Saturday 6 November 2021


My latest contribution to that excellent magazine, Literary Review – 

 The Wood that Built London: A Human History of the Great North Wood By C.J. Schüler (Sandstone Press 321pp £19.99) 

 There was a time, not so long ago, when woodland stretched across south London in a great seven-mile swathe from Croydon (literal meaning ‘crocus valley’) to Deptford. It was not until Victorian times, when it was already seriously depleted, that it was given a name – the Great North Wood. Now that it is depleted still further, reduced to scattered patches amid suburban sprawl, it is attracting renewed attention and being recognised as an important survival of ancient woodland. That’s ancient woodland, not wild wood: there is scarcely any of that, or of any other true wilderness, in this country. The ancient woodland was a working environment, intensively managed to provide timber for building, wood for domestic and agricultural use, charcoal for kilns, bakers’ ovens and smiths’ forges, and wild food for humans and beasts. The history of the Great North Wood is ‘not only a natural history, but a human one’, as C.J. Schüler puts it in the introduction to his timely and informative survey of the past and present of this remarkable woodland. 
 The story begins to take shape in Anglo-Saxon times. By 871, Croydon and all its surrounding land had come into the possession of the Archbishop of Canterbury (hence the bishop’s palace that can still be seen in that unlovely town). A hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins was dug up by railway workers in 1862, between Thornton Heath and Selhurst, and a medieval hoard turned up in a garden near Beulah Hill in 1953 – close to the site of another treasure not mentioned by Schüler: the stolen World Cup, found in woodland by a dog called Pickles in 1966. 
 The history of the Great North Wood comes into focus with the arrival of the Normans, whose scrupulous record-keeping has gifted historians with masses of dry but invaluable material. Inevitably, records of legal disputes form the backbone of much of the history Schüler narrates, and he does his best to tease human interest out of the documentary evidence. It certainly leaves no doubt of how valuable a resource the woodland was, and how carefully it was managed to avoid damage and loss. In the sixteenth century a big new landowner emerged in the shape of Edward Alleyne, the wealthy theatre owner and actor who, in 1619, founded the College of God’s Gift in Dulwich (later to evolve into Dulwich College). A substantial remnant of the great wood still survives in Dulwich, adjoining the other major survival, Sydenham Hill Woods. 
 As time went on, events in the wider world impinged on the Great North Wood – the Great Fire of London, plague, the Civil War, the terrible storm of 1703. Medicinal springs were found, and gypsies became a popular feature of the woods around Norwood. Demand for charcoal fell in the 18th century, causing much woodland to be grubbed up. Enclosure Acts also made inroads – but none so destructive as the relentless spread of suburbia in Victorian times and later. Nevertheless, much of the surviving Great North Wood retained its rural character well into the 19th century, when its restful charm was enjoyed by Blake, Samuel Palmer, Ruskin, Dickens and others, including the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who was a keen plant spotter, the first to record the wild cherry (Prunus avium) in Dulwich Woods. The coming of the railways, and the re-erection of the Crystal Palace on Penge Peak, both had a big impact on the area, and gave rise to some striking collisions of past and present, as when the parishioners and dignitaries of Camberwell, beating the bounds of the parish, processed through the dining rooms of the Crystal Palace, causing much astonishment. 
 The later history of the Great North Wood has been of one long, broadly successful rearguard action against those who would subsume the remaining woodland into their development plans. Schüler details countless disputes, proposals, protests, inquiries, meetings, reports and surveys. Happily, from all of that agitation, the major surviving part of the Great North Wood – Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Woods – emerged as properly conserved and managed woodland. This is no longer a working environment, but now performs an equally valuable function as a beautiful and biodiverse ecosystem, thriving improbably close to London. Schüler details the abundant wildlife, plant and animal, to be found in the surviving woods, and describes their management, and the ways in which the public are engaged. As in almost all nature writing these days, the author comes over all apocalyptic as he looks to the future, and there are signs of a ‘woke’ outlook – is it fair to describe Sir Hans Sloane as ‘naturalist, slave-owner and founder of the British Museum’? Was being a slave-owner really the second most important thing about him? Never mind – you have to take your hat off to an author who gives a section of his last chapter the title ‘Covid’s Metamorphoses’.

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