste that could be taken on long journeys.
But perhaps the most fascinating cultural impact of the acorn is when it is missing, and in its place a parasite. In the spring tiny parasitic wasps appear from galls, a growth (sometimes referred to as a tumour) that has prospered in the place of an acorn, and lay their own eggs in an acorn bud. A chemical reaction takes place in the tissue of the plant and a gall is formed.
There are many species of gall, and many of them are not instigated by solitary wasps, but one of the most significant for human civilisation is that of the oak apple gall.
The oak apple gall was imported to Britain over a 1000 years ago for its prime use in the creation of ink. The galls can be ground down and mixed with chemicals to make a black ink. It was this ink that was used to write almost all of the major doctrines and political agreements in the western world.
The Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence are but two of them and, indeed, that sylvan scripture known as the Forest Charter of 1217 will also have been transcribed in oak ink. Amazingly, it was only in the 1970s that the German government stopped using oak gall ink for use in all official documentation.
London’s other notable seeds are those of horse chestnut, beech and sweet chestnut. Horse chestnuts, named after the horseshoe-shape at the base of the leaf stem or petiole when plucked from a branch, are not related to sweet chestnuts. Neither of these trees are deemed native to the United Kingdom, and sweet chestnut sits in with the oaks in the beech family.
If you roasted chestnuts on an open fire at Christmas it will be those of the sweet, not the horse chestnut. Sweet chestnuts are the fruit found inside painfully spikey shells, very similar to the horse chestnut.
For the more childish among us, the horse chestnut is really known as the conker tree. The sight of a glossy brown conker in roadside leaf piles in autumn is a thing of wonder. The maple family’s seeds may not be palatable, but the game of ‘helicopters’ was one of great pleasure for school children before the arrival of smartphones.
Though we often focus on the edibility of plants and their fruit and seeds, the crops of trees like rowan, oak and beech have an impact on the activity and behaviour of birds in autumn. In October there can be seen large movements of jays, with birds acting quickly to secure seeds and plant them in a suitable location.
A jay massaging its way high across an open field, heading to and from an oak or beech wood, is a common sight in the early autumn. Redwing, a winter arrival in the UK, rely on rowan’s bright red fruit. Changes in the Scandinavian crop can trigger the movements of this species south as winter draws in.
Where old, fruit-packed hedgerows still exist in the UK, heavy with rosehips, haws and holly berries, redwings can be found feasting. From places as far apart as rural moorland and urban London, their distinctive but subtle tseep calls can be heard overhead at night.
Those nocturnal calls can be a pleasant reminder of the changing season, of the fundamental need for fruit and seed for the wild and civilised alike.
This is an update on my Oaks of London photography series. The photos have been taken with DSLRs, compact cameras and my phone camera. Rather than trying to put together a glossy array of ancient oak photos, I want to draw attention to the unseen trees fighting it out with modern London, many of which are teetering on the margins. Lack of funding to protect and manage London’s oaks is biting, as is a lack of understanding and appreciation of their heritage and wildlife value. These trees have stories to tell.
Photographing the oaks of London is a fairly impossible but very slow and enjoyable project. South-east London is, quite literally, a walk in the park. Such is the extent of green space south of the river that there are many oaks to be found and some very closely concentrated, especially in Dulwich or Honor Oak, which I covered last year. But moving into new areas can be tricky, London’s oaks are on the margins now, they no longer form the central, spiritual role of Celtic or event recent times, when gospel oaks held prominence in settlements or when the Druids (the knowers of oak) made sacrifices before them, something I am not suggesting we bring back in 2017. One of the things I’ve learned this year, also after having read some of Aljos Farjon’s new book Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape, is that old parks and estates are key to the survival of oaks.
In March 2017 as part of a walk with London Wildlife Trust, we were led by Mathew Frith around Danson Park and Bexley Woods. Two oaks stood out in this walk, an area I would not have known about without the connections I have with the Trust and exposure to knowledge of people like Mathew. One oak, the Bexley Charter Oak, can be found in TimeOut’s The Great Trees of London, and it has a lovely fence around it protecting its root plate. The tree is some 200 years old and reflects the treatment that all these oaks deserve to have, if they stand in similar surroundings.
Another oak is not faring so well and is not treated with the same level of affection, or perhaps simply a different kind. Walking through Bexley Woods and following the river Shuttle east brings you to an oak quite unlike one I’ve seen.
The oak is entirely hollowed out until about human waist-height, with charred sapwood that shows it has had fires lit inside. It is a stunning tree, wild and exposed on the edge of the river and a footpath. It is a symbol of London’s oaks on the edge: unprotected, vandalised but fighting on. The tree still lives. In many ways the actions here of what you can only expect to have been children or ‘wayward’ teens, is a process of veteranisation. The only difference is that rather than being undertaken by arboriculturalists, it’s the unintended work of the public.
Shifting south-west to the boundary of Lewisham and Bromley is Beckenham Place Park. This old country estate, fit with a mansion house very similar in style to that of Danson Park, has open parkland and many fine veteran trees. On the hill is a remnant of the Great North Wood, the typical oak-hornbeam and hazel mixture that can be found in chunks all the way up to Dulwich. Thanks to Lucy Mitchell for showing me round.
The oak featured here is a lapsed pollard, meaning that it was likely once cut back higher up but has, like many old oak and beech trees across London, been left to restructure itself. This oak is somewhere between the two Bexley oaks mentioned above. It needs the care of the Bexley Charter Oak as it is experiencing stress and strain from its exposure to footfall. Looking closely at the buttresses you could see that dogs had been digging holes, pooing on the roots, and that the collective trampling was exposing roots in some places. It’s a tree you just want to hug and climb, but its spot right there in front of the house leaves it open to quiet, unintended harm.
In December I did some recording with BBC Radio 4’s Open Country, presented by David Lindo and featuring The River Effra, the London National Park City and Queen’s Wood. It was great to be able to represent the Friends of One Tree Hill and London Wildlife Trust on the programme. Please listen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b088fx30