Unlocking Landscapes is back! In May 2022 I met with author Zoe Gilbert in Ham Street Woods National Nature Reserve on the Kent/Sussex border. Zoe is an award winning writer and she sounds very much at home in the woods. It was a real pleasure to spend the day with her and I’m very grateful for her time.
In March 2022 Zoe published her latest book, Mischief Acts (you can buy it here). The book is inspired by an historic wooded landscape in south London known as the Great North Wood. It’s been covered in a couple of other podcasts for Unlocking Landscape so please see the links below. I love the book and as a consumer of books and someone who knows parts of the landscape she has focused on, I can say for sure that I think she has nailed it!
In this episode we cover a lot of ground:
What inspires Zoe to visit woods and write fiction
Public access to woodlands in the pandemic
The complications around public perceptions of woodlands
Mischief in the woods and National Parks
‘Pics or it didn’t happen’: The importance not being observed all the time (social media)
Contiguousness of woodland
Bison being reintroduced to English woods
The future of woodlands
Prioritising the conservation of woodlands in a time of extremes
I’m very pleased to share this invite to a guided walk I’m leading at Dulwich Park in south London on Saturday 10th August 2019. The walk will begin at 11am and run for about 90 minutes to two hours, meeting at the Court Lane Gates.
I live in an area of London that was once covered by a stretch of woodlands, commons, meadows and wood pasture that was called the Great North Wood. It was not the continuous wildwood which some argue had covered parts of England totally after the melting of the ice 10,000 years ago, before humans began to cut the trees down. It was known as the Great North Wood because it sat north of Croydon, a large market town fringed by chalk downlands which are not so hospitable to the kind of woodlands dominating the land to the north on London clay, namely hornbeam and sessile oak. On London’s open downlands livestock grazed and rabbits were bred for their fur and flesh. The wild but manipulated landscape of the Great North Wood would have stretched all the way north to the Thames at Deptford (where timber could be exported on ships or turned into ships), cutting off at Penge (Celt for ‘the end of the wood’) and slithering down a little like the continent of South America to Selhurst. Many of the placenames in the locality echo the woodland past, the history of its woodspeople, or the woodsman (which Ben Law neatly points out means ‘wood hand’ rather than excluding women). This can be seen most clearly by Norwood, derived from the name of the landscape itself, as well as Brockley which could describe a human settlement where badgers were notable. The ending of ‘ley’ generally means a clearing or settlement next to woodland. Honor Oak is a pointer to the Oak of Arnon Wood, a slab of probable millennia-old woodland which is now embellished by the Local Nature Reserve One Tree Hill, where the Oak of Honor stands in the form of an English oak replanted some 100 years ago after the site was saved as a public open space by dissenting locals in 1896. The lack of a ‘u’ shows that this is of the old English spelling for honour, the language taken to the Americas by settlers some centuries ago and now seeming somewhat alien or incorrect.
The Great North Wood was not merely one of endless woodlands or of wildwood, it was a landscape that humans were a part of and dependent on for their livelihoods. Some of the woodlands which remain today such as One Tree Hill and Sydenham Hill Wood, have shown that they were at times more open, that larger trees stood singularly with commoners grazing their livestock on the grasses and herbaceous plants underneath the shade of trees like elm, oak, hornbeam and ash. This before the advent of the enclosures when commoners had their rights removed through an Act of Parliament, a series of events which define the landscape of my hometown to this day. As recently as the 1950’s one of the Great North Wood’s most unaffected remainders, Dulwich Wood, was grassier and more open whereas today it is darkened by holly and an array of other trees such as hornbeam, ash, hazel and rowan. Still, the ancient remnants of the Great North Wood hold colonies of wood anemone, dog violets, wild garlic and other plants which indicate continuous woodland for at least 400 years.
One of the main ways that people would have earned a living was by inhabiting the woodlands. Charcoal burning was one of the most common sights and vocations in the Great North Wood. They were known as the colliers, their presence indicated by Collier’s Wood in Wandsworth, beyond the western fringes of the catchment. Hornbeam was ‘coppiced’ on a cycle of 10 or so years, the trees cut at about 20-30cm, a vigorous regrowth the next year created multiple stems and thus an eventual greater crop to be burned and sold to blacksmiths and those needing intense heat to fire their craft. Other trees coppiced were hazel and ash, with hazel especially important for its usages for fencing and walking sticks. Sessile oaks were allowed to grow tall and true for their timber and the tannin residing in the bark. But coppicing is not necessarily as destructive or exploitative as it may sound, as when coppicing was more common – before the advent of coal and the increase in imports of cheaper fossil fuels from abroad – the Great North Wood’s coppices were home to populations of nightingales and nightjars, not least at Penge Common (now covering the famous Crystal Palace Park and the town of Anerley) where locals were said to visit at night to listen to the nightingale song, and there is some anecdotal evidence that the nocturnal music fuelled an increased birth rate. Coppicing allowed light into woods, enriching the herb layer of these woodlands, giving life to wildflowers such as dog violet which then supported the silver washed and dark green fritillary butterflies, as well as beloved primroses, now diminishing from the English landscape as ancient woodlands and hedgerows have been grubbed out and poisoned over time, feverishly in the latter part of the twentieth century.
