Sydenham Hill Wood

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Sydenham Hill Wood is a nine-hectare[1] wood on the northern slopes of the Norwood Ridge in the London Borough of Southwark, and is an important wildlife site. Together with the adjacent Dulwich Wood (which is privately owned[2] and managed by the Dulwich Estate[3]), Sydenham Hill Wood is the largest extant tract of the ancient[4] Great North Wood.[5] The two woods were separated after the relocation of The Crystal Palace in 1854 and the creation of the high level line in 1865.[3]

The land is leased to Southwark Council who have chosen London Wildlife Trust to manage it.[6] Sydenham Hill Wood and Fern Bank are a Local Nature Reserve.[5][7][8]

In 1997 Sydenham Hill Wood was given the UK-MAB Urban Wildlife Award for Excellence.[9] There are conservation workdays and wildlife events.[2]


The oak-lined formal avenue, known as Cox's Walk, leading from the junction of Dulwich Common and Lordship Lane was cut soon after 1732[10] by Francis Cox to connect his establishment of the Green Man Tavern and Dulwich Wells with the more popular Sydenham Wells.[11] When the poet Thomas Campbell lived in Sydenham (between 1805 and 1822) he would visit his friend Dr Glennie, in Dulwich Grove[12] who had established a school on the site of the tavern.

A rear view of The Hoo.

After the relocation of the Crystal Palace in 1854, the Dulwich Estate governors, whose responsibility was to use the land in the Manor of Dulwich to raise money to fund the college, made plots along Sydenham Hill available on long leases, and a series of very large houses was built. Between the junction with Crescent Wood Road and Cox's Walk there were seven houses. One of the largest was the Hoo, standing almost opposite the present 36 Sydenham Hill.[3] In some of George William Johnson's horticultural publications from around the 1880s there is mention of a Mr. and Mrs. Richard Thornton of The Hoo, Sydenham Hill and gardeners Mr. Ratty and W. Barrell.[13]

A view of the erstwhile trackbed from the footbridge.

The folly was in the former grounds of the house Fairwood at 53 Sydenham Hill, built in about 1864. First occupied by Alderman David Henry Stone,[14] who in 1874 was Lord Mayor of London. Shortly after moving to Fairwood Alderman Stone commissioned James Pulham & Son to build the folly.[15][16] Incised lines on the folly's arch simulating stonework are very much like those on the bridge in Buckingham Palace Gardens. The Pulham catalogue indicates that the firm of James Pulham and Son worked extensively in the Sydenham/Dulwich area in the 1870s. In the grounds in front of Kingswood House, less than a mile from here, there are some remains of features that were done in Pulhamite.[17]

The view towards Lordship Lane Station, painted by Camille Pissarro in 1871.

In 1862 the London, Chatham and Dover Railway started construction of the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway from Nunhead to serve the Crystal Palace at Sydenham following enactment of the London Chatham And Dover Railway (Metropolitan Extensions) Act.[18][19] It went through Sydenham Hill Wood, the Dulwich College estate and two tunnels, to terminate at the west of the Crystal Palace. It opened on 1 August 1865 with one station, Charles Barry's Gothic Crystal Palace (High Level) terminus, but other stations were soon added[2] at Lordship Lane on 1 September, Honor Oak on 1 December and Nunhead on 18 September 1871.[20] Upper Sydenham station was opened on 1 August 1884.[21]

A small part of the Upper Sydenham 1894 Ordnance Survey map, showing some of the buildings and garden paths on the southeast edge of the wood.
The folly, a rockery and what was once the path of an ornamental stream.

