Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘The Weald’

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Introduction

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.

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Wildwood: 12,000 BC

The Dulwich woods are a collection of remnant ancient woodlands in south-east London, made up of Sydenham 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.

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Doggerland (via Wikipedia)

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.

Peckarmans Wood

The coppices known as Peckarmans Wood in the 1800s, what is now Dulwich Wood

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’.

Tree-felling

Woodland workers removing the buttresses of an oak before felling. Coppice poles can be seen in the background

Woodland industry

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 Law and 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).

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Margaret Finch in Norwood

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.

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Samuel Matthews (Steve Grindlay)

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.

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An elm tree enclosed inside the Crystal Palace in 1851

Enclosure: 1720-1830s

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.

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The Hoo on Sydenham Hill, now returned to woodland in Sydenham Hill Wood

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.

Wood anemone

Wood anemone is an indicator of ancient woodland in the Dulwich woods

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.

Further viewing:

The Dulwich Society archives

Mapping the Great North Wood – video

 

 

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The Sussex Weald, March 2019

My time in the woods has thinned. Just like the seasoned photographers in magazines tell you, planning your time is key to getting the photos you most enjoy. It also becomes dependent on weather forecasts. A few years ago a friend of mine was leading me around his favourite sites in the Czech Republic and he made a point I haven’t forgotten. Nothing matters more with photography than light. You could have the most amazing scene in front of you, but light is everything. It adds contrast, shadow and colour. It makes you feel good.

Bearing that in mind, I had a few hours in the afternoon before the sun went down to visit an ancient coppice woodland in the Sussex Weald. The Weald is a chunk of southern England that runs from the Hampshire border of West Sussex all the way to Kent in the east. It was once an ‘impenetrable forest’ but now is a large mosaic of oak-dominant woodland with a Conservation Board to protect it. Coppicing is the practice of cutting trees low to the ground to harvest the materials for wood products. It’s effectively farming the woods. Our ancestors have been doing it for thousands of years. Even beavers do it.

It produced the multi-stemmed trees see above and allows light to enter in, often resulting in a profusion of flowers indicative of a woodland that has remained there for over 400 years. March-May is the time when these flowers arrive, benefiting from the fact the canopy is still open. Wood anemones are the first of this swathe.

Like many people before (and after) me, I fell for this small white flower when I learned of its charming lifestyle. The petals close when the sun is gone and they are punished for this delicateness. It takes about 100 years to spread 2 metres across the ground. In the past it has been my job to try and protect wood anemones from trampling. I agonised over it.

Wood anemone is a member of the buttercup family. The similarity to buttercups is in the number of petals, the leaves and the reproductive parts of the flowers (the stamens and anthers) that protrude from the centre. At this time of year in continental Europe purple anemones push through crusts of snow that we don’t really have in the UK. Our friends in Europe have wood anemones, also.

Bluebells and anemones can create beautiful spreads of flowers in woods. But they don’t always make the photos you want. Anemones look wonderful with a bit of early morning or evening light passing through their petals. I went with that thought in mind to see the Sussex anemones.

This is a special time – perhaps the best in the year? – when winter has been overcome and the promise of longer days, of warmth and green is on the cusp. It could also be a genetic memory we have from our ancestors who found winter to be more uniformly cruel than we experience today.

It’s really important for me that photographing any wildlife does not add to disturbance. With woodland flowers it means taking photos from the path or sparse areas. I’ve already said how long it takes them to travel. The photo above may reinforce that: a vulnerable, delicate flower isolated in a darkening wood.

You sometimes find a single flower left over from a trampled population, like a single cottage left from an abandoned village.

Everywhere in wild corners of the UK ther are signs of a micro-shift in a season. The wood anemones hold the floor today, but the first bluebells are unfurling. In this old coppiced wood the bluebells will run rampant and the wood anemones will be squeezed. It’s just the natural order of things.

For now the windflowers, as they were once known, break out from beds of dead bracken in still leafless woods.

