Thu. Jan 20th, 2022


Countless thousands of urbanites in Britain and elsewhere have become acutely aware of the green spaces in their midst over the past two years. Indeed, many people only discovered them during restraints, when escaping to the outdoors was an essential factor in maintaining physical and mental well-being.

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

Although difficult to envision today, extensive oak forest lands stretched about seven miles beyond what is now suburban south London until the end of the 18th century. What remains of them is the nearest ancient bushveld to central London.

Ancient woodland, as defined by the government agency Natural England, is land on which the tree cover has existed continuously since 1600; before that date plantation was scarce, so forests that existed in 1600 are considered to have developed naturally. According to the Woodland Trust, ancient bushveld covers only 2.5 percent of the land area of ​​England and Wales.

The Ancient Woodland Inventory, compiled by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1981 and maintained by Natural England, says about 7 percent of ancient woodland present in 1930 was eradicated for farming or other uses, and 38 percent was 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 forms its largest remnant. I soon learned from fellow volunteers and LWT staff that the bushveld once crowned the clay highlands that run from just south of Deptford to Selhurst.

On early maps it is marked the North Wood or Norwood (the “Great” appears to be a recent addition) as it lay north of Croydon, the mansion to which a considerable part belonged. Spread across suburbs like Dulwich and Norwood – which derives its name from the forest – several bags exist today, providing both green space and a vital habitat for small mammals, insects and birds, including birds of prey such as buzzards, sparrows and falcons.

The reasons why the old North Wood survived so long when surrounding areas were converted to farmland was that the steep terrain was not suitable for arable or grazing, and because it lay on the sparsely populated edges of several congregations.

It was also a valuable economic resource: for at least a millennium, wood was intensively cultivated to provide wood, for furniture, tools and shipbuilding, and charcoal for London’s blacksmiths, bakeries, and brick-and-mortar 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 cities of London Westminster ye Borough of Southwark and the Country near ten miles round”, which has long been a valuable resource for local historians. around the capital.

Ruins of a Victorian folly in Sydenham Hill Wood

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

Records over centuries reveal a highly organized system of rotary hairdressing

Records Over Centuries Reveal A Highly Organized Rotational Battery System © Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

With the 1746 survey as a starting point, I searched for other old maps that could indicate the forest’s previous extent, made recognizable by placing it on a modern street map. Perhaps more importantly, I was able to map its incremental reduction over the centuries, and an animated version of these historical layers became a 20-minute documentary featuring video footage and stills.

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 120 years earlier.

What made it a particularly promising topic was the fact that environmental evidence for the forest’s antiquity was supported in the form of Ancient Woodland Indicators (AWIs) – species such as wood anemone, wild garlic and native English bluebells that thrive in ancient bushveld. . by extensive written records.

The southern part of the forest lies within the mansion of Croydon, which has been owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury since before the Norman conquest. The northern areas 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 trouble and sold the estate to actor manager Edward Alleyn, who founded Dulwich College there. Both the Archbishop and the Dulwich Estate were dedicated record holders, so Lambeth Palace Library and the Dulwich College Archive keep detailed accounts of the management of the forest over several centuries.

A larger spotted woodcutter

A larger spotted woodcutter © Rosh K

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

Both landowners divided their bushes into 10 parcels, or cups, which would be cut down in rotation so that by the time the last was cut, the first had regrowth and the cycle would begin again. They recorded when each canopy was cut down, and how much money was raised by selling the wood, which was used to make furniture, tool handles, axles, wheel spokes, thatched roof rafters, hedges and a host of other everyday objects as well. as charcoal.

The National Archives in Kew holds the records of a long, lively 16th-century dispute over the ownership of a piece of wood. In 1568 a tenant of the Crown cut down a forest near the border with Croydon. The manager of the archbishop’s forest, who believed it lay inside Croydon’s mansion, sent crews to confiscate the cut wood, which they dragged away in carts and piled up in the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace at Croydon.

By the time the case came before the Treasury in 1578, both the crown tenant, Henry Rydon, and Archbishop Matthew Parker were dead. Witnesses ranging from the pastor of Croydon and an MP to local laborers testified, 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 ruled in favor 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 put together. The most important of these is a parchment map of the archbishop’s forests made by surveyor William Mar in 1678, now in the Croydon Museum, showing the exact location and area of ​​each canopy, and the surrounding communities, with the Vicar’s Oak which stands high. the northern boundary of the mansion.

The London Wildlife Trust has worked to bring all the remaining remnants of this important London habitat under a holistic management

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

So what has become of these once vast forests?

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

This meant that bushveld management was no longer a cost-effective use of the land, and by the 1790s the Dulwich estate was converting some of its canopies to farmland that could lease it.

Between 1797 and 1810, a series of laws of Parliament allowed the fencing of the semi-wooded communal land bordering the North Wood, which was then packed up and sold for development – a process that accelerated after the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lands were transferred to the country. Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1836.

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

Those fragments that survive today do so in part as a result of a decision by the Dulwich Estate governors in the mid-19th century to retain a belt of trees to increase the rental value of its properties. But mostly they survived through the efforts of local campers in the 1970s and 1980s.

'Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich' by Camille Pissarro (1871)

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

This led to 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 remaining remnants of the wood under a holistic management plan, and in June 2017 it was awarded with ‘ a £ 700,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, as part of the Living Landscapes initiative, to fund its Great North Wood project.

It was to end in July 2021, but that month the trust received £ 250,000 from the government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund for “Restoration and Reconnection of the Great North Wood Landscape”, which enabled it to complete the project of 2022.

Thereafter, a management plan will guide community groups and local authorities on how to care for the forest, while signs will help people navigate between the remaining bags of wood, providing information on each location and how it has fitted into the wider landscape.

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

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

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

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