Sydenham Hill Wood

Sydenham Hill Wood

Sydenham Hill Wood is a nine-hectare[1] wood on the northern slopes of the Norwood Ridge in the London Borough of Southwark, and is an important wildlife site. Together with the adjacent Dulwich Wood (which is privately owned[2] and managed by the Dulwich Estate[3]), Sydenham Hill Wood is the largest extant tract of the ancient[4] Great North Wood.[5] The two woods were separated after the relocation of The Crystal Palace in 1854 and the creation of the high level line in 1865.[3]

The land is leased to Southwark Council who have chosen London Wildlife Trust to manage it[6] as a Local Nature Reserve since 1982.[5][7]

In 1997 Sydenham Hill Wood was given the UK-MAB Urban Wildlife Award for Excellence.[8] There are conservation workdays and wildlife events.[2]


The oak-lined formal avenue, known as Cox's Walk, leading from the junction of Dulwich Common and Lordship Lane was cut soon after 1732[9] by Francis Cox to connect his establishment of the Green Man Tavern and Dulwich Wells with the more popular Sydenham Wells.[10] When the poet Thomas Campbell lived in Sydenham (between 1805 and 1822) he would visit his friend Dr Glennie, in Dulwich Grove[11] who had established a school on the site of the tavern.

After the relocation of the Crystal Palace in 1854, the Dulwich Estate governors, whose responsibility was to use the land in the Manor of Dulwich to raise money to fund the college, made plots along Sydenham Hill available on long leases, and a series of very large houses was built. Between the junction with Crescent Wood Road and Cox's Walk there were seven houses. One of the largest was the Hoo, standing almost opposite the present 36 Sydenham Hill.[3] In some of George William Johnson's horticultural publications from around the 1880s there is mention of a Mr. and Mrs. Richard Thornton of The Hoo, Sydenham Hill and gardeners Mr. Ratty and W. Barrell.[12]

The folly was in the former grounds of the house Fairwood at 53 Sydenham Hill, built in about 1864. First occupied by Alderman David Henry Stone,[13] who in 1874 was Lord Mayor of London. Shortly after moving to Fairwood Alderman Stone commissioned James Pulham & Son to build the folly.[14][15] Incised lines on the folly's arch simulating stonework are very much like those on the bridge in Buckingham Palace Gardens. The Pulham catalogue indicates that the firm of James Pulham and Son worked extensively in the Sydenham/Dulwich area in the 1870s. In the grounds in front of Kingswood House, less than a mile from here, there are some remains of features that were done in Pulhamite.[16]

In 1862 the London, Chatham and Dover Railway started construction of the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway from Nunhead to serve the Crystal Palace at Sydenham following enactment of the London Chatham And Dover Railway (Metropolitan Extensions) Act.[17][18] It went through Sydenham Hill Wood, the Dulwich College estate and two tunnels, to terminate at the west of the Crystal Palace. It opened on 1 August 1865 with one station, Charles Barry's Gothic Crystal Palace (High Level) terminus, but other stations were soon added[2] at Lordship Lane on 1 September, Honor Oak on 1 December and Nunhead on 18 September 1871.[19] Upper Sydenham station was opened on the 1 August 1884.[20]

In 1871, Camille Pissarro painted the view down the tracks to Lordship Lane from the wood and brick bridge on Cox's Walk.[21] The image, of a train billowing steam, grasps the optimism of the industrial age. In 1908 the footbridge was renewed in teak and iron to the same design as the original.[10]

The fortunes of the railway waned with those of the Crystal Palace, declining after the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936. It closed during the war, and the post-war re-opening was unsuccessful, with the Crystal Palace High Level station in a poor state of repair. The last service ran in 1954. The track was lifted in 1956 and the terminus demolished in 1961.[2]

In the 1950s and early 60s, the folly still showed remnants of stained glass in its window, nearby there was an artificial stream that ran down hill and there were greenhouse and potting sheds in the wood, one of which, covered in ivy, was full of clay flower pots of all sizes, still arranged as they had been left by the gardener. The green houses had boiler houses and heating systems with huge hot water pipes all round.[22]

In early 1952 the King Edwards Hospital Fund for London purchased Beechgrove, 111 Sydenham Hill, and equipped it for use as the "Beechgrove Home for the Aged Sick".[23] It was opened by the Countess of Limerick on June 17th 1952 and run by the County of London Branch of the British Red Cross Society to accommodate elderly people discharged from hospitals in Camberwell. It closed in January 1960 when the Fund surrendered the lease to the Dulwich Estate.[24]

In the 1980s the whole of these ancient woodlands came under attack from housing developers, Professor Gordon MacGregor Reid (President of the Linnean Society of London for 2003–2006), who then worked at the Horniman Museum, organised the Sydenham Hill Wood Committee of the London Wildlife Trust to campaign against it.[25] Around this time there was also a mention of the situation in Private Eye. In 1988 there were still many wild rhododendrons, a lone Monkey Puzzle, the remains of a formal pool near the Cedar of Lebanon, fragments of Pulhamite ornaments and the folly.[16]

The trackbed was built on in some places but in others it has been allowed to revert to nature.Trust for Urban Ecology. In Sydenham Hill Wood its path can be followed from the footbridge on Cox's Walk to the entrance of the Crescent Wood tunnel. The tunnel emerges again in the north west corner of Wells Park.

