Saturday morning in Epping Forest and so often a trip to the woods feels like leaving a world behind. The weekend shoppers, cyclists, children feeding ducks in the village pond. The open plain. Rain came yesterday in stormy downpours. It was so wet a local garden centre roof couldn’t contain it. Today the sun beats down on the still scorched grasslands, small copper and common blue butterflies drinking from ragwort flowers at the path’s edge.
Breaking into Epping Forest, the temperature sinks and the dampness swells. I’m here to photograph mushrooms, hopeful that the rain has prompted the fast-acting fungi to fruit. Last August autumn came early and Epping Forest was bursting with boletes, amanitas and russulas. Every step meant mushrooms. Over the past year that memory has spread through my mind like the hyphae of a fungus in the woodland soil. Today, the woodland floor offers the complete opposite.
Some fungi don’t need much water but for the majority of species it is fundamental to producing a fruiting body, otherwise known as mushroom or toadstool. Epping Forest has many dead trees that hold their own reserves of moisture in the cool, dank shade. The fallen beech trees that lay across the Forest host tough and long-lived bracket fungi that appear as hard as stone. Softer are the oyster mushrooms splashed against the old trunks. At first they are brown-capped but as they mature the cap spreads to match the creamy flesh of the gills.
In Epping Forest our former reliance on woodland trees for simple materials and fuel echoes into the age of disposable plastic and solar panels. Approaching Ambresbury Bank, areas of the Forest open out into exhibitions of old beech trees known as ‘lapsed-pollards’. These digit-heavy trees were once cut to a high stump or pollard. Their branches were pruned back for firewood and other thrifty woodland things. Many have not been cut since the 19th century, the era traditional, pre-forestry woodland management began to fade in the UK. The old way of doing things, that is.
In the past few years I’ve come to know someone who grew up local to here, living through the Second World War, with the Forest as her childhood playground. She remembers doodle bugs running out of fuel and crashing down to destroy a house a week away from receiving new tenants and the greenhouses where her father grew mushrooms for a living. She also remembers a man approaching her and her sister in the woods but she was smart enough to get them away as quickly as she could.
Today she said something unusual to modern language, calling the path that runs centrally through the Forest a ‘ride’. This is an old woodland word harking back to the days when large trees were felled and carried out along a wide trackway cut through a wood. This act is where the phrase ‘the long haul’ originates from.
The use of the word was proof of a life lived close to woods and a bygone way of seeing them, before they became pure recreation areas, nature reserves or carbon sinks in the minds of citizens today. Now the ride is the domain of cyclists, tyres hissing on the still wet gravel, as well as dog walkers and horse riders. Though the trees are cut for conservation and their own preservation, no timber is drawn out along this ride in the way one local native of the Forest once knew.
A few hundred yards ahead a small desire-line appears between brambles, leading to a noticeboard and huge trench. On the banks of the trench are pollard beech trees, which are in fact much younger than the trench. This area is known as Ambresbury Banks, an earthwork thought to have been dug out in 500BC by a pre-Roman, British tribe. Its aim was probably to protect the people from invasion or as a place to keep livestock.
The creators of Ambresbury Banks were like close to the true Brits or Picts of pre-Roman Britain, the ‘painted’ people. Unsubstantiated tales (or myths) tell that Boudicca’s final stand against the Romans took place here. It’s a story adopted by several green spaces in the hills of Greater London.
Another nugget of knowledge from my native Forester came with the true pronunciation of Ambresbury Banks when I told her where I was going for a couple of hours:
‘It’s “Aims-bury”,’ she said. ‘Not “Am-bres-bury”.’
I head back to the village following the route I came in on. Saturday walkers appear from behind trees, lost in the lack of ride and clear trackway. A glade has been formed by the collapse of an old beech tree. Its limbs grew as individuals from its base. Falling, they have pulled up soil and broken smaller trees in their wake. Now light fills the break in the canopy. Dragonflies compete for airspace, hoverflies bask on the sun-baked bark. Oyster mushrooms squeeze from cracks in the dead wood. The loss of this old tree has elements of sadness but look at the life that comes in its wake.
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).