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What happened to London’s lost woods?


Countless thousands of city dwellers in Britain and elsewhere have, in the past two years, become acutely aware of the green spaces in their midst. Indeed, many people only discovered them during lockdowns, when escaping to the great outdoors was a vital factor in maintaining physical and mental wellbeing.

Many south Londoners who have found solace in nature owe thanks to campaigners who, over the past 40 years and more, have put pressure on local and national bodies to protect precious green space.

Although it is hard to envisage today, until the end of the 18th century extensive oak woodlands stretched for some seven miles across what is now suburban south London. What remains of them is the nearest ancient woodland to central London.

Ancient woodland, as defined by the government agency Natural England, is land on which the tree cover has been in continuous existence since 1600; before that date, plantation was rare, so woods that existed in 1600 are considered to have developed naturally. According to the Woodland Trust, ancient woodland covers just 2.5 per cent of the land area of England and Wales.

The Ancient Woodland Inventory, set up by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1981 and maintained by Natural England, says some 7 per cent of ancient woodland that was present in 1930 has been grubbed up for farming or other uses, and 38 per cent has been replaced with plantations, often of single-species conifers that offer little diversity of habitat.

Detail of John Rocque’s 1746 map of London
A detail of Huguenot cartographer John Rocque’s 1746 map of London © London Borough of Lambeth Archives Department

I first became aware of the Great North Wood while volunteering at the London Wildlife Trust reserve at Sydenham Hill Wood, south London, which, along with the adjoining Dulwich Wood, makes up its largest surviving remnant. I soon learnt from fellow volunteers and LWT staff that the woodland once crowned the clay uplands that run from just south of Deptford to Selhurst.

On early maps, it is labelled the North Wood or Norwood (the “Great” appears to have been a recent addition) since it lay to the north of Croydon, the manor to which a substantial part of it belonged. Scattered across suburbs such as Dulwich and Norwood — which takes its name from the wood — several pockets survive today, providing both green space and a vital habitat for small mammals, insects and birds, including raptors such as buzzards, sparrowhawks and kestrels.

The reasons the old North Wood survived for so long when surrounding areas were converted to farmland was that the steep terrain was unsuitable for arable or pasture, and because it lay on the sparsely populated margins of several parishes.

It was also a valuable economic resource: for at least a millennium, the wood was intensely cultivated to provide timber, for furniture, tools and shipbuilding and charcoal for London’s blacksmiths, bakeries and brick and tile kilns.

In 1898, J Corbet Anderson published a book called The Great North Wood: With a Geological, Topographical and Historical Description of Upper, West and South Norwood. It includes a reproduction of the relevant section of the Huguenot cartographer John Rocque’s 1746 map “An Exact Survey of the citys of London Westminster ye Borough of Southwark and the Country near ten miles round”, which has long been a valuable resource to local historians all around the capital.

Ruins of a Victorian folly in Sydenham Hill Wood
Ruins of a Victorian folly in Sydenham Hill Wood © Veronique Stone/Alamy

Records over centuries reveal a highly organised system of rotational coppicing
Records over centuries reveal a highly organised system of rotational coppicing © Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images

Using the 1746 survey as a starting point, I looked for other old maps that might show the wood’s former extent, made relatable by superimposing them on to a modern street map. Perhaps more importantly, I was able to chart its incremental reduction over the centuries, and an animated version of these historical layers became a 20-minute documentary film, incorporating video footage and still photographs.

By the time the film was completed in 2018, there was enough material for a book, published last year — the first full-length treatment of the subject since Anderson’s 120 years earlier.

What made it a particularly promising subject was the fact that the environmental evidence for the woods’ antiquity in the form of Ancient Woodland Indicators (AWIs) — species such as wood anemone, wild garlic and native English bluebells that flourish in ancient woodland — was supported by extensive written records.

The southern part of the woods lay within the manor of Croydon, which had been a possession of the Archbishops of Canterbury since before the Norman Conquest. Its northern reaches belonged to Bermondsey Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries of 1536-41, when Henry VIII sold the manor of Dulwich to a London goldsmith, Thomas Calton.

Seventy years later, Calton’s grandson Francis found himself in financial difficulty and sold the estate to the actor-manager Edward Alleyn, who founded Dulwich College there. Both the archbishopric and the Dulwich Estate were assiduous record keepers, so that Lambeth Palace Library and the Dulwich College Archive hold detailed accounts of the management of the woods over several centuries.

