Caught by the River

Ghosts of the Great North Wood

21st July 2014

Words and pictures by Karen D Tregaskin


5: Convent Wood

Convent Hill is a completely sealed wood, untrodden, virgin, as befitting a Catholic school for young ladies. I spent my teenage years trying to break out of a convent school, and here was I as an adult, trying to break back in! I went back the next day after my main hike, and walked all around the outside trying to spy a way in, nose pressed against forbidding iron railings. A local dogwalker told me she had lived in the vicinity 14 years, and never seen the inside, only glimpsed the crowns of enormous oaks from her garden. I eventually crawled through a hole left by careless construction works, penetrated an overgrown graveyard and impossible thickets to find myself in deep forest, just as it started to rain. The smell of damp earth, the gentle tap of dripping rain, the unexpected noise of birdsong away from the main road. After 20 minutes, I finally found a path, and almost blundered into a children’s PE class, astonished not to be confronted or stopped at doing something so completely illegal, but cheerily waved through, as if I were only a lost mum. There are rare situations where the total invisibility of being a Woman Of A Certain Age has its advantages!


6: Ghosts Of Great North Wood

Between the monstrous Sci-Fi set of Crystal Palace and the Western flanks of Norwood, there are two main arterial roads. Beulah Hill curves South, following the gentle gradient of the spur’s crest, so the puffing double decker buses prefer it; Central Hill is more direct, but dips sharply into the steep fold of a forgotten tributary of the buried River Effra. (The springs on the southern side of the hill disgorge winter-bournes down towards the Graveney, a tributary of the Wandle, much of which is still above ground.) The southern road is quicker, but choked with traffic, so I usually follow the hill, which offers glimpses of stunning views, almost tantalisingly close behind the massive brutalist former showpiece turned decaying “Drug City” of the Central Hill Estate. Opposite Virgo Fidelis are the pleasant meadows of Norwood Park. Lambeth, helpfully, has put up signs explaining the history of the Great North Wood, though their claim that woodland completely vanished from the borough by 1800, the time of the Inclosure Acts, is disputable. The pensioner who runs my local community garden has told me tantalising tales of more survivor remnants not destroyed until World War II, by German bombers jettisoning their unused ordnance over Southeast London before running the gauntlet of Croydon and Biggin Hill aerodromes. (Much of the Central Hill Estate was built over the sites of bomb damage.) Here, at the bottom of Norwood Park, there has been an effort to recreate woodland flora, and reintroduce bulbs and wildflowers in the nature walk depicted here – an effect only slightly marred by the fact that rotting logs have to be chained into the nature trail to stop thieves from making off with them.

Ghosts of the Great North Wood archive.

For more illustrations, please visit Karen D Tregaskin’s Flickr / Tumblr/ Twitter