Above: View on a sunny day in the dense woodland – now known as 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 what we now call Inner 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.
The Extent of the Great North Wood
The area extended over an approximate diagonal, 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 with a winding road called Sydenham Hill. That road is connected to the highest ground which is at the Crystal Palace ridge – rising to 360 feet. That is today called Crystal Palace Parade – with College Road and Sydenham Hill at one end and Gipsy Hill and Central Hill at the other. The wooded land around Streatham Common, West Norwood, Upper Norwood and Crystal Palace was also once part of that dense forest.
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 constructing buildings in London 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.
It was named North Wood in Anglo-Saxon times in order to distinguish it from the huge South Wood which covered Surrey, Sussex and Kent. Many people believe it acquired its name because it was north of the village of Croydon – the only village at the time for miles around.
Across the large expanse of woodland in medieval times were trees such as hornbeam and sessile oak dominated the wood. The sessile oak is so-called because it has stalkless (or sessile) acorns. Other important trees, especially for timber, were the oak and the elm.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Great North Wood had a history of strong ownership by local people and was managed for various uses. Workers included people like the Woodman and the charcoal-burner. They often built a timber house and lived in the forest with their family. Four main crafts were practised in the forest –
Timber – for building houses and also timber for ship-building at Deptford Dockyard. If the timber was being used for ship-building, oak and elm were the only trees used because they rot very slowly when submerged in water.
Charcoal – at a time when no other fuel was available to reach temperatures required for smelting, it was vital for the production of iron. Other uses were in making glass, lime and gunpowder, as well as armour, weapons, horseshoes, tools and household goods. Alder traditionally makes the best charcoal. It was used in making gunpowder because it can be ground down so finely.
Tannin – which was used for Bermondsey’s leather-making industries.
Firewood – which is probably the more obvious and least interesting use.
The Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts from the late 18th century onwards led to the Great North Wood losing its economic validity and much of it was enclosed and sold off for housing development.
Great North Wood Today
Not all of the Great North Wood has gone and, if you know where to look, you can see examples of it in its original state. Within the borders of the London Borough of Southwark are Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood. They are good examples of how the 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.
In addition, it should be noted that several parks and open spaces across the area of the map derive from once being part of the Great North Wood. The small park called One Tree Hill is one example. Streatham Common is another. If you live in the area, take a look at the parks on a map and then give them a visit.