If I told you I often escape to a wood around a ten-minute walk from my home – further than the local park, but closer than the nearest big supermarket – you’d be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t sound like much of a getaway. The place is also quite small, a wedge-shaped area bordered to the east by a busy South London A road and by housing blocks and suburban streets on the other sides, so it may sound like no kind of escape at all – but it very much is.
Dulwich Upper Wood is not very far, in a geographical sense, from the bustle of Crystal Palace Triangle, just up hill. However, as soon as you go through a gate on Farquhar Road, or Bowley Lane, the atmosphere seems to change. Once inside you can almost instantly sense city cares slipping away, shrinking beneath towering ivy-clad sycamores and old oaks – at the top of which, in summer months, Purple Hairstreak butterflies drift around the canopy. I’ve not been lucky enough to see one here yet myself, but at ground level, amongst the red campion, wood avens, primroses and other wild flowers, there’s plenty of other insect life to be found. If you’re very lucky, you might even see a stag beetle.
A choice of paths lead around the site, dropping you deeper in, or rising up towards a terraced area. Amongst the oaks are also hazel, holly, ash, birch, horse chestnut, willow, various fruit trees, cypresses and more – some of these introduced when planted in Victorian gardens, that are no longer here. There’s a small pond, a fern garden and towards the middle, twisting dark yews lean over the paths, lending a shadowy calm.
It can be quiet within, but this is no hushed sanctuary. Appropriately for an urban wood, the place can be noisy. At times it’s the sound of traffic, but more often you’ll hear parakeets screeching, or woodpeckers drumming.
My favourite loud noise there happens in spring, when wren song seems to fill the air. So much so, that some mornings it feels like you’ve stepped into Wren Town – as the little birds dart around, stopping on branches to shout, asserting their citizen’s rights. Go a little deeper in and you start to be aware of rustling and darting movements, as squirrels, robins, blue tits and blackbirds, flit and burst out from cover between shrubs.
Along the lower part of the wood, there can be found what look like old pits, or works, abandoned long ago – scattered bricks and the bases of walls the only remains. These are the last traces of the houses that once stood here. Being able to drop into the emptied outline of what were once people’s cellars, now disappearing as plants reclaim the space, adds greatly to the small wood’s distinctive character.
Despite the fact that parts of it were once built on and lived in, Dulwich Upper Wood’s heritage is as ancient woodland. Indicator species that can be found there today, include Pendulous sedge, wild garlic and bluebells, all providing nods to its lengthy history.
The wood is one of a few small scattered fragments, in this part of south London, of the Great North Wood, that once stretched between present-day Croydon and the Thames at Deptford. For centuries, much of that landscape was worked, with hornbeam and oaks coppiced by landowners including the Archbishop of Canterbury, to produce charcoal. Coppiced hazel can still be seen here today, although this is as part of the wood’s management by Urban Ecology and The Conservation Volunteers, rather than chopped for profit at the behest of distant landlords.
Although relatively small at 2.4 hectares, I have found that it is more than possible to lose yourself inside the wood. Not, of course, physically in a Hansel and Gretel way, more like released, albeit temporarily, from the cares of everyday life.
Often, from my favoured spot on a fallen trunk off one of the paths, I’ve become mesmerised trying to fathom a spectrum of different greens in the canopy, or below. Other times I’ve found myself drawn briefly into the busy lives of flies and midges, dancing in sunbeams, like miniature gold stars in a pool, a temporary insect galaxy.
Once, absent mindedly staring into the shadows, I became convinced I could see some strange mammalian creature in the undergrowth. A thing that really shouldn’t be there, crouched down by some holly. The wood was eerily quiet, as this thing waited, animal still under oak. From a short distance, half-squinting I was sure I could make out a rough dappled coat, humped shoulder, bristles: somehow a hyena had entered a small English wood. The second I thought this, I knew it could not be. I drew nearer and there, nestled in some bramble, I learned what this alien invader really was – a furry lump of palm trunk, someone had abandoned in the wood. Still nervous, I laughed a little too loudly and worried a passing jogger. Time to go home.