By Emma Warren.
To know something well, you have to understand it. For Oxleas, that means orientation around least three interconnected layers of reality: geography, ecology and narrative.
This place, sitting at 4pm on the clockface of London, is actually a collection of woods, each with a specific name and history: Jack Wood, Falcon Wood, Shepherdleas and Castle Woods; ancient woodlands that hang in an arboreal half moon from Shooter’s Hill – the old Roman Watling Street.
There is a big iron map outside the Café but it’s not exactly pocket-friendly, and anyway, it’s facing the wrong way, which is not ideal for someone who struggles with rotating three-dimensional images in her head. I’m here? Where is there? So I sketch the shape of the woods badly in my notebook, partly so I know where I’m going, but mostly as an act of naming and learning.
The flat stretch of the Thames around Woolwich is behind me. Directly in front is the meadow. It’s a flat, expanse of grass, the size of two or three football pitches, which acts as a kind of chorophyll lid for the man-made reservoir that sits beneath. To my left, the ancient woodland of Oxleas which has been continuously wooded since the Ice Age. To my right, Jackwood where there’s a walled garden and a terraced rose garden, the only remains of a 19th Century mansion.
Behind Jack Wood is Castle Wood, centrally punctuated by the imposing Severndroog Castle, a folly and local landmark that’s being scrambled on by builders ready for it’s re-opening in April. It had been been derelict for years, all boarded up windows and crap graf and empty lager cans, long remaining some crappy and rundown part of the 1970s. Now it’s looking fresh and lovely, and you can just imagine the summer of 1836 when the owner sent out invitations to local society figures to attend a ‘gipsy party’ in the gardens.
The final part of the Oxleas jigsaw is Shepherdleas, another sliver of ancient woodland that sits just beyond Oxleas Meadow, and along with Oxleas and Jack Wood, has Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI) status because, among other things, of the presence of Wild Service Trees. That tree’s name is a corruption of cerveza because people flavoured their beer with the red berries until the arrival of hops. I make a plan: I’ll find a cerveza tree in the summer and toast it with a bottle of Alhambra.
It was almost summer-sunny earlier, so much so that I ended up walking back from Lewisham without a coat, but now the sun’s gone and the warmth of the morning instantly evaporates. The skies are Tupperware, remote. It’s cold. I wish I’d brought my gloves.
I walk into Oxleas on the main eastwards path. It’s a wide, muddy artery, the High Street of this part of the woods. I’m looking for signs of spring, to see whether it’s time to draw for Philip Larkin’s evocation of leaves unfurling. Everything is still muted, turned down, grey, brown, ochre, deciduous green.
I see a shrubby plant with buds threatening to turn into leaf. None of it is quite open yet but it looks like it might tomorrow, or maybe the day after. A crow hops into the middle of the path like a highwayman and describes the triangle edge of a flight path up to the top branches of one of the endless naked oaks that line and fill the place.
Right at the end of this vista of greys and a thousand shades of brown is a small cloudburst of white. A small blackthorn has exploded into blossom. It’s two meters high and the upper braches are haloed with tiny, starry white flowers with yellow stamen nippling the middle. The morning sunshine can’t have reached the lower branches, which still carry a blind cottonball of bloom. I try and take a picture and it doesn’t translate. There’s too much gloom. But to the eye it’s a small, compact, wow.
I make a small act of woodland vandalism and break off a twig with four small proto-flowers for the dual purpose of identification and for taking the woods home with me. I should really leave something behind in exchange, but what? I instantly feel bad and stuff the twig into my inside pocket and walk out of the woods, past dead and dying trees, one fallen giant with leaf coiffure unnaturally decaying still attached to its branches.
The parakeets are being lairy. There’s other sounds in the background: some liquid birdsong, the wisha-washa of the wind, the background rumble of tyres on tarmac. There’s a random pine or two. Someone’s old Christmas tree?
It occurs to me how remarkable it is that any of this survived. Back in 1327 Edward III tried to best the highwaymen by granting leave to cut down, burn and fell all the trees on the south side of Shooter’s Hill. In the 1990s, the government tried to build a six lane motorway though the woods and this was only stopped by the superhuman efforts of local people. Even now, it’s not really safe, with Environment Minister Owen ‘Badger’ Patterson saying last month that ancient woodland could be built on if planners planted 100 trees for every old one culled. But it is here. Still.