The ‘Country Walk’ is a little wooded lane at the edge of our local park, Norwood Park. It isn’t in the country and isn’t long enough to sustain much of a walk; yet increasingly, I don’t think the name is mistaken.
Until recently I mostly used it as a pleasant starting point on the way to somewhere else: a short tree-lined way of avoiding morning rush-hour fumes on the street when walking our boys to school, a brief sliver of green en route to the shops, or the station if I had work that required going in to central London.
Lately though, under lockdown, the walk has become more of a destination in its own right – a precious scrap of outdoors within easy reach of home. Over the last couple of months, the place seems to have grown. Not physically or geographically, but now it feels fuller, thicker, deeper even, if that makes any sense.
Before – hurrying through – I tended to take in what was there only in brief gulps of attention; some trees, shrubs, a metal fence edging the railway line, a glimpse of the school and the backs of houses on Gipsy Road across the tracks. Other days I’d maybe catch the rustle of something scrabbling within the bramble – a rat, or a blackbird. A glimmering slant of sunlight, a plastic wrapper, a tossed can. Tutting, I’d pick these up and stick them in an, often overflowing, bin halfway along the path.
Lockdown has meant there’s been less litter to notice during the past few weeks, though what there has been, I’ve been guiltily reluctant to touch. In the main body of the park, on benches, council signs have appeared along with striped police incident-style tape, warning people not to stop for a sit down. But there have been other things, better things to notice as well.
I’ve begun to see different zones within the site – I suspect this is a deliberately designed effect, introduced when it was first re-shaped almost twenty years ago by local volunteers reclaiming a corner of the park that had become unloved and overgrown. Today, each small zone, or section of the walk, is dominated by particular trees, or features: birch, pond and golden weeping willows, hornbeam, oaks, end.
Walking its length, even with under tens reluctant to go to school, usually takes less than ten minutes. If you exit at the eastern side of the park, your thoughts are abruptly snapped back into busy urban south London, when you emerge by the racetrack otherwise known as Salters Hill.
However, when you’re inside it, especially in May or June, when all leaves are out, it can have the feel of a green tunnel. The path isn’t straight and bends around trees and bushes, loops around corners, giving the impression that it’s much bigger than it is. When thick with foliage, and the thorny stems of dog roses writhe up and over the path, you can indulge fairy tale fancies that this track might lead somewhere else.
At times it reminds me of being very young at the dunes at Brean in Somerset, exploring and making trails under the scrub with my brothers and sisters. Not that these plants and this location look anything like the sand and sea-buckthorn of that western coast, but there’s an echo in these vegetable gaps of the timeless appeal, to a childish mind, of a hole or a hollow in a bush.
I like to start at the western end, off Finch Avenue. To get there, I walk over a railway bridge that looks nothing like a railway bridge, then before reaching the corner, hop up the low wall between a hawthorn and a young oak, and then like many others, cut across the desire path worn into the grass.
From here, between the railway line and the single row of houses that make up Finch Avenue, tall London Planes and what I’d cursorily assumed were Limes but now think are Black Poplars, some bent as if with back ache, line the pathway towards the main body of Norwood Park. To the left, on the other side of a fence, other trees, self-seeded oaks, sycamore and ash, form a small wood on the slope down to the embankment. Here and there songbirds, squirrels and foxes, unconcerned with our barriers, slip easily between the two worlds.
Then, a little up hill from the start of the Country Walk, four old willows lean in to create a kind of outdoor room. At this time of year great swags of leaves hang down like theatre curtains; the stage, a shadowed grassy slope between cracked and fissured trunks. Our youngest son calls this his ‘secret world of willows’ and will only permit entry and exit between two very specific drooping branches – get it wrong and you’re in a different dimension from him, apparently.
On the left, just beyond four chained down tree stumps, good for hopping between, the path proper begins. A slight incline moves through a copse of silver birch, along with some aspen, which true to their pioneer nature seem to be spreading uphill into the grass of the park. The spaces in between are alternately filled with nettles, dandelions, bindweed, bluebells, cleavers, (or Sticky Willy as I half-regret telling my sons), Herb Robert and other wild flowers I don’t recognise. On some mornings you can find a person-shaped impression left in this scrub, as though someone has slept here, or lain down on other business.
