At the tree border: Sydenham Hill Station


How you arrive at a place can be as important as the place itself. Whether stumbling across an ancient ruin in the midst of trackless wilds, catching the first smell and then sight of land from the uneasy, shifting deck of a boat, or perhaps nervously stepping into a thronging city centre from the back of a cab, whose driver is already twitching – on the lookout for the next fare, the manner of your entrance and approach matters.

Writers, naturally, have much to say about how to do arrivals. For Nan Shepherd, when first encountering Loch Avon in The Living Mountain, it is walking to and stepping into the bright water that gives her the first intense feeling for the lambent clarity of the loch; “How clear it was only this walking into it could reveal“.

In Soft City Jonathan Raban insists that THE WAY to arrive in London is by road from the North, so that you can’t help but gaze down on the great city from the distant height of Highgate.

An entrance though doesn’t have to be especially grand to have a lasting impact. I live not far from Sydenham Hill Woods in South East London, which together with neighbouring Dulwich Woods forms a narrow island of trees, surrounded on all sides by roads, housing and other urban buildings. It is fenced all around, but there are several ways in and out, which can be approached from multiple directions.

My favourite gateway to the woods, because it looks and feels so obviously like a threshold between two worlds, is via Sydenham Hill Station. Every  station is already in itself a transition point, but here it is the abrupt change from the built environment to the organic that gives the site its distinctive character. I’d imagine that this is why the station is one of very few places in my part of London that Ian Nairn features in his classic book Nairn’s London. It is also likely one of a select number of sites that have hardly changed since he described it in 1966.

Nairn notes the ‘illusion of rurality‘ at the station’s tiny College Road entrance, accessed via steps hemmed in on either side by trees. Today the layout remains the same, a covered walkway supported by posts, gives the impression that you are moving through some kind of enclosure in an aquarium or zoo, rather than along a pathway leading to a station platform.

The the support struts beneath the corrugated iron roof form large frames, creating spaces that appear like glassless windows, against which, ash and oak, horse chestnut, hazel, sycamore and quickening brambles press themselves right up to the non existent glass. It feels as though passengers are being protected from the looming sylvan creatures beyond. This wilderness sensation – still palpable – was noted by Nairn over 50 years ago: “the unlikeliness of the site reinforced by self-conscious boarding in. Only the walls and roof keep tigers from eating late passengers for the eight fifty-seven.”

The way we usually get to Sydenham Hill is from the opposite, western side, walking along Seeley Drive in the Kingswood Estate and on through the arched entrance to a block of flats: Dowell House. This itself provides a graduated change from city street to woodland; the large oaks lining the grassy yards of the estate act as advance expeditionary scouts, outliers from the wood itself.

Just before the steps to the station, the orangey-red brick of the council flats give way to wire-fences containing creeper tangled oaks. Here I am often struck by the uneasy sensation, like Nairn’s, that it is the trees that are being held back from people, rather than trespassers being barred from the tracks.

Nearby a short flight of steps leads down to the London bound platform, before another set lead up to the walkway and through the suspended green corridor, which runs out to a small carpark and a long shaded path – Low Cross Wood lane – opposite. This reaches uphill away from the station, leading the way across the border between concrete and wood.



Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London, Penguin Modern Classics 2014
Jonathan Raban, Soft City, Collins Harvill, 1988
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Canongate Books, 2011

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