In 1871, Camille Pissarro painted the view down the tracks to Lordship Lane from the wood and brick bridge on Cox's Walk.[22] The image, of a train billowing steam, grasps the optimism of the industrial age. In 1908 the footbridge was renewed in teak and iron to the same design as the original.[11]

The fortunes of the railway waned with those of the Crystal Palace, declining after the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936. It closed during the war, and the post-war re-opening was unsuccessful, with the Crystal Palace High Level station in a poor state of repair. The last service ran in 1954. The track was lifted in 1956 and the terminus demolished in 1961.[2]

In the 1950s and early 60s, the folly still showed remnants of stained glass in its window, nearby there was an artificial stream that ran down hill and there were greenhouse and potting sheds in the wood, one of which, covered in ivy, was full of clay flower pots of all sizes, still arranged as they had been left by the gardener. The green houses had boiler houses and heating systems with huge hot water pipes all round.[23]

In early 1952 the King Edwards Hospital Fund for London purchased Beechgrove, 111 Sydenham Hill, and equipped it for use as the "Beechgrove Home for the Aged Sick".[24] It was opened by the Countess of Limerick on 17 June 1952 and run by the County of London Branch of the British Red Cross Society to accommodate elderly people discharged from hospitals in Camberwell. It closed in January 1960 when the Fund surrendered the lease to the Dulwich Estate.[25]

In 1983 Southwark Council leased the Wood to the London Wildlife Trust (LWT) to manage as a nature reserve. [1. South London Press, September 9, 1983]

In 1984 Southwark Council’s Mid/South Southwark Local Plan included proposals for blocks of up to 146 flats on the top part of the Wood. [2. City Wildspace by Bob Smyth (Hilary Shipman 1987)] LWT’s Southwark Wildlife Group organised the setting up of the Save the Woods campaign backed by West Lewisham MP John Maples and other local MPs. [3. South London Press, November 30, 1983] Dulwich MP Gerald Bowden asked the Secretary of State for the Environment to intervene. [4. The Times, December 4, article by David Nicholson-Lord] A full-page Evening Standard article set the scene for a New Year public inquiry into the Plan. [5. Evening Standard, December 20, 1984, article by Tom Pocock]

During three days examining the Wood issue, the January inquiry inspector heard evidence from a dozen ecologists on the Wood’s wildlife diversity, other witnesses describing the Wood’s educational and amenity value, visited the site (when a local primary school just happened to be visiting) and listened to views from several hundred members of the public attending an evening meeting at Kingswood House. [6. Country Life, January 24, 1985; Time Out, January 31, 1985; The Times, February 2, 1985]

In the House of Commons, Southwark MP Simon Hughes said: “In the borough of Southwark, part of which is in my constituency, Sydenham Hill Wood, one of the remaining very old woodlands in the south of England, is under threat. There is a very strong lobby against its destruction by the London Wildlife Trust. But it is primarily the local people who are fighting by means of a public inquiry to protect that wood.” [7. Hansard, February 8, 1985]

A further threat to the wider Wood emerged when Dulwich College Estates Governors applied for planning permission to build 36 flats on the site of the former Beechgrove House in the Dulwich Wood part of the Wood in their ownership. [8. South London Press, May 19, 1985]

In July, the Local Plan inspector reported that most of the Wood should be protected from development. [9. South London Press, July 7, 1985; Guardian, July, 1985] The written report was published in the same week that Southwark Council’s planning committee rejected the Beechgrove application. [10. South London Press, August 1985]

In advance of a public inquiry into the Beechgrove plans held in November 1986, Gerald Bowden MP said: “I’ve never had quite such a wide range of ordinary people writing to me on one subject. There is very broad opposition to the flats.” [11. South London Press, November 11, 1986] The inspector’s subsequent verdict against the plan was hailed as “Wood reprieve a policy precedent.” [12. The Times, February 23, 1987, article by David Nicholson-Lord] “The need to preserve areas of existing natural woodland within the urban areas is of as much importance in preserving our heritage and i9mproving the quality of the environment as that of preserving the countryside,” the inspector said. [13. City Wildspace by Bob Smyth (Hilary Shipman 1987)]

In 1988 there were still many wild rhododendrons, a lone monkey puzzle, the remains of a formal pool near the cedar of Lebanon, fragments of Pulhamite ornaments and the folly.[17]

The trackbed was built on in some places but in others it has been allowed to revert to nature.[2] Part of the route adjacent to the Horniman Museum and Gardens is now a 'Railway Nature Trail', maintained for the museum by the Trust for Urban Ecology. In Sydenham Hill Wood its path can be followed from the footbridge on Cox's Walk to the entrance of the Crescent Wood tunnel. The tunnel emerges again in the north west corner of Wells Park.