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March is an odd month in British woods. There is the tantalising sense of spring arriving but winter’s dankness holds fast. Though we learn to see seasons a bit like buses coming and going, I see them as more incremental. There are pointers to change every single day. It’s something I picked up through wildlife surveys, seeing the return of migrant birds, the first bees and leafing oaks. In January it’s the barking fox as mating begins, in February (or sometimes earlier) bluebells and elders leafing, in March it feels like something has to give.

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I go to the woods to take photos now more than to simply look for wildlife or listen, so there has to be some reason for taking out a heavy bag full of equipment. When I know there is a good amount of time to take photos I bring two cameras, almost always a macro and a wide angle lens, with a standard 50mm lens stowed away. If I’m feeling super strong I bring a telephoto lens (not a massive one) in case of some lucky encounter with a raptor perhaps.

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On dull days the light feels glowering and like nothing is responding. I usually turn to trees at this time to slow my impatience. Here I went looking for mushrooms with the hope of some spring glut. It wasn’t there. Pathetically, the disappointment is real. The first queen bumblebees are symptomatic of the need to survive, winter is not over for them until they have found a spot to start their nest.

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There is a lot to be said for taking the time to look at details. Turkey tail is a fungus that lingers all year and can be found in hypnotic shades and patterns on pieces of dead wood. It’s renowned for its medicinal benefits but I’ve never tried it. I’ll stick to camomile and honey.

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In the UK (and perhaps the Northern Hemisphere?) a mushroom called glistening inkcap bursts from the moss and soil after a change in the weather. It usually makes an appearance when a spell of rain has finished and the temperature is a little higher than it has been.

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Moss is one of the few colours found in a winter wood and its ability to hold dampness can sometimes boost the growth of a mushroom, as seen in the inkcap photo. Up close these primitive plants are like miniature palm trees.

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In the South Downs National Park, 10.5% of the landscape is covered by ancient woodland according to the Woodland Trust. That figure astonishes me. Much of this woodland is in the Low Weald, a stretch of ancient oak woodland that pitter patters between the South and North Downs. from near the Sussex-Hampshire border all the Way to Kent. Ebernoe Common is a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust, home to almost every species of British bat and an amazing array of other species.

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Ebernoe also hosts populations of wild daffodil, much smaller than the shop-bought beasts that burst from lawns and roadsides. This is a spring woodland flower that indicates ancientness. It is a privilege to see them in flower, especially considering that they have declined greatly in the past century. In the still wintry Weald, spring is trumpeting silent and yellow.

Ebernoe Common, West Sussex, March 2019

See my Wealden archive

 

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St. Leonards Forest, The High Weald, West Sussex, January 2019

Gunshots echo from St. Leonards Forest, while up here on the dank January heath, woodpigeons fail to settle in pine branches. Within their paddock the sheep in deep black coats are startled by the scuff of my camera strap on my shoulder. They lift their heads from grazing, soon returning to their business. One with a white beard and human face gazes back at me, old man of the heath.

A powder-white and gold mushroom has been uprooted and left on a feathery bed of moss, an image of early autumn in this sodden midwinter. On the stumps of felled pine trees cup lichens grow like green, towering cities. I read that because they are a partnership of algae, fungi and cyanobacteria, they can’t truly be defined as a standalone species. Here they hold droplets of water like a precious stone in the top of a staff.

The birch bark is zebra-like in this land of deep purple, black and brown. The birches are routinely removed from heathland but to me they feel like a key part to it, a haven for many species of insect, a resource we seem no longer to know about. Every bit of this tree cut has a use for us: bark for firelighter, slippers, canoes and boxes; sap for sugary syrup; branches for brooms and spoons; wood for a fire. It follows us around and, unlike so many of our trees, is not facing an epidemic of imported disease.

Coming down off the heath, I walk up past a stream bed with alder trees climbing high to the canopy. They form dark clouds of branches and catkins at their tops. Alongside the track home holly woods stamp their permanent-feeling darkness. I turn to look left into a small break in that darkness. A silent sparrowhawk glides in touching distance of the ground, preying on blue tits that call in alarm. Those little things miss nothing until caught. It’s a reminder of how hard life is out here in January woods. It is eat, or starve trying.

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