Words: Emma Warren
Pictures: Georgina Cook
First, a mea culpa. I haven’t been to the woods for over three weeks – a lifetime around this time of year. When I visited at the start of the month the first leaves were still curled up and claw-like and now the whole place is rampant with acid greens and a wash of bluebells. Nature plays a topsy-turvy joke at this time of year turning the canopy-sky green and the ground a cloudy blue haze.
Laurie Baker is particularly pleased with one spectacular wash of bluebells in a woods that is currently humming with the plant. The retired Camden Council planning officer runs the Woodlands Working Party, and two years ago they thinned out a particularly dense patch of Hornbeam and bramble in the hollow, down where the woods meets the flattening out of Shooters Hill. The bluebells are the undergrowth’s response to the increasing sunlight, a big floral thank you to the Working Party.
Baker and his volunteers regularly dig up invasive rhododendron and create dead hedging to protect sections of the wood from too much trampling. Sometimes they weave coppiced hornbeam or hazel around wooden posts planted a meter or so apart, and sometimes they just take a fallen tree and place it across a path. The idea is to keep people to the main paths, to preserve rare undergrowth plants like Butchers Broom.
The dead hedging doesn’t always go down well, though in this most human of woods. “Here,” says Laurie with a glint. “Let me show you one of our failures.” There’s a tree with black scorch marks all the way up its trunk. “We did some dead hedging across this path. Some of the local people, we don’t know who, obviously didn’t like it so they burnt it down. You can still see the scars on the tree.”
He’s been coming to the woods since he was a boy, mucking about with his friends in Jack Wood. He still visits regularly, for a walk, or for work. It’s thanks to people like Laurie that the woods survived: he was part of PARC, the group that defeated the East London River Crossing that would have destroyed the woods in 1994, although he is at pains to insist that he was only helping from the sidelines.
For better or for worse, though, Oxleas really is the people’s woods. In 1919 the whole of the west wood on the Kent side was cut down for residential development. The woodland that sat within the boundaries of the London County Council survived. The woods as we know them now were bought by the LCC in 1930 and opened to the public in 1934, to promote the health and happiness of working people in London proper.
The people-ness of the wood becomes clear when I visit again, later that week with photographer Georgina Cook, who documented the heady early days of dubstep when it was just a few hundred people on a forum and in clubs like FWD>> and DMZ. She’s now contributing urban nature images to Caught by the River, photographs that make the woods look resonant and full of promise, like dark, archetypal nightclubs. At any rate, I can see a total link between her pictures of red lights in Camberwell dives and her pictures of trees.
We decide to try and find some deserted playing fields and tennis courts that Laurie told me about, down in the far western portion of the woods. Shepherdleas and Falcon Wood are lopped off from the main body by Rochester Way, built around 1963. We both like a good mission, but this is also a way of expanding an on-the-ground sense of Oxleas’ geography.
The main body of Oxleas is all aslant, rising up and around Shooter’s Hill but over here, where Oxleas meets Sheperdleas and Falcon Wood, it’s flatter, more airy. There are sweet chestnut, oak, hazel and a small brown wren, tail skywards, bouncing about the bramble underneath a tree. A couple walk past with endless dogs bounding out of the undergrowth behind them, including one that looks someone’s glued a mutant mastiff head onto a staffy’s body. They walk past and ask if we’ve seen the woodpecker.
We haven’t seen, but down the path we come across the slim, dead trunk of a coppice sweet chestnut has been tagged, blurrily in blue and red. Georgina takes a picture. It looks tribal, she says. She’s right. It looks like some kind of excellent south London totem pole.
We veer off the paths now, looking for the lost playing fields and the tennis courts used by Deansfield school but out of use for decades. We end up in a flat meadow with short stocky trees peppered around the grass. Is this what a playing field looks like after three decades of abandonment? There’s a fence around one edge, although the mesh has intermittently come away from the metal posts, leaving them standing alone like alien signposts.
We’re in proper deep now. There are burrs on my tights. We’re walking over fallen trees and I make a mental apology to Laurie and his dead hedging. At least we’re not setting fire to it. I hold up bramble like a curtain for Georgina. I get stung on my legs by something – through thick black tights – just before getting buzzed by a low-flying bee. The bird song is really loud and all around us. They’re having a right laugh, the birds. Skweee kaa kaa kaa, shouts one over our heads. Skweeee ka ka kaaaa shouts another one back. It’s avian highlife here, a pitched-up soundscape of bleeps and trills, sonic Morse Code. Translation: everyone’s happy.
I tell Georgina about a friend who contacted me after reading one of my pieces to say that yes, I’d made the woods sound great, but that it was different after dark – notes left on car windscreens offering ‘no-strings attached fun’. “Hmm” says Georgina. “Maybe that explains the boxer shorts I saw back there, and the baby wipes.” She lived in France for two years and tells me about the white vans that act as proxy brothels in the Bois De Bologne and how every police sweep of prostitution would lead to a corresponding increase in woodland activity. Looking through one particularly grubby prism, it seems that the woods have always been a place of refuge and transgression.
Heading back to the café, we find ourselves back at the blue and red painted tree, which is not where we’re supposed to be. I’ve got to be in Camden, a million real and psychic miles from here in 90 minutes. Which way is out? Embarrassingly I defer to technology and dig my out my phone which has a compass on it. We need north – the way we’ve just come. We backtrack and cross the Rochester Way onto Oxleas meadows which look completely different from this angle, a vast hillock of grasslands and no sight of the humanising café, making it appear even larger and wilder that it is. I feel small against the rise of the grass. Over the top, there’s the café, where there is tea, and then back to the car park.
We’re driving out when Georgina points to a signpost that’s been anciently tagged. Weirdly, it’s someone we both know from music days and I’ve never noticed it before. They’re full of human interactions, these woods, although perhaps not always the kind the LCC had in mind back in 1930.