To the west of and parallel with the trackbed, there is a small stream in the woods called the Ambrook,[6] a tributary of the River Effra[26] feeding a pond in the neighbouring Dulwich Wood. From here it flows across the golf course, then alongside Cox's Walk, under Dulwich Common and into the lake in Dulwich Park. In wet weather it rises above the drains and flows along the road around Dulwich Park by Frank Dixon Way.[27]


Now a unique mix of old woodland, Victorian garden survivors, and recent woodland, it is one of the closest ancient woods to central London and is home to over 200 species of trees and flowering plants. A multitude of fungi, rare insects, birds and elusive woodland mammals including the Wood mouse[28] are also present.[5]

Mostly sessile oak-hornbeam woodland, the site includes a wide variety of other tree and shrub species, including numerous exotics planted when the wood included parts of large gardens. The flora includes numerous indicators of long-established woodland; ramsons[28] (Allium ursinum), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) and hairy wood-rush (Luzula pilosa). The last two of these are uncommon in London. All three British woodpeckers breed, along with nuthatch, treecreeper, tawny owl, kestrel[29] and sparrowhawk. Hawfinches are recorded occasionally and may also breed. Invertebrates are well recorded and include the purple hairstreak and speckled wood[30] butterflies, several nationally scarce bees and wasps, and stag beetles.[30] Fungi are also well recorded (174 species) and mosses include Mnium punctatum at its only known London locality.[31]

There is only one small pond in Sydenham Hill Wood which tends to dry up in summer, so there are no frogs or toads on any regular basis.

Of the bat species using the wood, there are records of common and soprano pipistrelles, noctules (which are in decline nationally) at least one species of the myotis bats, and brown long-eared bats[32] (the only site in Southwark where these have been recorded).[33]


There is a map and numbered trail from the entrance on Crescent Wood off Sydenham Hill and there is another entrance by the footbridge on Cox's Walk. By public transport the Crescent Wood entrance can be reached by bus 356 from Forest Hill station alighting at the 'Crescent Wood Road' stop. Buses on route 363[34] from Crystal Palace also pass near the entrance at an adjacent 'Crescent Wood Road' stop. The wood can also be reached from Sydenham Hill railway station. From the station turn right a short distance along College Road, past St Stephen's church, then through the white gate on the opposite side of the road into Low Cross Wood Lane and on the left just ahead is a gate to Dulwich Wood. In Dulwich Wood follow the path straight ahead until turning to the right just before the pond. This will bring you out close to Crescent Wood tunnel in Sydenham Hill Wood. If the gate into Dulwich Wood is locked follow the steeply upward sloping lane onto Crescent Wood Road, turning left at the top and following the road will bring you to the Crescent Wood Road entrance.


