NATURE NOTES: There’s a vital link to a piece of medieval England on our Croydon door step. MOIRA O’DONNELL set off to investigate
It was a photograph of a Thornton Heath street sign on Twitter that set me off on a mission to discover more about the Great North Wood and its legacy in Croydon.
The Great North Wood is a sprawling ancient landscape of woods and commons and is itself a remnant of the vast wildwood that blanketed Britain after the end of the last ice age.
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.
This Great North Wood stretched for several miles between the Thames and Croydon: from Deptford in the north to Selhurst in the south, with the dominant trees being oak and hornbeam. It must have been a wild, beautiful and sometimes dangerous landscape, consisting of a mosaic of dense forest, scrub, gorse-covered heath, ponds and streams. With little human habitation, it would have been the realm of wolves, boars and other wild animals, making it an ideal place for criminals and other fugitives to flee for shelter from the law.
Throughout the Middle Ages the Wood was managed by local people for timber, charcoal, tannin and firewood, and it even provided some of the raw materials to help build ships in Nelson’s navy, but by the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts from the late 18th Century onwards, it lost its economic validity, and eventually much of it was partitioned and cleared, sold off for the housing developments of south London’s suburbs.
Today, all that’s left is a series of scraps of the Great North Wood, in small woodlands, parks, cemeteries, sports grounds, railway embankments and even back gardens. The largest remaining tracts are Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods
Evidence of the Great North Wood lives on in several place names, the most obvious of which is Norwood itself. Other examples indicative of a sylvan past are Woodside, Selhurst and Penge. Then we have the place which inspired my quest – Colliers Water Lane in Thornton Heath.
A collier was a charcoal burner, and from the Middle Ages till the late 18th century, charcoal was the commodity for which Croydon became best known. Charcoal was an important domestic and industrial fuel, and because of its rich woodland surroundings Croydon was a main source of fuel for London in the days before coal was brought down by boat from the north-east of England.
In an account of Croydon written in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I we learn: “The streets were deep hollow ways and very dirty, the houses generally with wooden steps into them – and the inhabitants in general were smiths and colliers.”
The colliers of Croydon seem to have been rather a notorious lot, with their soot-blackened faces giving them the “Croydon complexyone” and they have been immortalised in several works of poetry and prose.
For example, in Quip for an Upstart Courtier by Robert Greene, published in 1592, we find the following line: “Marry, quoth hee that lookt like Lucifer, though I am black, I am not the Divell, but indeed a collyer of Croydon”.
A significant number of Croydon colliers appear to have been roguish characters, being regularly caught trying to pass off short-measure sackloads of charcoal. The punishment was for the perpetrator to be put in the stocks – pilloried – and have his undersize sacks burnt nearby. In the 1662 play Grim the Collier of Croydon, the fictional Grim admits to having been “five times pillered, my Coles given to the Poor, and my Sacks burnt before my face”.
With their sooty faces and rougish tendencies, it is no wonder then that the colliers were regarded as leading a rather harsh and uncouth way of life. So much so that in 1480, a London goldsmith who was outraged at the way he had been treated exclaimed that he would “rather be dwelling at Croydon among the colliers”.
Today, the Great North Wood is celebrated by Croydon’s North Wood Morris Men, both in their name and by their badge with the image of an acorn on their baldricks.
Then, of course, there are Croydon’s four major surviving areas of the Great North Wood itself: Grangewood Park, Beaulieu Heights, Spa Wood and Biggin Wood.
I took a grand tour of all of these on a cold but bright Sunday in November, and felt a profound sense of history as I wandered through the majestic oaks in all their autumn glory, and tried to image what the landscape would have looked like in centuries gone by.
In Spa Wood I met one of the friends group who pointed me in the direction of what is possibly the oldest remaining oak of the Great North Wood.
In June, as reported by Inside Croydon, the London Wildlife Trust was awarded a grant of nearly £700,000 from Heritage Lottery Fund to launch the Great North Wood Project, which will raise awareness of this largely forgotten woodland.
This project will focus on resident woodland species such as woodpeckers, purple hairstreak butterflies, stag beetles, oak and hornbeam trees; with surveying, guided walks, and family activities such as minibeast hunts and teddy bear picnics.
Conservation work will also enhance the ancient woodland areas and help people discover them. You can read more about the Great North Wood Project here.
And it is not only in local road names that we can find reminders of the history of the Great North Wood.
To my great delight, I have discovered that the pretty orange wildflower whose common name is fox and cubs is also known as “Grim the Collier”.
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