A greater spotted woodpecker
A greater spotted woodpecker © Rosh K

They reveal a highly organised system of rotational coppicing. This involved cutting the trees at just above ground level to encourage multiple shoots to grow from the stump, or coppice stool; these would develop into long, sturdy poles, which could be harvested at regular intervals.

Both landowners divided their woods into 10 parcels, or coppices, which would be felled in rotation so that by the time the last was cropped, the first had regrown and the cycle would begin again. They recorded when each coppice was felled, and how much money was raised by the sale of the wood, which was used to make furniture, tool handles, axles, wheel spokes, thatching spars, hurdles and a host of other everyday objects, as well as charcoal.

The National Archives in Kew hold the records of a long, lively 16th-century dispute over the ownership of part of the wood. In 1568, a tenant of the Crown felled a wood near the border with Croydon. The manager of the Archbishop’s woods, believing that it lay within the manor of Croydon, sent teams to confiscate the cut wood, which they hauled away in carts and stacked in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace at Croydon.

By the time the case came before the Court of Exchequer in 1578, both the Crown tenant, Henry Rydon, and Archbishop Matthew Parker had died. Witnesses ranging from the vicar of Croydon and an MP to local labourers gave evidence, and their often conflicting testimony is rich in detail of the topography and boundary trees, including the monumental Vicar’s Oak, which could be seen from 12 miles away. In the end, the court found in favour of Rydon’s widow and heir Elizabeth.

A number of hand-drawn estate maps also show parts of the wood, from which a larger picture can be pieced together. The most important of these is a parchment map of the Archbishop’s woods made by the surveyor William Mar in 1678, now in the Croydon Museum, showing the exact location and acreage of each coppice, and the surrounding commons, with the Vicar’s Oak standing tall on the northern boundary of the manor.

The London Wildlife Trust has worked to bring all the surviving remnants of this vital London habitat under a holistic management
The London Wildlife Trust has worked to bring all the surviving remnants of this vital London habitat under a holistic management ©  Jansos/Alamy

So what became of these once extensive woods?

The two main factors in their disappearance were the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts. The construction of canals and later the railways made coal readily available throughout the country, effectively ending the trade in charcoal, while many objects that were formerly made of wood were now manufactured in iron or steel.

This meant that woodland management was no longer a cost-effective use of the land, and by the 1790s the Dulwich Estate was converting some of its coppices to farmland that it could rent out.

Between 1797 and 1810, a series of Acts of Parliament permitted the enclosure of the semi-wooded commons that adjoined the North Wood, which were then parcelled up and sold for development — a process that accelerated after the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lands were transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1836.

By the time Anderson compiled his book, the “thick woods, in which rabbits and hedgehogs burrowed” and “where sang the nightingale” lingered only in the memories of elderly locals.

Those fragments that survive today do so in part because of a decision by the Dulwich Estate governors in the mid-19th century to retain a belt of trees in order to enhance the leasehold value of its properties. But mostly they survive through the efforts of local campaigners in the 1970s and 1980s.

‘Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich’ by Camille Pissarro (1871)
‘Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich’ by Camille Pissarro (1871) © Bridgeman Images

These resulted in the designation of Sydenham Hill Wood as a Local Nature Reserve in 1982. Since then, the London Wildlife Trust has worked to bring all the surviving remnants of the wood under a holistic management plan, and in June 2017 it was awarded a £700,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, as part of the Living Landscapes initiative, to finance its Great North Wood project.

This was due to end in July 2021, but that month the trust received £250,000 from the government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund for “Restoring and reconnecting the Great North Wood Landscape”, enabling it to extend the project until the end of 2022.

After that, a management plan will guide community groups and local authorities on how to care for the woods, while signs will help people to navigate between the surviving pockets of the wood, providing information about each place and how it fitted into the broader landscape.

In 2021, after a two-year campaign, protesters were successful in saving two healthy oak trees in Sydenham Hill Wood. The trees stand on either side of a footbridge on Cox’s Walk, from which Camille Pissarro painted “Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich” in 1871, now hanging in the Courtauld Gallery.

The passion behind such campaigns shows that these local woodlands are not only a precious and much-loved amenity, but also are as much part of the city’s cultural heritage as its ancient buildings. As a living reminder of London’s social and economic history, long may they flourish.

“The Wood That Built London” by CJ Schüler, Sandstone Press, £19.99

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