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 visited the family home last week and, despite heavy rain most of the time, managed to spend an hour papping the inverts in the garden. The garden has good views of London’s ever-changing (and IMO, degrading) skyline, not that the inverts much care. The view is a bizarre localised battleground, with neighbours trying to annoy their nemeses by blocking the view where they can, usually with trees. My parents also received a letter once passively offering to pay for tree surgeons to cut their trees down so a neighbour could enjoy this view. Otherwise, London’s gardens are quickly become outdoor rooms, if all your indoor rooms contained plastic grass and a Porsche.
The garden was quite aggressively rewilded in recent years (👀) and has become particularly rich in birdlife. It’s a mixture of small trees, hedges, shady and sunny areas, with ornamental plants like smokebush and the otherwise invasive snowberry, but also lots of self-seeded wildflowers.
I find that early evening, on what has been a warm or sunny day is a really good time to look for inverts. Particularly if there’s a shrub or hedge with some of the low evening sun. All the life photographed here was on the combination of elder, bramble, snowberry and hawthorn that made up the garden’s boundary hedge. My first species was this female hairy-footed flower bee, often mistaken for a bumblebee. She is solitary, and she is usually being followed by a male bee. I haven’t seen any males in the past week, so I think their time has been and gone for 2021. It’s the work of the female bees to now finalise the chambers and food caches for next year’s brood.
One of the most common bees in London is seen here, the common carder bee. This gingery bee was also basking and preening in the low-slung sun. They are fairly easy to identify if you can acquaint yourself with their ‘ginger’ thorax. Don’t quote me on that.
The hawthorn was blossoming and a marmalade hoverfly was feeding on the flowers. It was nice to see, as English hawthorns appear to be falling silent, in comparison to those in Europe. This is a really very common hoverfly.
Here it is again, having stocked up on nectar. They get their name from the orange and yellow abdomen.
Though I was seeing mainly common species, I found one that I’d never seen before. It’s always nice to see a longhorn beetle and this species,Gammoptera ruficornis, was new to me. It was first feeding on the hawthorn flowers but then moved to bask on this leaf. It gets its name from its red antennae, hence the ‘rufi’ in the scientific name.
A planthopper in the Issus genus
This is a planthopper in a stage of metamorphosis, I think, before it becomes an adult. Having read about this genus, Issus, I’ve learned that this group have biological versions of gears. They are the only animals to use gears, other than those invented by us humans. Amazing! They use the gears to hop or propel themselves to such great distances:
This video gives an insight into the jumping prowess of these insects.
I’ve covered spiders (well, one) a lot in the past couple of weeks. I found a couple of spiders in the London garden with this one in the process of feeding on what appears to be a former caterpillar.
The magic of macro is of course its ability to ‘blow up’ something like an insect to a size far greater than that seen by the naked eye. This is a speckled bush cricket nymph and, I promise you, with that green on green was almost impossible to see. It reminded me again of the power of patience and of looking more closely.
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.
Richmond Park is a National Nature Reserve managed by the Royal Parks. It’s home to an absurd array of veteran and ancient oaks. Some of the older trees show clear evidence of pollarding, but no sign of anything recent. It was a wet and windy day in south-west London, your camera equipment has to be as tough as oak to stick it out for long in these conditions. I’ve overexposed some of the images as it was so dark and dreary, and oak doesn’t burst with colour in winter. The park itself is a shock to find, a vast expanse somewhat pegged back by the constant chunter of traffic passing through.
I pass through the gate onto the downs and a fox crosses the lane, that long, fluffed up tail and jinking stride. It seeks the safety of the woodland edge. Snow lingers on the downs, magpies feed in small groups. When they fly up it’s not unlike slices of snow lifting off the ground. Their strategy is simple: feed until a bigger beast passes, sit in the trees, then return. The sun breaks the dough-like cloud, a kestrel cutting through with ease. She finds the tip of a branch and balances, the twig bending under her weight. She looks out across the snow. Feeling herself perhaps too exposed, she shifts to the fox’s wooded margin. Restless, knowing she is now unwelcome in open land, she cuts west and disappears over the hill.
