Great North Wood

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Above: View on a sunny day in the dense woodland – called Sydenham Hill Wood – that still remains from a small part of the original Great North Wood.

The subject of the Great North Wood relates to several London Boroughs – including Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. Croydon, of course, is an Outer London Borough. The fascination every time the subject is mentioned is probably because very little is known about the mysterious forest and also because something like 95 per cent of the original forest no longer exists.

On the outskirts of London were originally two very large forests – the Great North Wood in south London and the Middlesex Forest in north London. Land beside the Thames – like at Battersea, Lambeth, Westminster, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Deptford, Isle of Dogs, East Ham, West Ham, Greenwich and Woolwich – was flat and tended to be marshy. Moving away from the river, the land began to rise in height and eventually became quite hilly. It was on these ranges of hills that the two forests were to be found.


Above: Outline map showing the extent of the Great North Wood in the 16th century. Modern place names have been added to the map.

Turning to the Great North Wood, its area was along an approximate diagonal extending from just north of Croydon to an ancient place called Hatcham which is now known as New Cross. Included in the forest was the long ridge now crossed by a long winding road called Sydenham Hill. That road is connected to the highest ground which is at the Crystal Palace ridge – rising to 360 feet – with College Road and Sydenham Hill at one end and Gipsy Hill and Central Hill at the other. The land around Streatham Common, West Norwood, Upper Norwood and Crystal Palace was also once part of that dense forest.

The Great North Wood acquired its name because it was north of the only village for miles around called Croydon. The map shows the approximate extent of the forest in the 16th century. It was the time of the Tudors and they were building timber-framed houses, of which Staple Inn beside Holborn is a good example. Much of the wood for building came either from the Great North Wood or from Middlesex Forest. It was in Tudor times also that England started building ships for the King’s navy. The dockyards were at Deptford and Woolwich and much of the timber was felled in the Great North Wood for that purpose. Gradually the woodland was cleared, leaving only small areas covered by the original dense forest.

Within the borders of the London Borough of Southwark are Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood which are good examples of how the forest must have looked at one time. This land has remained in its original state ever since the days of the Great North Wood. The picture at the top was taken in Dulwich Wood a few years ago but little has changed because the woodland is now a protected conservation area.


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3 Responses to Great North Wood

  1. Andrew says:

    Sydenham Hill feels like an ancient woodland and long may it be protected. It is time to plant many more trees in streets and in the roadway to keep city air fresh! Fascinating account, thanks.


  2. The Great North Wood and its history is one of my favourite subjects. I am so glad you liked the blog. I fully support you idea of more trees being planted. London is one of the greenest cities in Europe but there is always a need for more trees.


  3. Terence ratcliffe says:

    Thank you for this short essay.


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