The lockdown for Corona Virus has not been as restrictive in the UK as in some other countries. Until today, the ‘rules’ have allowed individual to venture out once a day, for a period of no more than about an hour, for exercise. I have chosen to use this as an opportunity to explore the remnants of the old Great North Wood near where I live in Norwood; the name itself being a contraction of North Wood.
The map below, produced by John Rocque in the early 1740s, show the wooded area remaining at that time – the red dot indicates where I am currently living.
The name ‘North Wood’, was given to differentiate it from the huge ‘South Wood’ that covered much of Sussex, Surrey and Kent. The term ‘weald’, used to describe much of the geography of those counties, comes from the Old English word for forest.
I remember being told as a child, that an oak tree takes 300 years to grow, 300 years to live and 300 years to die. Indeed, there are some oaks more than 1000 years old. I like to think that in my journeying I will pass by at least one tree that was alive when Rocque made his map. 200 metres from where I live is the oak below and I gain great pleasure watching it day-by-day through the seasons.
At the time of Rocque, areas of the Great North Wood had been managed by coppicing for several centuries; both to provide raw materials and to supply charcoal kilns. The picture below, of charcoal burning is from John Evelyn’s ‘Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions ’, of 1664. Not only is this one of the finest treatises on forestry ever written, it was prescient in its warnings regarding the threat of deforestation. Living in Deptford, he would have been very familiar with the Great North Wood.
In reality the widespread deforestation of Britain had already taken place. 10,000 years ago, following a bit of a chilly spell, the country was densely wooded. Sometimes this is referred to as the ‘wildwood’ or ‘wyldewood’ to differentiate it from more recent ‘managed’ woodlands. The wildwood, in terms of the bigger picture over time, did not last for long.
By the end of the Bronze Age 3000 years ago, settlements had proliferated and become quite extensive with, almost urban, groupings of round houses like the one below which is located at Flag Fen Archaeological Park. The foundations of modern agriculture were in place with cleared pasture and systems of cultivated land. Copper was being mined in industrial amounts; and the free movements of people and goods throughout much of Europe was well established. Where felled trees have survived, such as those at Seahenge; the number of different axe heads used, show that these people were well practiced, and proficient, at felling trees.
When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43AD, the demand for wood increased dramatically to support the needs of a growing infrastructure and industry. It was also the main fuel. As with other parts of the empire, forests and woodlands were being decimated.
When the Romans left Britain in about 400 AD, the Great North Wood may have already contracted to a size closer that mapped by John Rocque. Unfortunately, due to Corona virus shutdowns I cannot obtain permission to include a modern reworking of a map from that period showing this.
The Anglo Saxons are known to have cleared large portions of forest. The survival of the Great North Wood may be down to the geology of the Norwood Ridge on which much of it is located. This is formed of London Clay which, although ideal for deep rooted trees, made it a poor prospect for either cultivation or settlement.
From the Domesday Book (1086) we learn that much of the land on which the wood is located had come into the ownership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some hunting rights may have remained with local lords; whilst local people retained some right to graze and manage the woodland. It also shows that by then wood-pasture and woodland covered only about 15% of England. By the time of the Black Death in 1349, half of that remaining woodland had also been felled.
The Port of Weymouth, in my home county of Dorsetshire, celebrates the part it played in the arrival of plague, by displaying the above plaque on the quayside. The Black Death and resulting reduction in the population brought respite to the woodlands, for perhaps a century, before growing demands of industry once again created a need for fuel.
This small parcel of land in Gypsy Hill which would once have one been in the Great North Wood, has avoided development due to being the site of plague pits where victims of the black death were buried.
During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; colder winters, and an increase in ship building which required good quality oak, increased the pressure on woodlands. New agricultural techniques, developed in the Eighteenth Century, meant that land that once had only been suitable for woodland, could now be farmed.
As more land was enclosed and woodland became less economically important, parcels of land were sold off for housing.
