We live in a part of London that is ‘a forest remembered in place names’. JOHN GRINDROD has found a book which illustrates the point wonderfully well
Sometimes before you’ve even opened a book, you know you’re going to love it.
Tim Bird’s comic book The Great North Wood has a cover illustrated in his trademark freehand style, showing a row of regular 1960s houses peeping through a silhouetted line of trees.
Having grown up on the edge of New Addington, I immediately knew this was the book for me. It tells the story of south London’s once dense and sprawling ancient woodland, from prehistory right up to the present day, through a series of evocative illustrations and glimpses of moments and places lost in time. It was published in 2018 but I only read it this year, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve been recommending it to everyone since.
At 62 pages, this is a decent length for a comic book, though the story it tells isn’t simple or chronological.
“There are secrets in the thickets and tanglewood,” writes Bird. “Mysteries in the undergrowth.” And how beautifully he brings those mysteries to life.
We are drawn into the story by a fox, scavenging outside south London chicken shops and then going deeper into the wood. The fox is our guide, taking us through time and around the wood, from Croydon to Camberwell, Anerley to Streatham.
Throughout, he brings us reminders, ghosts from the past that still occupy the place. “Norwood. Forest Hill. Honor Oak,” he writes. “A forest remembered in place names.”
We encounter medieval Croydon on the edge of the forest. Tim tells of how the forest was cut down by Tudor shipbuilders and Georgian landowners, and how the area became built up over centuries. We have visitations by a drunk Elizabeth I, German bombers in the Blitz, and the Crystal Palace.
Bird’s illustration style may initially feel naïve, and his felt pen marks have a friendly rounded quality to them that make them feel approachable and warm.
But his work is so characterful, he is excellent at illustrating both nature and architecture and brings the fox to life with simple lines. This is a work of great sophistication, both graphically and in terms of the writing, too. He takes us through time by mirroring imagery from earlier pages, and either contrasting or comparing moments in history from the last millennia. It gives the book a slightly spooky, ghostly air that stays with you long after you’ve finished it.
It’s an absolute treat – perhaps a brilliant and unexpected Christmas present for anyone you know who has an interest in the history of south London, and its nature or architecture. Or just buy it for yourself, it’s the perfect fireside read.
It will delight and bewitch you. And if you are as soppy as I am, it might also make you cry.
- The Great North Wood and Tim Bird’s other works are available on his site timothybird.co.uk
- John Grindrod is the author of critically acclaimed Concretopia, about the rebuilding of Britain after the 1939-1945 war, and Outskirts, a study of the impact and amenity of the Green Belt. His next work, Iconicon, is due to be published in spring 2022
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