A stroll through Great North Wood is a step back in history

Might this be the oldest oak in what remains of the Great North Wood?

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.

Our street names are often founded in local history

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.

Scraps of the ancietn Great North Wood can be found in some of our parks, like Biggin Wood

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.

Beaulieu Heights off South Norwood Hill appears almost untouched from the Middle Ages. In fact, it takes much work to maintain its wild appearance

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.

Biggin Wood provides a great location for a walk on an autumn day

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”.

Croydon’s Morris dancers celebrate medieval tradition of the Great North Wood

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.

Pendulous Sedge in Biggin Wood, an ancient woodland indicator species

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.

Deep in the heart of suburbia, Beaulieu Heights offers a touch of ancient wildness on a November day

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.

Grim the Collier, as found in a Croydon garden

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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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Croydon parks, Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood, Education, Environment, Moira O'Donnell, Nature Notes, South Norwood, Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A stroll through Great North Wood is a step back in history

  1. Pingback: Discovering the Great North Wood – London Gardens Trust Blog

  2. Lewis White says:

    Thank you Moira for your hugely interesting article. It has certainly opened my eyes as to the importance in the South London landscape and ecology of the modern remnants of the North Wood, and the grimy realities of life in Elizabethan Croydon– and the comedic / dramatic exploitation of Croydon’s reputation at the time. The Croydon complexyone. Very like the modern “ye Croydonne faceliftte”. Some things never change.

    I hope Moira will not mind my refering to her mention of Penge -not as another comedic target, but as a woodland place name. There are very few names of definite Celtic origin left in the London and the South East. There are quite a few Anglo Saxon placenemanes which refer to the indigenous Celtic inhabitants, or as the Germanic immigrants called them– the “welsh” i.e “foreigners” . Wallington is one–the Welsh (Wall) people (ing) town (ton).

    Penge is the real thing, and recognisable in modern Welsh language or as we should call it “Cymraeg” or “Brythonic”, being Pen (head or hilltop) Ceat (woodland) (probably then pronounced cay-at) or perhaps Coed (coyd), meaning in total “wooded hilltop”, which is exactly descriptive of the wooded heights of the Upper Norwood hills. A remarkable linguistic survival. One can imagine an English invader arriving at the foot of the hill, looking up and asking a native–
    “What is that place called?”
    ” Pen-ceat”.
    “Pen -waht ?”
    “Pen ceat”

    OK, Pen……ge that will do. Thanks. Now, would you like to work for me ? I have built a nice place for you er…Welsh. It’s called “Wallington”. Nice and dry underfoot there. Much heathier than this wet, sticky clayey…. “Pengey” sort of place ! Ha ha ha Penge !!!!

  3. Pingback: Discovering the Great North Wood - Blog - Mile 91

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