Tuesday 10th January 2023 was one of those awful January days in London. It rained a lot, was windy, and there was no direct sunlight to bask in.
Add to this the fact that the night before a fireball enjoyed a spectacular demise in the night sky, and was easy to view across much of the UK. At the time – 20:00 GMT – I was outside, in the dark, being distracted by the massive moon and a neighbour saying she didn’t want to run me over. Somehow, I missed the fireball and lived to hear about it on the radio the next morning.
Anyway, back down to Earth. Though the woods can be ghastly at this time of year, I find them to be a decent shout for slime moulds. Not to be proven wrong, I was proved right by the sight of little (read: tiny) orange beans at the path edge on an old oak log.
These little droplets of tangerine dream are commonly known by slime people as salmon eggs. It is amazing how these declining fish can fight their way up through places where there are no rivers, to lay their eggs in a bit of wood.
You know that was a joke, yes?
Slime moulds thrive in damp, dark places, usually in decaying wood that has been saturated by winter rainfall.
Elsewhere, the smaller polypores of turkeytail and the like were ‘showing nicely’ as the birders say, though rarely of a turkey’s tail around here.
As seen on Sunday 11th December, my final guided walk of 2022 for London Wildlife Trust.
London woke to freezing fog with hoar frost in places, as temperatures stayed well below zero. These are difficult days to get out of bed, but the rewards of a foggy, frosty oak woodland are too good to miss.
In the woods the fog broke in places, shifting north, making for very tricky birdwatching conditions. We were treated to the tapping of a great spotted woodpecker searching for food in dead branches. Flocks of long-tailed tit hurried through holly and ivy.
One attendee wanted to see redwing for their annual list, which came eventually in an energetic flock high in an oak, then low by a small pond where the guelder rose berries still remained.
I was fascinated by the perspective of a couple who joined us. They were astonished to find ring-necked parakeets in their garden, a bird they had seen growing up in, and one found all across, India. London’s woods don’t sound the same without their shrieking nowadays, whatever the view is on that.
There were a few mushrooms still to be seen, mainly sulphur tuft, the allseeing fungus (it’s just so common), and turkeytail.
Unfortuntaly we didn’t manage to find firecrest or anything as outrageous as lesser redpoll, but it was still a lovely walk.
The photos shared here are taken on my Fairphone in RAW format, then processed in Lightroom. It’s pretty impressive what you can do now with phone cameras.
On Saturday 12th November I led a fungi walk for London Wildlife Trust at Dulwich Wood in south-east London. I only managed one photo on the day because I was working and leading the group around, but it was a pretty good one nonetheless.
When doing a pre-walk check I accidentally flushed a woodcock from the vegetation off the main paths. I never like to do something like that but they are so difficult to see, camouflaged down there in the leaf litter. It’s good to know they are still able to use to woods as a stop off on passage. It also suggests they are using woods nearby which have no public access, because this is one that has hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, so ones free of ‘disturbance’ must be even better.
This isn’t new in Dulwich. Local ornithologist Dave Clark once told me a story of a woodcock smashing through someone’s window and landing in their bedroom. Because woodcock migrate, often by night, they sometimes get it wrong. Their long bills and speed of flight also mean they will crack glass quite easily. The bird in question was scooped up and taken to a vet, from what I remember it survived and lived to fly another day.
There’s a really nice episode of the Golden Grenades podcast featuring woodcock that you can listen to here. It features Kerrie Gardner, a superstar writer, photographer and sculptor who is a friend of this blog!
On the fungi front, the mushrooms were very few and far between considering the time of year. There was a shaggy theme to what was there, in that two of the sightings were shaggy parasol and shaggy bracket. The most common species group were the bonnets (Mycena), along with small polypores like turkey tail and hairy curtain crust, which are all on decaying wood.
My sense is that the extreme heat and drought this summer, where temperatures reached 40C, has had a worse impact in smaller woodlands in places like London. More rural, larger woodlands are able to hold water and moisture more effectively, therefore being able to feed fungal communities far more easily. Those woodlands also have running water in the form of brooks, streams and woodlands that aid soil moisture. London’s woods look far drier in November than those in West Sussex, even after torrential rain.
It’s also very mild, around 15-18 degrees on the 12th November, which shows just how far-reaching climate change already is. The milder weather may mean mushrooms fruit for longer though, with the colder temperatures held off until maybe January or February. It’s just so hard to predict these days.
One interesting thing that a couple of people on the walk discovered was a species that was new to me. On a scaffold board used for steps, a small blue polypore (example photo above) was peeking out. Having seen it elsewhere on social media in the last week, I can confirm it was blueing bracket. I’m back there soon so will aim to get some *actual* pictures next time.
The title of this post sounds like a type of east London headwear. As you may have guessed, it’s actually about a mushroom in south London.
I led my first public fungi walk of the year with the Dulwich Society at Dulwich Park on 23rd October, despite the thunderstorms either side and torrential downpour intro.
