What happened to London’s lost forests?

Countless thousands of city dwellers 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 lockdowns, when escaping to the outdoors was a vital factor in maintaining physical and mental well-being.

Many South Londoners who have found solace in nature owe thanks to activists who, over the past 40 years and more, have pressed local and national authorities to protect precious green space.

Though it’s hard to imagine today, until the late 1700s, vast oak forests stretched for some seven miles across what is now a suburb of South London. What remains of it is the closest ancient woodland to central London.

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

The Ancient Woodland Inventory, established by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1981 and maintained by Natural England, says that about 7 percent of the old forest present in 1930 has been cleared for agriculture or other use, and 38 percent has been replaced with plantations, often of single-species conifers that offer little diversity of habitats.

Detail from John Rocque's 1746 map of London

A detail of the 1746 map of London by Huguenot cartographer John Rocque © London Borough of Lambeth Archives Department

I first became aware of the Great North Wood when I volunteered at the London Wildlife Trust reserve in Sydenham Hill Wood, South London, which together with adjacent Dulwich Wood makes up the largest surviving remnant. I soon learned from fellow volunteers and LWT staff that the forest once crowned the mud highlands that run from just south of Deptford to Selhurst.

On early maps it is referred to as the North Wood of Norwood (the “Great” seems to have been a recent addition) because it was north of Croydon, the manor house to which a significant part of it belonged. Spread across suburbs such as Dulwich and Norwood – which takes its name from the forest – there are today several areas that provide both green space and a vital habitat for small mammals, insects and birds, including birds of prey such as buzzards, sparrowhawks and kestrels.

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

It was also a valuable economic resource: for at least a millennium the wood was intensively 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 : containing a geological, topographical and historical description of Upper, West and South Norwood. It contains a reproduction of the relevant portion of 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. has been for local historians. 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 through the ages reveal a highly organized system of rotating coppice

Records through the ages reveal a highly organized system of rotating coppice © Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images

Taking the research of 1746 as a starting point, I looked for other old maps that could show the former extent of the forest, made recognizable by overlaying them on a modern street map. Perhaps more importantly, I was able to map its gradual decline over the centuries, and an animated version of these historical layers turned into a 20-minute documentary, with video footage and still photos.

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

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

The southern part of the forest was in Croydon manor house, which had been in the possession of the Archbishops of Canterbury since before the Norman Conquest. The northern foothills belonged to Bermondsey Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries of 1536-1541, when Henry VIII sold the manor of Dulwich to a London goldsmith, Thomas Calton.

Seventy years later, Calton’s grandson Francis ran into financial difficulties and sold the estate to actor-manager Edward Alleyn, who founded Dulwich College there. Both the Archdiocese and the Dulwich Estate were diligent record keepers, so Lambeth Palace Library and the Dulwich College Archive keep detailed records of the management of the forest over several centuries.

Greater spotted woodpecker

A Greater Spotted Woodpecker © Rosh K

They reveal a highly organized system of rotating coppice. This involved pruning the trees just above ground level to encourage multiple shoots to grow out of the stump or coppice; these would develop into long, sturdy poles, which could be harvested at regular intervals.

Both landowners divided their forest into 10 lots, or coppice forests, which would be cut in rotation so that by the time the latter was harvested, the former had grown again and the cycle would begin again. They recorded when each coppice was cut and how much money was raised from the sale of the wood, which was used to make furniture, tool handles, axles, wheel spokes, reed spars, hurdles, and a host of other everyday objects, as well as charcoal.

The National Archives at Kew hold the records of a long, lively 16th century dispute over ownership of some of the timber. In 1568 a Crown tenant cleared a wood near the border with Croydon. The archbishop’s forest manager, who believed it to be in Croydon’s manor, sent teams to confiscate the felled timber, transport it in carts and stack it in the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace in Croydon.

By the time the case went to court in 1578, both the crown tenant, Henry Rydon, and Archbishop Matthew Parker had died. Witnesses ranging from the Reverend of Croydon and a Member of Parliament to local workers have 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 12 miles away. Ultimately, 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 image can be assembled. Chief among these is a parchment map of the Archbishop’s Forest, 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, showing the Vicar’s Oak upright on the northern boundary of the mansion.

The London Wildlife Trust has worked to bring all surviving remnants of this vital London habitat under holistic management

The London Wildlife Trust has been working to bring all surviving remnants of this vital 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 Enclosure Acts. The construction of canals and later railroads made coal readily available throughout the country, effectively ending the charcoal trade, while many objects that used to be wood were now made of iron or steel.

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

Between 1797 and 1810, a series of Acts of Parliament allowed the enclosure of the semi-wooded commons adjacent to the North Wood, which were then parceled out and sold for development – a process that accelerated after the lands were transferred from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1836.

By the time Anderson put together his book, the “thick woods, where rabbits and hedgehogs dug” and “where the nightingale sang” were only alive in the memories of older locals.

The fragments that survive today are in part due to a decision by the governors of Dulwich Estate in the mid-19th century to retain a belt of trees to increase the leasehold value of the properties. But mostly they survive thanks to the efforts of local activists in the 1970s and 1980s.

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

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

This 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 surviving remnants of the forest under a holistic management plan, and in June 2017 was awarded a £700,000 grant ​from the Heritage Lottery Fund, as part of the Living Landscapes initiative, to fund the Great North Wood project.

This was supposed 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”, extending the project through the end of 2022.

After that, a management plan will guide community groups and local authorities in caring for the forest, while signs help people navigate between the remaining areas of the forest, providing information about each spot and how it fit into the wider landscape.

In 2021, after a two-year campaign, protesters managed to save two healthy oak trees in Sydenham Hill Wood. The trees line either side of a walkway on Cox’s Walk, from which 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 forests are not only a precious and much-loved amenity, but are just as much a part of the city’s cultural heritage as the ancient buildings. As a living reminder of London’s social and economic history, may they flourish for a long time.

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

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