To the west of and parallel with the trackbed, there is a small stream in the woods called the Ambrook,[6] a tributary of the River Effra[26] feeding a pond in the neighbouring Dulwich Wood. From here it flows across the golf course, then alongside Cox's Walk, under Dulwich Common and into the lake in Dulwich Park. In wet weather it rises above the drains and flows along the road around Dulwich Park by Frank Dixon Way.[27]


Now a unique mix of old woodland, Victorian garden survivors, and recent woodland, it is one of the closest ancient woods to central London and is home to over 200 species of trees and flowering plants. A multitude of fungi, rare insects, birds and elusive woodland mammals including the Wood mouse[28] are also present.[5]

Mostly sessile oak-hornbeam woodland, the site includes a wide variety of other tree and shrub species, including numerous exotics planted when the wood included parts of large gardens. The flora includes numerous indicators of long-established woodland; ramsons[28] (Allium ursinum), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) and hairy wood-rush (Luzula pilosa). The last two of these are uncommon in London. All three British woodpeckers breed, along with Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Tawny Owl, Kestrel[29] and Sparrowhawk. Hawfinches are recorded occasionally and may also breed. Invertebrates are well recorded and include the purple hairstreak and Speckled Wood[30] butterflies, several nationally scarce bees and wasps, and stag beetles.[30] Fungi are also well recorded (174 species) and mosses include Mnium punctatum at its only known London locality.[31]

There is only one small pond in Sydenham Hill Wood which tends to dry up in summer, so there are no frogs or toads on any regular basis.

Of the bat species using the wood, there are records of common and soprano pipistrelles, noctules (which are in decline nationally) at least one species of the myotis bats, and brown long-eared bats[32] (the only site in Southwark where these have been recorded).[33]


There is a map and numbered trail from the entrance on Crescent Wood off Sydenham Hill and there is another entrance by the footbridge on Cox's Walk. By public transport the Crescent Wood entrance can be reached by bus 356 from Forest Hill station alighting at the 'Crescent Wood Road' stop. Buses on route 363[34] from Crystal Palace also pass near the entrance at an adjacent 'Crescent Wood Road' stop. The wood can also be reached from Sydenham Hill railway station. From the station turn right a short distance along College Road, past St Stephen's church, then through the white gate on the opposite side of the road into Low Cross Wood Lane and on the left just ahead is a gate to Dulwich Wood. In Dulwich Wood follow the path straight ahead until turning to the right just before the pond. This will bring you out close to Crescent Wood tunnel in Sydenham Hill Wood. If the gate into Dulwich Wood is locked follow the steeply upward sloping lane onto Crescent Wood Road, turning left at the top and following the road will bring you to the Crescent Wood Road entrance.


External links

  • About Lordship Lane station
  • Pictures on Flickr
  • The Dulwich Society
  • Sydenham Town Forum
  • The Pulham Legacy About the Victorian firm James Pulham and Son, which may have built the folly and other garden features.
  • The London Wildlife Trust
  • The London Wildlife Trust's Sydenham Hill Wood page.
  • The London Wildlife Trust's What's On page.
  • Sydenham Hill Woods, 1862 photo set by Steve Grindlay on flickr

Further reading

  • The Great North Wood - A brief history of ancient woodlands from Selhurst to Deptford by LSC Neville, London Wildlife Trust, 1987 Booklet (Now out of print)
  • The Great North Wood the woodlands of the Norwood and Sydenham ridge by Mathew Frith, London Wildlife Trust, 1996 Leaflet.
  • Crystal Palace (High Level) and Catford Loop by V Mitchell & K Smith, Middleton Press, 1991
  • The Railway through Sydenham Hill Wood, From the Nun's Head to the Screaming Alice by Mathew Frith, The Friends of the Great North Wood and London Wildlife Trust leaflet 1995.
  • London's Local Railways by A A Jackson, David & Charles, 1978
  • The Crystal Palace (High Level) Branch by W Smith, British Railway Journal 28, 1989
  • English Heritage website.

Coordinates: 51°26′09″N 0°04′02″W / 51.4359°N 0.0671°W / 51.4359; -0.0671