This brings me to the issue of woodlands and biodiversity offsetting, a scheme mooted by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as a way to mitigate losses to wildlife from development. In recent times the former Transport Secretary Justine Greening advocated the ‘transplanting’ of ancient woodlands which are in the way of the proposed High Speed Rail 2 line intended to travel from London to Birmingham and then north to Manchester and Leeds in a final ‘Y’ section. More recently Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has confirmed his liking for proposals to clear ancient woodlands and plant 100 trees for every ancient tree that is lost. Both of these proposals fall flat after only a little research or, dare I say it, consideration. As Oliver Rackham puts it in his totemic ‘Woodlands’, ancient woodlands are not the place to look for ancient trees. Paterson is mistaken. What he is looking for might be something like Penge Common, or one of the other commons now gone from the Great North Wood. It is now only really in wood pasture or ancient hedge lines that you can find ancient trees. In ancient woodlands it is the landscape and ecosystem which is ancient. Paterson sells himself as a man in-tune with nature and the countryside, posing by fence posts and boasting of keeping badgers as childhood pets. His rhetoric suggests he is out of his depth.
Ancient woodlands are not the place to look for ancient trees.
Today ancient trees are loved, most in estates or arboretums where they are prized for their age and ‘wisdom’. In ancient woods, such is the diversity of life, many trees succumb to fungal infection, because fungi is another aspect of an ancient woodland. The life of fungi is in the soil, the mycelium, to be exact. The mycelium is, in some ways, the life force of woodland, passing nutrients back and forth between trees and soil, a little like the information superhighway I am using to publish this article. Fungi is as vital to human existence as trees, often described as ‘the third force’ after animal and plant life. So too are certain species of wildflower, insect, mammal and bird depend on ancient woodland ecosystems. We are talking about an environment that takes many hundreds of years to develop. This is why HS2 Limited’s desire to dig up the ancient woodlands (33 ancient woodlands are directly affected according to the Woodland Trust) and transplant them elsewhere is the thinking of people who should not be entrusted to decide on infrastructure projects that endanger ancient woods or natural landscapes. ‘Moving’ a woodland would not mean a big family moving from a big house to another. It would be the same as a city removing its hospitals and replacing them elsewhere without foundations or power to run the building and its infrastructure. The real point is that ancient woodlands, biodiversity, nature, these are hindrances to short-term economic gain, and in many ways, to this government’s ideological assault on the environmental sector. Biodiversity offsetting, on this level, is something those of us who love trees, woodlands and nature cannot accept or allow to occur.
But what does this have to do with the Great North Wood, or of woodlands that were not necessarily valued for their biodiversity and wildlife but instead for their produce? The failure of biodiversity offsetting is its inability to recognise the need that human beings have for woodlands int he environmental sense, the importance of access to green and ‘natural’ spaces. It fails to see the importance of place, let alone wildlife or biodiversity. Worst of all it is a signifier of our failure, not just that of politicians, to see that woodlands present an opportunity for a more simple and healthier existence than the one presented to many in England today. In Ben Law’s ‘The Woodland Way’, he outlines just how far the English have moved away from their ‘forest dweller’ existence, an era that would have dated back to the Great North Wood. Woodlands offer us sanctuary, food, the resources for infrastructure, a place for real learning – wood carving, coppicing, construction, food growing, fencing, tool use – and countless creative industries. Many people express the sense of belonging offered by time spent in woodlands. The woodland sell-off plans panned (but possibly remodeled to fit biodiversity offsetting) caused outrage in the UK and led to a 500,000 strong petition being delivered to the Prime Minister David Cameron. This was a worrying time – we learned then that this government do not hold the best interest of our woodlands at heart – but the public were able to send a unified message. The sell-off was not acceptable.