The hazel scrub carries beads of melted ice, hanging long out of the breeze. The shapes show black branches like little snow globes, a looking glass into some dark wood of elsewhere. On the ground the snow carries tokens of those living things that have since passed: dog, human, crow. In between them the stems of wild carrot persist. On the steepest slopes of the downs, sleds slip across the scene, their crew dressed in pink and orange, the colours of our mass production garment industries. On the eastern slopes of Happy Valley the snow rests without the patchiness of the highest point. Yet more magpies are driven from piercing their bills in search of soil. At the bottom of the hill birch trees reflect the snow’s whiteness, their reddish hue shows they are not whiter-than-white.
I heard a radio programme recently charting the decline of snowfall in Kent over the past fifty-years. It brought the presenter to the point: might snow become a thing of the past in southern England? Climate change’s predicted course means that the snowy downs here as I see them today may yet be something that can only be spoken of in the past tense. So does the act of photography now morph into a sentimental act of conservation? Our species’ recent photographic binge, due to the camera phone revolution, means that snow will never be forgotten in image, but its sensuality can’t be felt in a jpeg or print.
I forget these things so quickly when London’s short snowy affair departs, the glow of light from the white ground, the dripping trees, the soft press and crunch of boots, the sheer joy that children feel and express on their plastic sleds. Perhaps to us southerners who see so many different types of weather, the loss of snow’s short stint will barely be noticed. For climate change will bring profound challenges for species that depend on certain conditions, be they polar bears, butterflies, mushrooms or migrating songbirds. On the downs, like many thousands of others I’m sure, I seek change in itself. A different state of mind, of perspective, colours, textures and places to walk in. Nature reminds us always that change will come.
There were many human things to feel sad, angry and upset about this year but still nature’s continuity and the simple movement of seasons brings encouragement and a reminder – change will come.
Politically it’s been a year to forget for nature conservation, with the UK government killing more than 10,000 badgers in its mindless badger cull, the likely loss of EU protections for nature in the UK, the ascent of climate change deniers in the United States and more evidence of species-declines brought about by human impacts on the landscape, be it intensive agriculture, pollution or man-made climate change. More than ever we need to take notice and maintain a connection with the natural world, to make the argument again and again for how crucial the biosphere is to our own civilisation.
But I’ve had some of the most memorable experiences of nature this year, and they are often enough to focus the mind on doing something positive
I for one will not be giving up on the UK-Europe conservation mission and will do what I can for British and European wildlife in 2017
Thank you to everyone who has helped artistically or logistically with these photos and taught me about the subject matter!
Wishing you a peaceful winter break and biodiverse new year!
Newt, Peckham, London
March 2016I’m lucky enough to spend a few days a week at a wildlife garden managed by London Wildlife Trust. In the late winter and early spring, when darkness falls, things begin to happen. The night before this a huge number of toads had been on the move and I brought my camera equipment along the next day hoping to find them again in action. They had completely disappeared. However, there was one newt on the move and it paused in this position for some time as I photographed it.
European bison, Bialowieza Forest, Poland
I snapped this wild young bison through a hedge with a 70-300mm lens. Bison have been reintroduced to this part of eastern Poland after their near extinction in the 20th century due to the ravages of two world wars. I love the new growth of horn and the snot dripping from its nose!
Juniper haircap moss, The New Forest
More and more I find myself on the woodland floor these days. That’s because it’s where all the action is. Be it wildflowers, mushrooms or the most primitive terrestrial plants, mosses. Mosses were the first plants to make it from the sea onto the land, one reason why they depend on lots of moisture, it’s a throwback to their days under the sea.
Cuckoo, The New Forest
May 2016I have been fascinated by cuckoos for years. They migrate to Britain and Europe from as far away as Cameroon, spending about 7 weeks here in the spring to mate. This bird burst out of a plantation and I was lucky enough to have the right lens on and the right setting on the camera to snap him. Cuckoos are in sharp decline in Britain and it’s up to us to find out why and try to do something about it.
Bee on scabious, The North Downs
June 2016This bee was feeding up on the other side of a stock fence in June and with my wide angle lens I managed to get this picture. I think it encapsulates the ecology of meadows, the bee and the flower a symbol of the wildflower-rich North Downs scrolling off into the distance.
Bees pollinate 80% of wildflowers in Europe and contribute £560million each year to the UK economy through crop pollination, and yet we still use neonicotinoid pesticides which are the strongest force driving 32% of bee species towards extinction in the UK.