Nearby there’s an inviting willow arbour, before the next stretch behind a pond, which often leaks down onto the path, forcing detours around a thick churn of mud. Uphill on the park side of the pond, are more willows – golden weeping ones I think. Further along by the fence, ash and hazel, sycamore and holly, a few small oaks – even a yew, have squeezed themselves into space at the edge, reaching out and up to the light.
This year, with more time to pay attention to it happening, I first properly noticed the sequenced lighting up of spring along here, as March slipped into April, then ran on into May. First blackthorn and apple, then cherry, hawthorn and elder, while lower down, cow parsley, wild garlic, primroses, buttercups, daisies and wild strawberry were all popping up to strut their stuff on this seasonal dance floor.
And then there are the birds – ‘the birds are a gift’as a character says in Richard Powers brilliant The Overstory. With less competition this spring from plane and traffic roar drowning them out, the birds here – everywhere– seem to be singing louder and longer. Near one end of the walk there are nuthatches nesting high up in a hole in a London Plane, often noisily proclaiming their presence.
Go early, and wrens seem to be everywhere, shouting as they flit in and out of gaps between the trees. There are dunnocks, robins, blackbirds, long tailed tits, goldfinches bubbling away up trees, thrushes going for it with a full repertoire of whistled variations, with the harsher cries of parakeets, magpies and crows interrupting every so often. Out in the park, small groups of starlings flit through the long grass seeking grain and seed and insects, while you can often hear the drumming of a woodpecker tapping away on an old oak up the slope. Occasionally, high above them all, screaming parties of swifts swirl in and own the sky.
Back on the walk, as you move past the pond, you need to step over a small wooden bridge and on into a grove of young hornbeams, twisted and coiled in their pyjama stripes. A little further on, past some oaks and you’re out and back in the urban world.
Near this spot a few days ago, I made a futile attempt to mentally list everything around me – though of course the appeal or magic of such a space is not really quantifiable. But there was no danger of me unweaving this rainbow, I couldn’t even name most of the plants, let alone insects – then when I started to notice drifts of cottony pollen floating by, hover flies, then midges and tried to imagine all the other living things, passing through or crammed into this space, searching, eating, spreading; underneath, amongst the roots, minute things, fungal things, it all became a bit much.
A train went past, as a school bell sounded from the old building across the track – it was eleven in the morning, first break, but the playground was quiet, with no over-excited screams – and I was jolted into thinking of this mess we’re all in. How many people had died? How many more would do? All thanks to this hideous virus – which of course, is no alien thing, but like us, just another facet of nature, though one rather less charming than birdsong. You don’t have to fall ill to feel its effects, fear for futures, for jobs. I know I do, flipping from generalised existential angst, to anger, to sorrow, to personal worries about where my next bit of work might come from. About someone I know, someone I love, getting sick.
Suddenly all I wanted was to be on that train. Going somewhere crowded, busy and loud. For a moment, I thought, it doesn’t matter how prettily the sun might dapple the ground, or how joyously fat a bee high amongst oak leaves appears,
I miss the time before covid. And pink and white blossom can’t bring it back.
So I stepped out of the trees, I went up the hill and looked over towards central London in the distance. It was still there. Then l looked to the right, to the east, where the trees of Dulwich and Sydenham Hill woods crowd thick at the top of the Norwood Ridge, and you can pretend that over the crest is a great forest, stretching on for mile after mile, rather than Sydenham High Street and the south circular.
I was reminded that a century ago, standing here you’d have been able to see the Crystal Palace up on a nearby hill. That once, this patch of south London was part of Surrey. This park was Norwood Common. Before that, a parcel of this land was a coppice. And prior to that, Gipsies lived hereabouts, camped near what’s now Oaks Avenue– with its one lonely Oak. Before then, you’d have been standing somewhere on the western fringes of the Northwood, Norwood, or Great Northwood that gives this area its name.
I headed home, thinking about change. I walked back along the Country Walk. In the hornbeam grove, two children were clambering up in the trees, unbothered about their tired looking Dad, standing waiting nearby. They made me smile. Yes, things change and always have, I thought, but perhaps, not always for the worse.