The coming of the railways meant that coal could easily be brought into the area, possibly saving what was left of the old Great North Wood. The railway cutting in the illustration above, like much of the line of the original London to Croydon Railway, is wooded and plays an important part in linking remnants of the wood. There are even some mini nature reserves in places along the route.
Today there are more than 30 areas of woodland or associated green space, left within the boundary of the medieval wood. Many of these are now secure and some are managed by the London Wildlife Trust. Much of this is due to the work of the ‘Friends of the Great North Wood’, a group formed in 1992. My favourite tree in the remains of the Great North Wood is one of the humblest. I wrote about it here.
In 2017 the London Wildlife Trust launched the Great North Wood project with the aim of reviving and re imagining the Great North Wood. The Heritage Lottery Fund stumped up nearly £700,000 towards the cost of this.
Much of the wood cover in the area is provided by mature broad-leave trees in gardens, other privately owned spaces and roadside planting.
Sadly, all across the old Great North Wood, trees are being lost to development, or local authority administrative convenience.
I don’t know whether there is any truth in the reports that 5G phone signals are corrupted by wet leaves on trees. Following upgrades to the mast below, you can see where in the last few days several mature broadleaf trees have been felled and replaced by some that are little more than sapling.
There are small areas of ground dotted about that have never been enclosed or had ownership registered. If an individual fences such land and maintains control of it for 12 years, they can register ownership with the Land Registry. I guess I should check whether there is an owner registered for the patch of land below and, if not, pull the fence down or take control of it by planting and maintaining a couple of fruit trees. It could then be incorporated into the management of nearby Stambourne Wood.
If one of the organisations involved in the future of the Great North Wood had the time, I suspect a number of these pockets of land could be located and secured, especially as the Land Registry has a target for comprehensive land registration by 2030.
One of the busier roads on the Norwood Ridge is fairly well lined by mature trees, although many are in private gardens. On one side of the road behind the trees there are a line of scrubby patches of ground that is effectively protecting the tree roots and providing a wildlife corridor. This is slowly being taken for building. The plot above is for sale with planning permission for 8 houses.
The five pictures above have been taken in the last four days. Groups like the London Wildlife Trust and Friends of the Great North Wood are doing a great job in saving parts of the Great North Wood; most notably Hillcrest Wood which, as recently as two years ago, was due to be ravaged to provide space for housing development.
However, it is the constant loss of fragments like those above that, collectively, may compromise what little of the wood is left. The decision to fell the tree in the picture below, and photographed today, can hardly be argued with . It was one of what originally was a row of more than 30 trees. As age has taken its toll, gaps in that line have started appearing. What is not happening, is any replanting for the benefit of future generations. Losing trees from an estate may be seen by some as good economic sense and a way of reducing costs.
During the current Corona Virus lockdown, I have used my exercise allowance to visit several remnants of the wood although one or two that are run as nature reserves are currently closed. Most of the parks in the area have always had some mature trees in them to reflect their woodland heritage. Over the last 25 years many have been quite heavily planted with trees and former green deserts are beginning to thrive as semi woodlands.
I have been interested to observe in recent summers that, on the hottest days, space in the shade of a tree has become more desirable than that in full sun. I have used these parks as connecting routes between the woodlands to minimise the amount of pavement walking.
I was going to reproduce a map here showing the location of these green spaces, but again could not obtain permission to do so. Therefore, I’m putting up one picture for each of the wooded areas I’ve walked in during the lockdown. Clicking on the images will link you to further relevant information.
Crystal Palace Park
Gipsy Hill Plague Pits – aka Long Meadow
Horniman Museum Gardens
One Tree Hill
South Norwood Grounds
Sydenham Hill Wood
Sydenham Wells Park
Upper Norwood Recreation Ground
The Corona Virus lockdown has encouraged me to explore more of what is on my doorstep. As of today the restrictions on time spent outdoors has been relaxed, so I should be able to wander a little further to the more outlying part of the Great North Wood.
If you have enjoyed this blog please click the ‘Like’ button. Better still, why not click on the ‘Follow’ button so that you receive an email notification when I post the next blog article.