Biodiversity offsetting fails to acknowledge the importance of place
The Great North Wood is a case in point for people standing up for their woodlands in the shape of One Tree Hill, saved from enclosure by ‘the great agitation’, as it is known locally, when thousands rioted to protect it from enclosure. And then there is Sydenham Hill Wood, saved twice by local people, London Wildlife Trust and the Horniman Museum from plans for it to be developed for housing. I wonder how the battles would have gone if biodiversity offsetting was in place in those, both very different, times. Our woodlands are only safe when they are loved, ‘used’ and valued by local people. Sadly, it would appear that our woodlands are not merely under threat from invasive species and disease, but also from the short-termism, bravado and lack of thought from authority figures like Paterson. Though some woodlands have been around for more than 1000 years, even in a place like urban south London their national fate is at the whim of individuals looking only as far as 12 months into the future. But that is only the case if people do not speak out and challenge the ecological illiteracy of ancient woodland offsetting. Consider that the next time you walk through a wood in spring, when its wildflowers, birds and insects are flourishing around you. That place is only safe because you and the community value its sense of place.
It’s 6:30 am. We’re strolling along the Crystal Palace ridge, a chunk of wild land made up of all kinds of plants, a few notorious for their invasive, disruptive nature. Bramble and nettle are frost-encrusted, brightened as the ice turns to dew in the occasional spillage of sunlight that greets us from the south. When it does appear we bathe in it like a gift from the gods, droning as maybe druids would. The willow catkins are clean through now, many dew-laden, droplets elongating as gravity weighs. Last spring we listened to the call of a lesser whitethroat as it dinked in and out of these willows, its common cousin, the whitethroat, performed mating rituals in a bower of buddleia, diving into the cover of bramble at the farthest tip of the palace’s former standing, now marked by a solitary white bracket. Buddleia grows on the ridge in large sprigs, still harbouring last year’s brown cones of flowers that will be purple in a few months. Elder leaves escape their buds a little early in this still wintry weather, green sleeves unfurled but perhaps thinking the better of it. The mutilated stalks of Japanese knotweed are the only signs of intervention but for discarded beer cans and a few muddy desire lines. The scene is punctuated by crows sat idly in birch and sycamore trees that have grown in the cracks of the palace’s old stairways, immortalised in stone. These walkways, presided over by headless statues and sphinxes, are now engulfed by green and yellow lichens. As for the living, we aren’t the only people visiting: dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, commuters all make their passes before us. A dog with a stick in its mouth accosts us out of curiosity as we regard a song thrush singing in an ash tree, the dog turning its head and smacking fellow birdwatcher Lisa on the back of her leg. It seemed to hurt.
The view below is of open parkland where crows and black headed gulls saunter, pulling worms from the always waterlogged ground. Every so often the crows leave their perches in the palace’s trees, returning a few minutes later with large morsels of white bread in their bills. It’s almost impossible to see if a bird returns to its perch, such is their uniform blackness. This is the highest point in south London, higher still is the television mast that reaches upwards into the sky. Last year we watched a peregrine falcon using the mast’s very top as a perch, a pair of sparrowhawks coasted from even higher. The memory brings vertiginous feelings. The view is south to the North Downs, the Dartford Crossing to the east, visible in the orange morning sky. Chimneys and flues are blowing white smoke up into the air, beyond the Crystal Palace athletics stadium, a site that without the development of the Olympic Stadium in east London would be England’s national athletics arena. Unbeknownst to most, a long distance marathon has taken place here for millennia. Migrant birds have historically chosen the Crystal Palace ridge as a spot to drop in on, with swallow, redstart, willow warbler, chiffchaff, blackcap, whitethroat and wheatear having been recorded in recent years.
The Crystal Palace’s relocation to Penge from its original siting at Hyde Park was completed in 1854and caused a global stir, attracting visitors from all over. The Crystal Palace High Level railway was built to serve the palace, a trainline which has now been reclaimed by nature in the form of Sydenham Hill Wood, Brenchley Gardens and the Horniman Nature Trail. The Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936 and the trainline was closed in 1954, leaving a footprint of paths interrupted by housing estates at the ghosts of Lordship Lane and Upper Sydenham stations. Train tunnels were built underneath roads and excavated through the ancient Dulwich and Penge woodlands, now home to bats like the brown long-eared. Go back a few hundred years and Crystal Palace would be entirely different, even further than its enclosure as Penge Place in the early 1800s, and its original incarnation as Penge Common. Penge translates from the Gaelic as ‘the end of the wood’, a wood that was known as The Great North Wood, a landscape of commons and coppices that stretched from Deptford to Selhurst. It was deemed ‘North’ because it was the great wood north of Croydon, a thriving market town. Locals from the surrounds would make trips here to Penge Common to listen to nightingales, a bird that has disappeared from the area, and is suffering similarly staggering declines nationally.
