Above: Looking towards Forest Hill in March from the highest part of Mountsfield Park. All the greenery in the foreground is part of the park itself. The large blocks in the middle-distance are mainly in Catford. On the horizon, we can see the clock tower of Horniman Museum which is beside London Road as it rises from Forest Hill Station. To the left are trees growing on rising land in gardens beside the road called Sydenham Hill. To the right of the clock tower is a long white roof-line which is part of Horniman Museum. The land to the right continues to rise, with trees which are all part of Horniman Gardens. The highest land on the right is the road called Horniman Drive with a Police radio mast at the highest point.
So what is a ‘col’? Strictly speaking, the term only applies to mountain ranges and since Forest Hill has plenty of modest hills – but certainly no mountain ranges – we are pushing our luck in using the word at all. A ‘col’ is the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks and the term is really reserved for high mountain ranges. There is, however, nothing like a word you have not often used to make you think and that is the whole purpose of using it in this article.
If you have driven on roads in the south of France, you will probably have seen a sign at the side of the road naming the pass through the mountains as a ‘col’.
Do you ever walk around London and wonder what it must have looked like before all the houses and offices were built? What was the land like when it was just open to nature and the roads of today were just tracks? It may be that your life is so busy parking the car and trying to remember what you ought to pick up in Tesco that you do not give the terrain around you a second thought. That is a shame because there is a lot to be learned by just considering whether the land is flat or sloping and where it is likely that there was once a stream. In fact, a vast amount of London’s history and the reason why villages were located in the places that they occupy today derive solely from the geography of their surroundings.
Returning to the ‘Forest Hill Col’, we have the evidence before us for why the track – now better known as where Lordship Lane meets London Road – was formed. In order to understand Forest Hill for this consideration, it is necessary to visit Catford and then look back towards the hills of Forest Hill. The evidence is presented right in front of your eyes. Forest Hill, as its name suggests, is hilly but Catford is essentially flat with one gentle hill rising where it is crossed by Brownhill Road. At the summit of that gentle rise is a large open space called Mountsfield Park. It provides splendid views of Forest Hill, especially in the winter months when the foliage of the trees does not obstruct the view.
The image, taken from Mountsfield Park, shows that London Road (which passes beside Horniman Museum) is able to cross the range of hills at the lowest point and that must have been why the early track was formed. Either side of London Road the land rises still further – with the hill on which Horniman Gardens stand on one side and the even steeper and higher hill that we now call Sydenham Hill on the other.
If in your mind you exaggerate the height of the hills for a moment you get the picture that the ‘Forest Hill Coll’ is a mini-representation of what you might find in a really mountainous region – like parts of southern France, Switzerland or Austria.