  1. ^ Evans, Humphrey (28 December 2003). "Secret London: Sydenham Hill - The view from the bridge". The Independent on Sunday. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "". Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  3. ^ a b c Based on post by local historian Steve Grindlay to Sydenham Town Forum Topic: Old Sydenham Hill
  4. ^ The Great North Wood - A brief history of ancient woodlands from Selhurst to Deptford by LSC Neville, London Wildlife Trust, 1987
  5. ^ a b c "Sydenham Hill Wood & Cox's Walk". London Wildlife Trust. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Colin Higgins, Project Manager, Sydenham Hill Wood LNR, London Wildlife Trust
  7. ^ "Sydenham Hill Wood and Fern Bank". Local Nature Reserves. Natural England. 7 March 2013. Retrieved 3 December 2013. 
  8. ^ "Map of Sydenham Hill Wood and Fern Bank". Local Nature Reserves. Natural England. Retrieved 3 December 2013. 
  9. ^ MaB Urban Forum[dead link]
  10. ^ Hall, Edwin (1922). DULWICH HISTORY AND ROMANCE 2nd Edition. Bickers and Sons. p. 46. 
  11. ^ a b From the Nun's Head to the Screaming Alice by Mathew Frith, The Friends of the Great North Wood, 1995
  12. ^ "Thomas Campbell" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from Personal Acquaintance (1871) pages 345-58 by Samuel Carter Hall
  13. ^ From a search for "The Hoo, Sydenham Hill" on Google Books
  14. ^ Ye parish of Camerwell : a brief account of the parish of Camberwell : its history and antiquities by William Harnett Blanch, page 407
  15. ^ History of Beechgrove, Sydenham Hill and Pulhamite in Sydenham by Steve Grindlay
  16. ^ Durability Guaranteed - Pulhamite Rockwork by Camilla Beresford and David Mason, English Heritage 2008
  17. ^ a b Great Credit upon the Ingenuity and Taste of Mr. Pulham by Sally Festing, Garden History, Vol. 16, No. 1. (Spring, 1988), pp. 90-102
  18. ^ London Chatham And Dover Railway(Metropolitan Extensions) Act of 17 July 1862
  19. ^ Goode, Charles (1984). To the Crystal Palace. Forge Books. ISBN 0-904662-13-6. 
  20. ^ Disused Stations in the UK Lordship Lane page
  21. ^ "Subterranea Britannica Site: Upper Sydenham Station". Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  22. ^ "Sydenham Hill Wood - Southwark Council". 2010-01-20. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  23. ^ From a reminiscence by Kenny B about Sydenham Hill on Sydenham Town Forum
  24. ^ The British Journal of Nursing. July 1952. p. 68. 
  25. ^ Dulwich Society Newsletter Summer 2007
  26. ^ "A River Runs Through It - Effra". Living South. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  27. ^ Walking the River Effra[dead link]
  28. ^ a b Lapsewood Walk Interpretation Board. London Wildlife Trust. February 2008. 
  29. ^ British Trust for Ornithology
  30. ^ a b Cox's Walk Interpretation Board. London Wildlife Trust. February 2008. 
  31. ^ "Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood". Greenspace Information for Greater London (GiGL). London Wildlife Trust. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  32. ^ Crescent Wood Road Interpretation Board. London Wildlife Trust. February 2008. 
  33. ^ London Wildlife Trust News Archive Monday, 10 September 2007, Woodland Bat Roost Project at Sydenham Hill Wood
  34. ^ Transport for London

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • The Great North Wood - A brief history of ancient woodlands from Selhurst to Deptford by LSC Neville, London Wildlife Trust, 1987 Booklet (Now out of print)
  • The Great North Wood the woodlands of the Norwood and Sydenham ridge by Mathew Frith, London Wildlife Trust, 1996 leaflet.
  • City Wildspace by Bob Smyth, Hilary Shipman, 1987.
  • Crystal Palace (High Level) and Catford Loop by V Mitchell & K Smith, Middleton Press, 1991
  • The Railway through Sydenham Hill Wood, From the Nun's Head to the Screaming Alice by Mathew Frith, The Friends of the Great North Wood and London Wildlife Trust leaflet 1995.
  • London's Local Railways by A A Jackson, David & Charles, 1978
  • The Crystal Palace (High Level) Branch by W Smith, British Railway Journal 28, 1989
  • Durability Guaranteed - Pulhamite Rockwork pdf file on the English Heritage website.
  • New Scotland Yard, The Complete Series 3, Network DVD, episode Daisy Chain, filmed in January 1973 briefly features Beechgrove.

Coordinates: 51°26′09″N 0°04′02″W / 51.4359°N 0.0671°W / 51.4359; -0.0671