There are reminders all around us of what our ancestors have destroyed, and a new book about the Great North Wood reminds us that it is future generations who will have to deal with its effects. By STEVEN DOWNES
Could it be that it was here, in south London, that one of the first examples of activism to combat climate change occurred?
In the 1880s, John Ruskin, the great writer, philosopher and polymath, gave a lecture to the London Institution in which he spoke against the industrialised destruction going on all around him. The great Victorian figure had already criticised the clearing of ancient natural woodlands at Sydenham to make way for the re-location of the wonder of the industrial age, the Crystal Palace.
Now, he identified the curse of releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere around us, a “plague-wind of the eighth decade of years in the 19th Century, a period which will assuredly be recognised in future meteorological history as one of the phenomena hitherto unrecorded in the courses of nature… It looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke, very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me”.
Ruskin was railing against the charcoal industry in south London and how it was eating away at the Great North Wood, the ancient woodland that once stretched across a seven-mile swathe from Croydon to Deptford.
Today, the Great North Wood is reduced to scattered patches, parks and open spaces tucked away in the suburban sprawl, but it is identifiable all around us in ghostly reminders: the various Norwoods, Upper, West and South, obviously, but also Forest Hill and Honor Oak, from what’s been called “A forest remembered in place names”.
Then there’s Penge (meaning “Wood’s End”), Woodside and Selhurst (from the Anglo-Saxon for “dwelling in a wood”). Even Colliers Water Lane, in Thornton Heath, provides a hint at the industrialised charcoal production that once went on here.
The Great North Wood was never a wild wood, but from medieval times a managed, working wood, where its trees provided the timber for Henry VIII’s navy’s ships at the Thames-side dockyards, fuel for bakers’ ovens and smithies’ forges, as well as the sacrifice of thousands of hornbeams and oaks to build many hundreds of houses which would ultimately encroach on its very existence, and later the charcoal that Ruskin so detested to fuel part of the Industrial Revolution.
The history of the Great North Wood is “not only a natural history but a human one”, as CJ Schüler puts it in the introduction to his latest book, The Wood That Built London.
From prehistoric times to the advent of covid, this book consists of multiple strands woven together to illustrate the impact of politics, farming, industry, religion, philosophy, climate, war, its meticulous detail snaring the reader in its pages just like the brambles might catch at passers-by in the undergrowth of the woods he’s writing about.
Chapter by chapter, the wood is whittled away, as Schüler details the casual and careless destruction of the natural asset as the first great global city is created around it, and swallows it whole.
The book outlines some of the cunning ruses used to achieve the destruction, how what was once public property can so easily be privatised, or turned into profit. “Common land” is renamed “wasteland” by the rich and powerful in order to seize it and use it to their own ends. Enclosure Acts cause further privatisation and destruction.
In detailing the battles of ordinary, concerned residents in the 1970s and 1980s to save what’s left of the woods – in Dulwich and Sydenham woods, not so far from where the residents of Central Hill are battling Lambeth Council today – Schüler provides a fascinating insight into an awakening of ecological activism, and perhaps provides a blueprint for future campaigns against needless overdevelopment.
As these British Isles hunker down to withstand the full force of Atlantic storms this week, we should not pretend that such extreme weather events are not caused by the climate change that the charcoal burners of south London set in motion 200 years earlier.
In Schüler’s book’s account of the devastation brought by the Great Storm of October 1987, when 18 people died across the UK and 75,000 trees in Croydon were uprooted, he attributes that weather event to the most powerful extratropical cyclone experienced in these islands for more than 250 years. It was not a freak storm, but a harbinger of what is to come.
Nature is fragile and, like the Great North Wood, when it’s gone, it’s gone.
- The Wood That Built London – A Human History of the Great North Wood, by CJ Schüler (322pp) is published by Sandstone Press. £19.99
- Thanks to Chris Schüler and Sandstone, Inside Croydon has three copies of the book to give away to this website’s signed-up patrons. Check back tomorrow for details of how you can enter
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