The Great North Wood was a large tract of woodland and wooded commons that grew on the hilly ridge between Deptford, Streatham and Selhurst. Much of the woodland has now been lost, but the Great North Wood lives on as a scattering of woodland fragments that continue to provide vital habitat for wildlife and an irreplaceable resource for local people.
From Ice age to Domesday…
During the last ice age, which came to an end about 10,000 years ago, Britain was a treeless landscape, locked in permafrost and scoured by glaciers. As temperatures warmed, trees could at-last begin to creep northwards along the land-bridge that then connected Britain to mainland Europe. Over time, much of Britain was colonised by a complex matrix of woodland, scrub and grassland, maintained by large grazing mammals such as elk, boar, tarpan (wild horse) and aurochs (wild ox). In the London basin a wide and slow river, the Thames, meandered through a landscape of creeks and marshes. A chain of wooded hills climbed southwards from what is now Deptford, rising to a summit at Sydenham Hill, and dropping to the vales of Streatham and Croydon. In time it became known as the Great North Wood.
Around 6,000 years ago, Neolithic peoples began to significantly alter Britain’s landscape, felling trees for fuel, tools and building material, and creating fields for livestock and crops. They hunted the aurochs and tarpan to extinction, replacing them with domesticated cattle and horses. Any woodland that remained was intensively managed for a continual supply of wood, food and fuel.
In 1086, the Domesday book described the area around what we now call the Great North Wood as a patchwork of fields, pastures, woods, hedges and scattered farmsteads and hamlets. Croydon was recorded as having “woodland at 200 pigs” indicating the use of woods for grazing livestock. Much of the land was owned by non-resident landlords, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Timber and tannin…
By the 11th century, the local woodlands formed an isolated chain surrounded by lower-lying agricultural land. A mosaic of managed woodlands, wooded commons and small copses, this was the Great North Wood, a relatively modern name referring to its position north of Croydon. It became an important part of the local landscape, providing raw materials to support settlements and local industries as well as providing shelter and refuge for wildlife and people.
The management of the woodlands, through a system known as coppice-with-standards, ensured a sustainable supply of raw materials. These included oak bark that provided tannin for the leather-making industry in Bermondsey, oak timber for the shipyards at Deptford, and coppiced oak and hornbeam used to make charcoal for forges and bakeries. From the 17th century, the wooded ridge also provided opportunities for leisure – Londoners would come to visit viewpoints, enjoy the many health-giving springs, or have their fortune read by members of the Roma community encamped on what became Gypsy Hill. Margaret Finch, known as ‘Queen of the Gypsies,’ was a famed fortune teller who lived to the ripe old age of 108 and was purported to have lived in a cone-shaped hut beneath an ancient tree at the bottom of Gypsy Hill.
But this flourishing woodland economy couldn’t withstand the technological shocks of the industrial revolution. By the 19th century steel replaced timber, coal replaced charcoal, and new chemicals replaced oak bark; the traditional industries of the Great North Wood quickly collapsed.
Clearance and lucky escapes…
A series of Enclosure Acts in the 18th and 19th centuries extinguished the rights of commoners to graze their animals and collect firewood and meant that the woodlands could be parcelled-up and sold-off to the highest bidder. Many of the ancient coppices and commons were incorporated into private estates and much of the wood was cleared for crop production.
In the early 19th century, canals and then railways provided new links to the area and dragged urban development southwards from central London. The erection of the Crystal Palace in 1854 on Penge Place (formerly enclosed from Penge Common), spawned new development on the ridge’s steeper slopes and high plateau. The remaining woodlands, which until then were protected by their topography and the London clay upon which they stood, were felled and rapidly built upon. By the 1890s much of the Great North Wood had been lost and the fragments that remained were appropriated into private gardens and parks. Dulwich Wood and Sydenham Hill Wood survived as the largest parcel, mostly under the protective custody of the Dulwich Estate. Others lived on in place names: Brockley (Old English for badger clearing), Honor Oak, Forest Hill, Gipsy Hill, Penge (derived from a Celtic word meaning ‘edge of the wood’), Selhurst (Anglo-Saxon for dwelling in a wood) and, of course, the Norwoods (a contraction of North Wood).
Today the Great North Wood survives as a handful of ancient woodland fragments, which together with areas of recent woodland and other greenspaces, remain an important stronghold for nature in the urban sprawl of south London. The London Borough of Lewisham skirts the eastern boundary of the historical woodland and some important remnants still fall within the borough today.
New Cross Gate Cutting
One of these is London Wildlife Trust nature reserve New Cross Gate Cutting. A secluded area of woodland with small grassy glades, set on the broad slopes of a deep railway cutting, the reserve lies on what was once the northern end of the Great North Wood. The area was cleared of woodland in the 18th century to make way for agriculture and became known as Plowed Garlic Hill.
In 1809 a cutting was dug through the hill to create the Croydon Canal and thirty years later the cutting was deepened and widened to make way for the railway. In the 19th century, clay was excavated from the cutting for use in a local brickworks and the crushed overcooked brick was dumped back there, creating a low pH substrate which allows acid grassland plant species such as sheep’s sorrel and sheep’s fescue to thrive.
During World War II the site was used as an allotment to grow food and you can still see a water trough and some suckering plum trees which remain from this period. From the middle of the 20th century the site was left to its own devices and developed into the dense secondary woodland of birch, oak, sycamore and hawthorn that you see today.
London Wildlife Trust took over management of the site in 1988 and New Cross Gate Cutting Nature Reserve was born. We’ve worked with volunteers since then to maintain a diversity of habitats in the reserve which support a wide variety of wildlife. In summer the glade is a great place to spot butterflies and you can see great spotted woodpeckers high up in the canopy all year round. The site is part of an important corridor of greenspace running along the railway that includes the nature reserves of Garthorne Road, Devonshire Road and Buckthorne Cutting. Together they make up a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) of metropolitan importance.
Another Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, Hilcrest Wood, falls on the steep slopes surrounding Hilcrest Housing Estate, just north of Crystal Palace Park. The estate was built on a stretch of the former Nunhead to Crystal Palace High Level Railway line which closed in 1954 following the loss of the Crystal Palace by fire in 1936. Grand entrances of the tunnels that housed the railway can be seen at either end of the site and provide a home for hibernating bats. Several areas of woodland were retained when the estate was built in 1967 and these survive to this day. The woodland contains sessile oak, sycamore, sweet chestnut and hornbeam as well as few large conifers left over from Victorian garden planting, including Scot’s pine and cedar. Today the wood forms part of the Green Chain Walk that links green spaces from Thamesmead to Nunhead Cemetery.
Working the Wood for the future…
Despite their importance the remnant woodlands of the Great North Wood face a number of threats. Under-management and the proliferation of invasive plants have led to much of the woodland becoming heavily shaded and unsuitable for wildflowers and tree seedlings, including the light-hungry oak. High visitor numbers and heavy footfall have resulted in the almost complete loss of ground flora and understory in some areas. Nutrification from air pollution and dogs has altered soil chemistry to favour a lower diversity of plants. Years of fly-tipping have led to some woodlands becoming choked with a thick layer of rubbish and this historic neglect has led to the further threat of building development. London Wildlife Trust has long recognised the importance of the Great North Wood and the need to address some of the threats described above. Through our long term management of Sydenham Hill Wood and New Cross Gate Cutting and our Great North Wood Living Landscapes Project launched in 2017, we have been able to work alongside landowners and the local community to help conserve the precious habitats of the Great North Wood and inspire new generations to value this unique landscape.
Click here find out more about the Great North Wood and how you can get involved.