Perhaps there is some irony in the fact that Crystal Palace fills me with a sense of nostalgia, for the Arcadian past of Penge and the Great North Wood. It’s an emotion that the Victorians made their own as a visit to nearby Dulwich Upper Wood and Sydenham Hill Wood proves. The Victorian villas built along the Sydenham Hill ridge are now gone, their footprints straddled by regenerating hornbeam, oak and new woodlands of sycamore and ash sprouting from the basements, as well as the invasive laurel and rhododendron planted in their gardens. At Sydenham Hill Wood a small folly remains, a remnant of the Sydenham Hoo and a feature of its vast ornamental garden. There’s a picture on the Internet that shows this very garden, with a small shrubby evergreen which now stands as a mature cedar of Lebanon. I share Victorian nostalgia instead for a world that much of their development denuded. The Crystal Palace brought unprecedented change to the Great North Wood. But then there are records from the time of the Crystal Palace High Level railway suggesting that in the immediate aftermath of the development birdlife still thrived. Bullfinch, tree pipit, wryneck, spotted flycatcher and wood warbler were all known to nest in the area, and some locals will point to the fact that bullfinch and spotted flycatcher only stopped breeding in the area in the late twentieth century following a national trend. In the grounds of the palace tree pipit and hawfinch were breeding birds, the latter thought to have bred in Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods until the 1980s. What concerns me about the run off from the Crystal Palace’s legacy is how the ridge will be treated in the next 100 years.
There is a masterplan to redevelop Crystal Palace Park and bring the ridge into the same aesthetic bracket as the lake and waterfall features that remain from Joseph Paxton’s pleasure gardens down at the bottom end of the park. In previous decades there were proposals for a casino and other grandiose leisure complexes which have disappeared from the agenda due to public opposition and lack of funds. Some of the park, registered as Metropolitan Open Land, is being earmarked for the development of apartments, a decision upheld by the High Court in June 2012, to the grave disappointment of the Open Spaces Society, the Crystal Palace Community Association and London Wildlife Trust. What makes the Crystal Palace ridge unique is the lesson it can teach us about our design, about what truly lasts. The Crystal Palace was a grand and ambitious venture but like the villas painted across the Sydenham Hill ridge a mile away, it was too grand to last. Looking here at giant stone stairwells with pioneer woodland trees like birch and sycamore escaping from the cracks, headless statues reawakened by the figure of a perching crow, and the only remnant of the palace’s outer shell sitting alone on the wildflower-enveloped ridge, the feeling is not one of defeat. Over on the grass banks of Crystal Palace Parade where buses terminate and begin journeys to places like Elephant and Castle and Blackheath, a line of plane trees was planted to signify the footprint of the old palace. The masterplan includes proposals to plant a new tree palace along the ridge and to landscape it. If this is handled without due care and consideration, it could lead to the loss of good, wild habitat home to breeding song thrush, dunnock, blackcap, chiffchaff and whitethroat amongst all the other wild plants and creatures thriving in a space where wildlife has been allowed to thrive without much intervention. The palace has grown back in its own way, in the birch and sycamore palace escaping from the cracks in the steps, yet to reach the old palace’s heights. In truth, I wonder why we are so desperate to master the land, to make a statement of it. There is more pleasure in observing the movements of wild birds each spring, in listening to their songs, than in attempting to control them. I hope there comes a point where we can step back and allow the land to recover from our past mistakes. For us birdwatchers it will be a case of watching, listening and waiting.
Last year I was commissioned to write this piece about the four seasons in Sydenham Hill Wood. Woodlands are beautiful, yes, but the lives of their inhabitants are not as gentle or pleasant as we might like to think. Here are my four dispatches.
Along the trackbed of the disused railway wild garlic grows. It’s a remnant of the wood’s ancient lineage, its deep green is welcome refreshment on a grey spring afternoon such as this. Every so often you find other indicators of the wood’s age. Wood anemone are growing in isolated clumps and English bluebells, too, some hybridising with the Spanish garden variety. The hornbeam standing along the track is another pointer to the old age of Sydenham Hill Wood.
Above our heads is another species sure to have been breeding here for some time. There are three tawny owl chicks sitting in the top of a large ash tree not yet in leaf, and through the bare branches we have a clear view of them. They snuggle into their plump, downy coat of feathers, calling to their parents, with rasping voices you might not expect them to make.
The wood’s bird community is watching, not least because the tawny owls are the top predator in the wood and one of the chicks’ parents is nearby trying to make a kill. Last week we found a crow’s head by the pond and it now appears likely that the adult tawny that spawned the trio above is the culprit. The birds know it too: there is an anxious din of woodland birds – woodpecker, crow, robin, great tit, blue tit, ring-necked parakeet, nuthatch – as the rufous adult tawny emerges from its hiding place.