I’m not sure whether this is a bumblebee or cuckoo bee, having been told it was the former recently. If it is a cuckoo bee my ecosystem metaphor has fallen apart because cuckoo bees aren’t interested in pollination, mainly stealing from bumblebees!
Marco plays the guitar, The North Downs
June 2016Like 48% of British people who actually did or could vote, I was greatly aggrieved and disappointed by the result of the EU referendum. The week following it was scary. A sharp spike in hate crime, the nastiest characters in our society buoyed by xenophobes who’d pushed for a leave vote based on fear-mongering about immigration and lies about how much it cost Britain to be in the EU each year.
It’s in unsettling times when a simple walk in the landscape can remind you of the bigger picture. I was walking on Farthing Downs, full of angst for the post-referendum Britain, when I met Marco playing his guitar on the hill. He had only just moved to London from Italy:
‘I have been here one week and in Italy they did not even talk about it [the referendum]. Now I am here and wow. My friends think that I am in London surrounded by cars and buildings, but I am here. And I love it.’
Herring gull, Rye
Every time I go to Rye I get chips from a proper chippy and eat them up at the church on the hill. There is always a herring gull in attendance. I took the chance to create this photo, a technique frowned upon by wildlife photography purists.
I wanted the eye in focus but instead got the chip in the bird’s bill, saliva dribbling down.
Wasp in the cell, Czech Republic
August 2016We were walking along a quiet forest road when my friend Zuzka picked up a piece of something on the ground. Looking more closely it was a chunk of wasp nest that had been torn off and dropped.
Inside the cells were wasp grubs encased in a papery sheeting, with one ready to emerge. It had likely been dropped by a honey buzzard, a bird of prey that eats wasp grubs and will situate its nest with the number of wasps’ nests nearby being the key. Kind of like good restaurants for us.It was a privilege to be able to see into this world without being stung by wasps guarding an actual nest
Honey fungus, The New Forest
Let’s be clear, in London and the surrounds, it was a rubbish autumn for fungi. It was a dry season with the meadows of the North Downs largely devoid of waxcaps and other mushrooms. But a trip to the New Forest in October did provide an encounter with a gang of honey fungus, a mushroom that many gardens so dread because it kills trees OMG!
It was worth waiting for this chance to find mushrooms in their pomp, largely intact with some nice light and greenery still around.
Balmer Lawn, The New Forest
Halloween, October 2016
Whilst these New Forest ponies are not wild and they do belong to people as domesticated stock, I felt transported into some ancient scene from the Eurasion steppe. Mist rose with the twilight over Balmer Lawn near Brockenhurst, the ponies grazing the horizon.
Tree: Old common boundary of Hounslow Heath, Hounslow, west London, November 2016 Species: English oak, Quercus robur Age: Between 200-300 years? Status: Under attack
This phone photo was all I could take at the time of this sprawling specimen, so let’s consider it a sketch. It was on the western edge of Hounslow Heath in west London. I know less about west London’s natural history than the south, though I am familiar with the Crane valley. This oak is probably a coppice or a felled, accidental coppice, which has regrown. It is well-climbed but showed signs of charring from fire at the base. Gorse nearby had been burnt in what are considered arson attacks. In many ways the fact this tree is not older and more cavernous and has fewer points of entry for fire may protect it. Hopefully the arsonists – common in urban nature reserves – grow out of it or else are prosecuted.
For the past five years I have been searching hedge lines, woods, parks and boundaries for the undulating mass of an old oak. This search has not taken place in the English countryside, instead the border of the London boroughs of Southwark and Lewisham. The southern towns of Southwark were once the parish of Camberwell and its boundary with Lewisham still supports centuries-old oak trees that were the previous markers between old Camberwell and Lewisham. Along with the Dulwich Woods and One Tree Hill, these trees are the strongest ties to the much diminished Great North Wood.
The Great North Wood
The Great North Wood was a landscape of woods and commons that stretched from Selhurst to Deptford. It was worked over centuries for its timber and underwood (sessile oak, hornbeam and hazel, mainly) for ship building, tannin extraction and charcoal burning. Its origins are in the wildwoods that spread after the end of the last glacial period 10-12,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene. The oaks remain where other species have disappeared as they are tough, long-living (sometimes 800 years in open land) and are of great use to our species. The Forestry Commission approximates that London’s trees are worth £43billion in their environmental and amenity value. Oaks are some of the most important. Their carbon storage capabilities should be remembered by those controlling planting regimes in cities today.
