“London is like no other city I know in its ability to become beautiful. You can suddenly turn a corner and there are odd moments – of light, of weather.”
Often its an image, or sense, of the physical presence of a place that draws me to it, but in the case of One Tree Hill, it was the name that attracted me. A name that seemed so impossibly resonant that I had to see for myself whether the actual hill could ever live up to it.
So when I set off in search of this wonderfully titled landmark, on foot from West Norwood, it seemed appropriate that for almost the entire journey, One Tree Hill itself wasn’t visible. Only once I was a street or so away could I see it. In a sense my destination was as much a walk towards an idea as it was towards a physical site.
The route I took – accompanied by my three year old son – reminded me of a children’s book I had liked a lot when around the same age myself. In Bears in the Night, a family of young bears make an episodic Fairy Tale journey down a tree, over a bridge, round a rock, under an arch, through the woods and up Spook Hill.
Our way was not dissimilar – through woods, across a stream, in and out of public gardens, across a cemetery, a park and up One Tree Hill.
The woods in our case were Dulwich and Sydenham hill woods, which are elevated themselves as they lie on a part of the Norwood Ridge. Amongst the trees we alternately chased, or were chased by, imaginary monsters as we slipped off the main path and skirted around the wood’s edge to take in the spectacular view looking North West over the Grange Lane allotments.
Peering through the fence past the higgledy-piggledy patchwork squares of garden plots you can look beyond to the Victorian Gothic, Barry buildings, of Dulwich College, rows of South London rooftops and further off make out the famous chimneys of Battersea Power Station and other, less well-loved landmarks, such as the Vauxhall Tower.
It’s a spectacular urban view which I find both quietly reassuring and somehow quintessentially English with its rough-and-ready DIY mix of bean poles, lean-tos, sheds, vegetable plots and improvised Scarecrows. It also always makes me think of Tolkien’s drawing of Hobbiton from the Hill.
Moving on we cross the tiny Ambrook Stream, the threshold between Dulwich and Sydenham Hill woods. Along the way trying to identify the trees we know and learn the names of others. Fortunately there are a lot of Oak and Hornbeam, which I can recognize, so the shock of discovering that your parents don’t know everything about everything isn’t too profound for my son, when he asks about trees I can’t readily name.
Nearby there’s a Victorian folly that looks like a crumbling medieval Abbey. The folly was built in the 1860s, originally standing in the grounds of a house called Fairwood. In the surrounding area various shrubs and domestic apple trees give further clues that this part of the woods was once the site of several Victorian villas. (There’s more detail on these woods in a chapter of Sara Maitland’s wonderful book Gossip From the Forest).
A little further on – past the duck pond – we come to a bridge, which once ran over the Crystal Palace and South London junction railway line. A notice board on the side of the bridge shows a view of the same line painted by Camille Pissaro in 1871 to give an idea of what it once looked like before the woods were allowed to partially reclaim the area. Finally along a section of Cox’s Walk and out through Lapse Wood, forced into an unexpected diversion by a few trees that have come down across the path in the recent St Jude storm, we emerge on the A205 – a sudden shock of busy city life as heavy traffic races along between central London and Forest Hill.
In an earlier post about Nottingham’s General Cemetery, I talked about the possibility of ‘escaping’ a city from within, by navigating a route via parks, cemeteries and other green spaces in order to avoid people and traffic on its busier streets and thoroughfares.
Of course you are not really leaving the city, just avoiding some of the more obvious urban elements; but by temporarily tuning out selected aspects of urban life, you can reframe your perspective on the city.
Following, or plotting, an urban green route tends to involve skirting more built-up central areas – instead you’ll be pushing on towards and through more suburban territory, where you are less likely to encounter large groupings of shops, (or ‘retail and leisure destinations’ as Bluewater’s website styles itself), offices and entertainment venues.
Walking the backstreets, through parks and woodland can be a useful reminder that there is another side to city life, that the urban experience isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, entirely predicated on goods, trade and the relentless advance of commerce.
You’re also less obviously controlled in terms of where you can wander and which directions you can choose to take. The uniformed security guards, barriers and gates of the central city aren’t prevalent here, although of course even in modern-day suburbia you aren’t entirely free to do as you will.
There’s an interesting article on La Vie des idées (the more prosaic Books and Ideas in the site’s English incarnation) by Éric Charmes – Gated Communities: Ghettos for the Rich? Charmes (coincidentally, Charme is French for Hornbeam) argues that a city’s soft, or hidden, barriers in the suburbs, such as economic opportunity, school catchment areas and house prices can be more socially divisive and exclusive than more obvious physical gates, shutters and privatized spaces:
“Symbols are certainly important; and city dwellers’ propensity to tolerate and even promote the display of such symbols is no doubt problematic. Yet as this study has shown, gated communities are usually only the symptoms of larger and more troubling phenomena that ought to be fully addressed and borne in mind.”