The chicks are further along than expected, they move one at a time over our heads and closer to mum or dad, their spread of primary wing feathers giving them a tactile appearance, each like a finger. The parakeets are the most successful in bothering the young owls as they shriek and dive around them, the vibrancy of these exotically coloured birds muted by the task, on a dour afternoon in the spring wood.
The leaves of trees under torchlight are sticky with honeydew, a little like our faces, damp with sweat and bothered by mosquitoes. I swat them away. The wood is perspiring, wet with aphids. The air is thick with the funk of wild garlic that has flowered and gone. Stars are appearing in the ocean of night sky. A dot of light moves across the expanse. Is it a satellite?
A male tawny owl calls from acres away. We blow through a hazel whistle carved in a fashion to mimic the owl, and the bird itself responds in kind, edging closer and closer to us after each play of the whistle, its voice becoming clearer: What’s the time Mr. Owl? Now there is no foliage between us and anxiety stirs. We decide it’s better to stop in case the tawny thinks we’re another male. They are renowned for their aggression in protecting territory.
With the wood under the spell of darkness, the industrial world is reduced to a dreamy wash. Beyond the lining of trees could be an endless wildwood or an open pasture – the imagination runs free in the absence of engines and electric light. Some centuries ago the old woodland was felled and turned into farmland that skylarks, corn bunting, lapwing, turtle dove and cuckoo would have colonised. These birds are now absent from land that is used for cricket, golf and rugby.
From the glade’s sleeping bed of rosebay willowherb the great ghost of a hawkmoth ascends. I swoop the child’s pond-dipping net I am holding towards the monstrous insect, bringing the net and my knees to the ground. I carefully peel it away from the grass, revealing only shadows. The mysteries of the night wood remain.
We’re sitting around the moth trap again tonight. A large flock of crows are returning to a roost in the direction of Dulwich Park. There’s something about vast movements of crows, it gives the sense of an ending. In old times this would have been the signal to down tools at the close of a day labouring, ‘when the crow flies’, as they used to say.
The insect numbers have visibly dropped since summer but the pipistrelle bat hunting just above our heads shows there must be enough for them to eat. The twilight is metallic blue, stars are lanterns in the sky untouched by trees.
We’re surrounded by oak woodland, with smatterings of birch, ash, willow and hornbeam. We can only hope the darkening wood conjures something beautiful for us to behold. The leaves around us are soon to fall and even in this fading light you can sense the change, nature exhausted after the sex of spring and summer’s heat. A hobby flies the same path as the bat, catching a moth in midair.
Night falls. Nocturnal mammals begin their movement through the leaf litter, their sound much bigger than they actually are. A moth has been drawn to the bulb of our moth trap and we retrieve it in a clear plastic pot. It’s medium-sized, purple and mustard in colour. It’s the barred-sallow. This moth has evolved to match the leaves of autumn, but it’s early, many of the trees are still verdant green. We release the insect and it disappears into the dark.
A slender pathway cuts through the ground layer of ivy, most likely to have been forged by a train of foxes. A large ash has been pulled down by the wind, the underside of the ivy leaves wrapped around it are a fresh colour, like the flesh of a lime fruit. To the side a den has been made with string tied to the rotting logs that rest against a tree in a tepee form. Sometimes people spend a night in the wood and so the sign of a tent or den surrounded by food packaging and drinks bottles is not unusual. There isn’t much litter to be found tonight, other than things the ivy has subsumed, bottles or cans taken in by the soil or blown over from the road. Spiders make a home for themselves in empty bottles and the woodlouse is a common inhabitant of an old shoe. Now the leaves of premature bluebells peek through the earth and we take care not to trample.
We come upon a clearing around a large yew tree, the soil cleared of ivy and plant life by the acidity and shading of the tree’s needles. The trunk is rippled and worn like an old doll’s limb. It’s one of a line of yews that would have been a hedge in the grand Victorian garden that was once here. The villas were built in the 1800s, but too grandiose to last, they were abandoned during the Second World War and, deemed unsafe, were eventually bulldozed into the earth. The ground dips to reveal the whitish bricks of a wall and a trail of broken glass. Behind us is a group of silver birch trees, quarantined amidst layers of ivy and the yew. These birch look like they’re waiting for something.
The other side of the wall shows a support structure for the terrace of the old Victorian villa, where the slow life of the woodland has been allowed to resume. A blackbird calls in the canopy and a great tit sings its winter song down in the woodland glade. The sun is setting low through the slope of trees. It’s time to go home.