This old image (likely early 1900s) shows what One Tree Hill’s western slopes were like. The earlier map, dated 1799, shows that One Tree Hill was an isolated ancient woodland. It once connected with the Dulwich Woods which skirt the left hand side of that image, and spread even further before humans began managing the woods. That could have been thousands of years ago, however. The Dulwich Woods are very likely several thousand years old. There is no woodland at all but plenty of shrubs, likely including gorse and hawthorn. The landscape swelling into Lewisham shows much of south London’s old landscape was farmland. The boundaries of the farms were marked by old oaks.
One of the first mistakes made by those (myself included, of course) looking for old trees in the landscape is to head for woodland first. The oldest trees are usually living in isolation in what has longest been open land. The great Oliver Rackham told us that ‘ancient woods are not the place to look for ancient trees’. The best trick is really to get an old map, compare it with a current one and see if there are any clear boundaries where trees may have been planted or perhaps wild trees maintained as standards. Sometimes the old maps show trees dotted along the edges. The image above is a pollarded English oak (Quercus robur) at the entrance to One Tree Hill on Honor Oak Park. The tree is actually in the grounds of the Honor Oak Allotments and a line of similarly old oaks can be found running up alongside it.
This oak, one down from the previous, has clearly been pollarded (c.1900s) and is now swamped by other trees. Logic says that pollarding it again and removing some of the surrounding growth would allow the trees to re-balance and go on living indefinitely, but experimental pollarding taking place in Epping Forest suggests otherwise. Lapsed beech pollards are known to die when pollarded again. These oaks may be so unused to management that pollarding them will kill them off. We may have to accept that these landmarks of the Great North Wood have a limited time left.
The Oak(s) of Honor
One Tree Hill is a good case study for remnant Great North Wood sites as it was open land until the mid-20th century but was woodland on the north-western slopes up until the 1840s. Today it is returning to woodland having been largely managed through non-intervention, bar access works and hedge planting, by the Friends of One Tree Hill and Southwark Council.
One Tree Hill gets its name from the single English oak (pictured) which was replanted in 1905 when the hill was reopened to the public after a battle to save it from becoming a golf course. 15,000 people conducted a mass trespass on 10th October 1897 to challenge the Honor Oak & Forest Hill golf club’s attempts to fence and enclose the hill.
The previous Oak of Honor was thought to be much older and was a boundary tree for the old vice-counties of Kent and Surrey. It was also the edge of the Honour of Gloucester’s land. The idea is that in 1602 Queen Elizabeth sat under the tree and was thus honoured thereafter. Today the Oak of Honor is the most obvious tree to seek but by no means the oldest. I love that it has so influenced local place names. An old black and white photograph of the former oak (the church building can just be seen in the top right) gives the sense that the oak was not so old, perhaps only a few hundred years before it perished. This tree was destroyed by lightning in 1888.
To the right is the oak of Honor when it was only a decade old. The open landscape of early 20th century Honor Oak/Forest Hill is filling up with housing. The tree cover on the hill was largely hawthorn scrub, as can be seen behind the caged oak.
It’s worth remembering that though we are fixated by neat and tidy trees in urban areas, often for safety reasons, that oaks provide habitat for a great number of species. The Oak of Honor in September 2015 held many knopper galls, the protective case for a gall wasp (Andrus quercuscalicis), and oak apple galls.
The top of One Tree Hill is an excellent spot to find butterflies in spring and summer because it is open and sunny. This speckled wood (Parage aegaria), one of the contemporary Great North Wood’s most common butterflies, was enjoying some September sunshine on the great tree’s leaves.
The winter months provide ample opportunity to find nuthatch (Sitta europaea) which is often tied to oaks because of the invertebrates it forages from the bark and the old woodpecker holes it nests in. It makes a neat mud ring around woodpecker holes to make the entrance smaller and more protective for its young.
The purple hairstreak was the first ecological record at One Tree Hill when it was mentioned for the first time in the 1766 publication The Aurelian by Moses Harris. This overlooked butterfly was ‘commonly taken in plenty in Oak-of-Honour Wood, near Peckham, Surry.’ It’s one of the insects promoted by conservation groups in the Great North Wood, a good indicator of long-term woodland cover, especially at nearby Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods. The purple hairstreak is only usually seen by those straining to look up at the canopy or those lucky enough to stumble across one when it’s down and dazed on the path.