The division and use of private and public space is a theme that has echoes in the history of One Tree Hill itself, towards which we are drawing ever closer.
Once the roar of traffic on the London Road has been negotiated, we duck into the sanctuary of Horniman Gardens and after a lunchtime visit to the museum, press on, out of the gardens and along the curving Metroland-style 1930s semis of Westwood Park and Langton Rise, until we reach Camberwell Old Cemetery.
This feels more like a park with graves than the wooded tangle of nearby West Norwood Cemetery, or North London’s Highgate, whose imposing high brick walls – built to keep the living out, rather than the dead in – make them feel far more enclosed and locked-down. The relatively low fence around Camberwell Old Cemetery also adds to this sense of open space, although there is a wooded area in the middle.
Once through the cemetery gates and across Forest Hill Road, a final bit of pavement dodging takes us through Brenchley Gardens – with more trees felled by the recent storm – and across the street to One Tree Hill – finally, suddenly we’ve arrived.
The first thing that strikes me is that One Tree Hill has far more than one tree. I knew this through reading about the place beforehand, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the reality doesn’t match the name. I’ve been picturing a steep, smoothly grassed round hill with a single Oak crowning the top. In fact the hill is covered in trees.
The second thing that I found particularly interesting was the sheer amount of detail on the information signs. Rather than a basic map and short paragraph of blurb, each one of several notices dotted around different parts of the hill, covers, in a fair amount of detail, different aspects of One Tree Hill’s history.
There’s a chapter in Peter Jukes’ A Shout in the Street called Street as Museum, where the author notes that:
“Modern London has, in many ways, taken on the mantle of Renaissance Rome, capital of a now vanished empire, living on borrowed time. It persists. It survives. But though billed as an historic capital, little remains of London’s Elizabethan or medieval quarters…few cities can have obliterated their pasts so completely, and then gone on to idealize them so thoroughly”
It’s almost as though The London Borough of Southwark has taken this idea to an extreme with their unusually informative notices. Perhaps as one of the capital’s most storied quarters – the local authorities feel that they cannot allow visitors to leave believing that they’ve simply visited a park with a nice view. Rather, the signs, in the manner of the Ancient Mariner’s Wedding Guest, must fix you with their gaze and impress upon you the importance and significance of the place. “A park?. Oh no, One Tree Hill is no mere park. I’ll have you know it’s place layered with meaning and steeped in history.”
The notices certainly add a sense that you ought to feel the significance of the place, even if it looks like nothing more or less than a pleasantly wooded hill.
Information included on the notice boards covers: flora and fauna, The Story of the Oak of Honour – Queen Elizabeth I is said to have rested under the tree at the top in 1602 – the Boundary Oak; the same Oak marked the border between the counties of Kent and Surrey, the boroughs of Camberwell and Lewisham and the Parish of St Giles, important as this decided who was responsible for the poor within each bounded area. There are also various myths that this was the site of Boudica’s defeat by the Romans, that Dick Turpin was active here – in fact another Highwayman is said to have used the hill as a lookout – and that the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was moved to write the Hymn Onward Christian Soldiers by this very ground (He didn’t though, he was in Wakefield). It’s a shame that One Tree Hill wasn’t also the inspiration for Baring-Gould’s book on Werewolves; a slavering, supernatural beast could have added yet another dimension to its multi-faceted history.
As well as inspiring an intriguing collection of local lore and half-truths, the actual history of One Tree Hill is quite fascinating. Aside from the visit of Queen Elizabeth I, there is a World War I gun emplacement still to be seen, the current Honor Oak – an Elizabethan predecessor was the original One Tree – planted in 1905 to mark the dedication of the site as a public park and St Augustine’s Church, nestled into one side of the hill (sadly closed to the public when I was there).
Also, returning to the theme of private vs public space touched upon earlier, in the late 19th century the hill was the site of a mass protest against enclosure. In 1896 a Golf Club attempted to fence off the site, giving rise to a public outcry and a march on the hill, which is said to have drawn a gathering of up to 15,000 people – on what had traditionally been common ground – in protest at the attempt to take the place into private hands. There’s more detail on this and, other local fights over Rights of Common, in a transcript of this talk on the subject that was given at the Brockley Jack in 2005 (there’s also more detail on the collective action to save the site here
I love the layers and layers of history and myth associated with One Tree Hill, but for all the interest that written history and folklore give it, for me, the best and most rewarding reason for going there and walking to the top is the view. A leaf fringed vista looking towards the City of London, has an almost Hollywood Hills quality to it, as you look down from the heights to the vast city in the distance. This is the crowning glory of One Tree Hill; a place, an idea and much, much more than just a romantic sounding name.
Gated Communities: Ghettos for the Rich? by Éric Charmes, http://www.laviedesidees.fr
London Wildlife Trust Trails in Sydenham Hill Woods & Cox’s Walk
A Shout in the Street, Peter Jukes Faber & Faber, 1990
Gossip from the Forest, Sara Maitland, Granta, 2012