My Dad taught me to play football in Dulwich Park and I was born in Dulwich Hospital. It has many happy memories for me. But no, I didn’t go to Dulwich College!
It’s a fantastic park that provides space and enjoyment to millions of people each year. It was also good for fungi on this occasion and I was pleasantly surprised by some of the things we found. As a landscape it’s former farmland bequeathed to the local council for public enjoyment. Before being farmed privately it was likely wood pasture common land. The Dulwich Society have a FANTASTIC localhistory Twitter account which has a lot of relevant info.
The most interesting find of the walk was a large group of fungi on the decaying stump of a poplar tree along one of the carriageways. From a distance I spotted what looked like litter sat on top of the stump. My colleague Charlie want to have a closer look and I soon followed with the group after she gave a confirmatory thumbs up. It was fungi, not rubbish.
I was baffled by these shrooms. The stump’s bark was peeling away and some honey fungus boot laces were present underneath the remaining wood. But the mushrooms didn’t have the features of any honey fungus I had seen. We did see some earlier in the walk, for comparison.
All I could say to the group was that it was likely the mushrooms, whatever species they were, was breaking down what what remained of the poplar tree.
I did some research when I got home that evening but it took me a while to establish what the species was. It didn’t help that this mushrom, what turned out to be poplar fieldcap, has a couple of scientific names and several common names: Poplar Fieldcap, Poplar Mushroom, Pioppino, Velvet Pioppini, Piopparello.
Perhaps the variety of common names is because this is seen as a nice edible mushroom. That’s what you find with something like Boletus edulis which is known as cep (France), porcini (Italy), and penny bun (England). I think it’s known as king bolete in North America. Those mushrooms which are either highly desireable or undiserable (deathcap) are usually subject to common names in different languages.
Thanks to everyone who came to the walk, it was a lot of fun! Great to see so many people despite the very wet weather. After all, that is what the mushrooms want!
An article popped up recently highlighting the chance to see several planets in the sky at once. On the evening of the 29th December 2022, I took out my camera and tripod to see what was happening out there in the garden.
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.
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.
On a recent visit to Streatham Common in SE London, I was taken aback by the number of December mushrooms. In SE England we’ve switched from -5 one day, to 12C a few days later. The seasons seem to be collapsing around us, and then reviving themselves. It feels like the only reliability we may…
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.…
I was travelling into East Hampshire for work in August and realised it would probably be one of my last chances to photograph a cottage I had passed several times. Arnside Cottage is, as you can see, situated at the road side, in the village of Clanfield in East Hampshire. Technically it has been adapted…
It has been a torrid spring and summer for street trees in southern England. We are breaking all the records for extreme heat and also enduring drought conditions. Street trees have it tough, not only because of the lack of rain but because it can be hard enough for them to access water anyway.
That was hammered home with a tweet I saw recently of someone who had replaced the verge outside their house (not their verge) with plastic grass. The verge was also home to a tree, which will have probably suffocated due to lack of air through the soil and only being able to access water underground.
That said, it has been known for tree roots to seek out water over long distances. Some trees will cross underneath roads to quench their thirst. This becomes increasingly more understandable when you learn that a tree’s roots often extend twice the distance of their height in length under the soil.
Weakened trees on city streets almost always end up with wounds that they struggle to heal, leaving openings for fungi to invade. It is perfectly normal and natural for fungi to grow on trees, and many of them are beneficial. They can help to remove excess dead wood and also act collaboratively with a tree’s roots to trade nutrients.
Some fungi will cause a tree to fail mechanically or biologically. Some will just look like a massive vegan cheeseburger attached to a tree.
I encountered this bracket fungus on a street tree in south London recently and was amazed by the yellow spider silk and webbing. This is the product of the yellow spores the fungus evidently produces, so miniscule that they attach to the sticky silk and turn it fast-food cheese yellow.
The spider that made this web must really be confused by this situation. Perhaps it’s happy with the random redecoration that’s occurred. I wouldn’t mind, it’s actually the colour of my bedroom wall!
I am fairly certain this is Inonotushispidus or shaggy bracket. It’s a surprise to see it at eye level, whereas it’s usually very high in a tree. You may have seen it as a black fungus sitting at the bottom of a tree trunk. By that point it has finished fruiting and has fallen from its perch. It’s usually on ash but on this occasion was on a whitebeam (Sorbus). If you go walking in an ash woodland at this time of year do take a moment to crane your neck and see if you can spot one up there in its shaggy glory before it comes crashing down to earth.
One of my favourite things to photograph in winter is a frost-encrusted leaf. Where the frost remains long enough it allows for us non-early risers to enjoy some at lunchtime (to look at, rather than eat). On the morning of Thursday 8th December I could hear sycamore leaves falling in the garden. There was a…
There’s a field I pass by on walks near where I live. Recently I was walking along the path next to the field and took the photo above, the oaks turning to yellow across the landscape. The shadow of trees to the right, combined with the sunbeam, make it look like half of the Green…
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.