Great North Wood
The Great North Wood was a natural oak woodland that covered most of the area of raised ground starting some four miles (6.4 km) south of central London, covering the Sydenham Ridge and the southern reaches of the River Effra and its tributaries. At its full extent, the wood's boundaries stretched almost as far as Croydon and as far north as Camberwell.
Although little of the original woodland remains, there are many placenames that refer to the Great North Wood. Today's suburban placenames that contain the contraction Norwood include South Norwood, Upper Norwood and West Norwood (known as Lower Norwood until 1885). Other local names that reflect the area's woodland past include Woodside, Forest Hill, and Honor Oak.
The earliest surviving mention of the wood dates from assize records in 1272, and it was known to be owned by the Whitehorse family during the reign of King Edward III. When Oliver Cromwell seized it from the Archbishop of Canterbury its area was measured at 830 acres (3.4 km2), but held only 9,200 oaken pollards.
Since the middle ages the woodland has been managed to provide goods of economic worth. The coppices were used to provide timber, charcoal, oak bark, and small wood whilst the commons and pastureland were used for grazing and as a source of turf and firewood.
Oak standards would have yielded timber for ship construction at the Royal Dockyard at Deptford, established in 1513, whilst the oak bark was taken to Bermondsey for leather making. Here it was boiled to extract tannins for use in the tanning process.
Oak and hornbeam were coppiced every 10-20 years to provide wood for charcoal. The charcoal burning took place in conical kilns in the wood, overseen by colliers, who then traded their products in markets. The charcoal was the primary fuel for bakeries and cookhouses for hundreds of years as King Edward I banned the use of coal from the north-east of England because it produced too much smoke. In 1870, the antiquary Andrew Ducarel noted that "the town [of Croydon] is surrounded with hills well covered with wood, whereof great store of charcoal is made."
Ancient oak trees were kept to mark the boundaries between parishes. The most notable of these trees was the Vicar's Oak that marked the boundary of four ancient parishes: Lambeth, Camberwell, Croydon and a detached portion of Battersea parish containing the hamlet of Penge. The site of the tree is now the junction of Westow Hill and Anerley Hill at Crystal Palace Park, and remains the boundary of the modern boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Croydon and Bromley. John Aubrey referred to this "ancient remarkable tree" in the past tense as early as 1718, but according to JB Wilson, the Vicar's Oak survived until 1825.
Another oak tree that survived the depredations of the shipbuilders was the Question Oak at Westwood, Charles Spurgeon's mansion, under which he challenged his students to query theological matters. (Westwood is not to be confused with the Metropolitan Tabernacle or with Spurgeon's College.)
By 1745, John Rocque's map of London and its environs showed the woodland to be only 3 miles (4.8 km) wide, encroached by common land at Croydon, Penge, Streatham, Knight's Hill, Dulwich and Westwood.
Much of the surviving woodlands were cleared and developed as a result of the 1797 Croydon Inclosure Act and sale of the late Lord Thurlow's estates in 1806, although some substantial fragments remain, notably the nature reserves at Dulwich Wood and Sydenham Hill Wood.
On 11 August 1668, Samuel Pepys wrote of visiting fortune tellers in these woods "This afternoon my wife and Mercer and Deb went with Pelting to see the Gypsies at Lambeth, and have their fortunes told; but what they did, I did not enquire." An encampment was recorded continuously there until broken up by police during the first enclosures.
As late as 1802, a hermit known as "Matthews the hairyman" lived in the wood in a cave or "excavated residence" within the woods.
The Great North Wood Project
In 2017 the London Wildlife Trust secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a four-year project to develop plans for a Living Landscape project based around the Great North Wood. The project aims to raise people’s awareness of this largely forgotten woodland, encouraging residents to explore, enjoy and value the natural wealth on their doorsteps. The Trust have selected 13 woodland sites within which they are carrying out habitat improvement works. These are New Cross Gate Cutting, One Tree Hill, Dulwich Wood, Sydenham Hill Wood, Hillcrest Wood, Crystal Palace Park, Streatham Common, Convent Wood, Biggin Wood, Spa Wood (The Lawns), Beaulieu Heights, Grangewood Park and Long Lane Wood.
- "The Great North Wood - fragments of a mighty woodland in south London - London Wildlife Trust". www.wildlondon.org.uk.
- "Norwood: Introduction - British History Online". www.british-history.ac.uk.
- Anderson, John (1898). Upper, West and South Norwood. ISBN 1147288356.
- John Aubrey Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, 1718, vol. 2, p. 33
- J.B. Wilson & H.A. Wilson The Story of Norwood ISBN 0-9515384-1-1
- London Wildlife Trust website: The Great North Wood - fragments of a mighty woodland in south London
- 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. Available from London Wildlife Trust (Sydenham Hill Project) £1 plus postage
- Smoke and Mirrors (part seven)-Great North Wood: http://www.bangthebore.org/archives/2923