Great North Wood

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Coordinates: 51°25′35″N 0°04′38″W / 51.426507°N 0.077161°W / 51.426507; -0.077161

The Great North Wood was a natural oak forest that covered most of the area of raised ground starting some four miles (6 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.

Very little of the original woodland remains, but today's suburban placenames that contain the contraction Norwood are a reminder of the former woodland nature of the area, and include South Norwood, Upper Norwood, West Norwood (known as Lower Norwood until 1885). Other local names that reflect its past include Woodside, Gipsy Hill, Forest Hill, the Beulah Spa Tavern, Whitehorse Lane, and the Thurlow Arms.

The name Norwood stems from its links to Croydon.[1]


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 it was measured to cover 830 acres (3.4 km2), but held only 9,200 oaken pollards. Much timber was taken from the woodlands for use in the Royal Dockyard at Deptford as well for charcoal burning and building purposes.

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[2] referred to this "ancient remarkable tree" in the past tense as early as 1718, but according to JB Wilson,[3] 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.

In 1722, Daniel Defoe wrote of a "country being more open and more woody than any other part so near London, especially about Norwood, the parishes of Camberwell, Dullege and Luseme".

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.[4]

Other recreational activities, such as the pleasure gardens at Knight's Hill and the Spa on Beulah Hill, succumbed to the housebuilding boom of the Victorian era, eclipsed by The Crystal Palace.


The remants of the Great North Wood are at Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods.[5]

In the early 1990s, a local amenity group, Friends of the Great North Wood, produced a leaflet titled The Great North Wood: the woodlands of Norwood and Sydenham ridge in 1996 which had a brief history and a present-day map of the former area. The group was later disbanded.

In 2016 London Wildlife Trust secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund 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.[6]


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. Available from London Wildlife Trust (Sydenham Hill Project) £1 plus postage
  • Smoke and Mirrors (part seven)-Great North Wood :

See also[edit]