The oldest of One Tree Hill’s oaks is likely to be this lapsed pollard (whereby a tree is cut higher up – coppice is cut at the base – to prevent grazing animals eating regrowth) growing on the path that runs adjacent to Brenchley Gardens. I’ve seen a photograph somewhere of the tree isolated in open land, with Peckham’s farms rolling down to what is now Peckham Common.
The tree, seen here on the right of the photograph (its lean exaggerated by the distortion of my 10-24mm wide angle lens) is competing with the seedlings that have likely fallen or been stashed by grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and members of the corvid family, especially jays (Garrulous glandarius). You could suggest that the new woods of One Tree Hill are products of its old boundary oaks, where the dominant species is oak. Recent research has uncovered how important crows are in establishing new oak woods across the northern hemisphere.
One of the lower limbs is rotting nicely and providing habitat for slime moulds and small mushrooms, whether this is a bonnet (Mycena) or a parachute (Marasmius), I couldn’t tell you. The life that old oaks can support adds to the tree’s immense amenity and ecological value. Oaks typify the anthropomorphic but no less accurate notion of trees being ‘accommodating’ to many species.
Next door to One Tree Hill and its allotments is Camberwell New Cemetery, a more authentic remnant of Honor Oak’s open landscape of the past 200 years. One boundary, otherwise planted with Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), has two old English oaks. One has been hollowed out, possibly after being struck by lightning or affected by human damage. It’s an example of trees as habitat, something which people are generally uncomfortable with at first, especially with fungi as they think the tree is dying. In August 2015 the hollowed oak had the fruiting body of what I think was chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphurous). Oak supports many insects and also fungus. The oldest oaks you are likely to find will be dependent to some degree on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi. Fungi can also help the oaks by removing bits of deadwood that may otherwise add extra weight to the tree as it ages. Some species are necrophratic and will eventually kill a tree because they ‘take more than they give’.
On first thought I was suspicious that the two oaks seen here might be the same two on the allotment-cemetery boundary. This is a photo from the 1920s that shows Camberwell New Cemetery and the Honor Oak Recreation Ground as open land being grazed by a flock of sheep. Evidently the sheep were used to keep the grass short for golf, or maybe also as a way to support a local farmer. The golf club house can be seen in the distance. The building on the hill in the distance is St. Augustine’s Church (1872-3). These two trees are too far away to be the same as those above, they are probably instead some of the black lines that can be seen in the distance. Note also the absence of any tree cover on One Tree Hill beneath and to the right of the church. Between the mid-1800s and this point, there ancient woodland had been well and truly grubbed out, possibly even some old boundary trees going as well. Today, this would be unacceptable.
Instead, I think this image of the old golf club house exhibits the line of oaks. These oaks look to be dying back, possibly because of the impact of building the club house where the trees’ roots were. The distance between St. Augustine’s and the line of trees is one parcel closer than the previous image (Steve Grindlay).
London’s mini heatwave has closed its doors, great grey clouds entomb the downs. In my mind the meadows have all flowered and gone, so quickly has the psuedo-summer taken root. Sunday’s 27 degrees felt more like July than May. Gladly, at Farthing Downs all of May’s icons can be found: meadow buttercups, silverweed, yellowhammers singing in flowering hawthorns, cowslips moving to seed. A strange song emanates from the young trees grown too woody for livestock to graze. At first I think it might be swallows passing through, zipping and chattering, then perhaps baby birds. Swifts swoop overhead but no other hirundines are here.
The chattering song continues and I move closer. In ash, bramble and oak twigs the white throat of that very bird flashes. It jumps up onto a branch and I photograph it, a white bud or bug of some kind in its bill. The whitethroat has travelled from Africa to be here on the North Downs, a journey we cannot quite comprehend. Except we Europeans too came from Africa, but it took some 60-100,000 years to do it rather than a few months.
This whitethroat is not alone. Behind me is a bigger clump of trees and scrub, a thicket of ash trees riddled with canker. I’m listening to a song that I expect to hear in passing every April here, like a little chain tinkling, or some early mechanical clock. It’s a lesser whitethroat, another arrival from Africa. But I can’t see it, listening closely for a sign of whether it’s under cover or out in the open. I give up. A kestrel appears from over the whitethroats’ bushes, gliding, hovering and slipping off.