Words and pictures by Emma Warren
“Shall we go and find our tree again? I love that tree.”
Three nearly-teens are rolling about on the grass at the top of Oxleas Meadow. There are two girls, one in a pink top and the other with a fluoro duffel bag, and a dark-haired boy in an Acid House T-shirt and they are firmly in that short window of life when girls are stronger than boys. “Sit on him!” shouts one of the girls, sucking on a plastic bottle of Fanta as her friend propels herself towards the boy. Everyone creases up laughing and then they are gone, bar the Fanta bottle which lilts in the grass like a buoy. It’s a fairly typical scene from this funny and strange borderland that marks the boundary between so many things: south London and north country, concrete and chlorophyll, technology and biology, and in those kids’ case that most permanent of boundaries between childhood and adulthood.
A few days later another strange world lands in the woods. Every Sunday through the summer there’s a BBQ at Oxleas Café and today’s is so packed that that it’s impossible to get into the car park. There’s a tall woman with a high ponytail and a razor-sharp fringe directing traffic with tattooed arms. She’s wearing a skinny Detonators T Shirt because this is the South East London Detonators Hot Rod Rumble and this part of the woods have been transformed into a living, breathing, smoking, celebration of a specific slice of ’50s Americana.
There are killer quiffs and proper turn-ups and a rockabilly band and an impeccably dressed man in his eighties who comes straight out of the Billy Childish school of dress. He has a fantastic 1930s satchel over his shoulder.
A man with a home-made go-kart swaggers comedically up to the lip of the hill with a couple of pals and launches himself down towards the meadow. He lasts less than four seconds before hitting a dimp, destroying a wheel and careering off towards a family of picnickers. He walks back up to a round of applause, holding the crumpled-up kart aloft like a special kind of trophy.
It’s a fifteen minute walk through Jack Wood to Severndroog castle which is re-opening today after years of 28 years of dereliction. It is differently surreal on this side of the woods. We’re only a few miles from Woolwich Barracks and the army cadets are out, recruiting via the medium of bored-looking teenagers in fatigues. The scouts are out for the same reason and someone’s offering kids the chance to hold an owl for £2. There’s a tiny white gazebo where local musicians are playing guitar.
The tours to the roof of this one room, four story castle built in 1784 by a heartbroken widow have sold out but I get a sense of the view a few days later when I come across the excellent South London Hardcore podcast. SLH are Gosh! staffer and comic book writer Steve Walsh and football blogger Jack McInroy, who post regular audio records of their south London excursions. They’d reviewed the Severndroog opening, comparing the £2.50 entry price to The Shard’s £25 (“I can’t imagine that’s going to be a ten times better view”), raving about the expansive sightlines and the tree canopy and dropping into a comedy exchange about this tiny, beautiful castle’s offering as wedding venue.
“Don’t you need everyone on the same floor at a wedding?”
“‘Does anyone have any objections?’ And you hear a banging on the floor.”
One of the oldest trees in the woods is a horse chestnut with two long arms that reach out as wide as the tree is tall, cracked in the middle like sore broken elbows. Another branch hangs low like it’s made of plasticine, looping down into a bark-covered skipping rope. I came here in the winter and surveyed it with my notebook and my iPhone, jumping over what I now know was dead hedging designed to give the ground some people-free respite. This tree beast is gnarley and huge, casting a huge blank circle of leaf around the base and in shadow it looks like nothing more than a huge cross, a like a child’s drawing of two lines turned into a tree.
It’s now in full leaf and frankly, it looks fucked. The sunlight shines prettily through the leaves which are covered in brown spots circled with a sickly white cornea. The problem has clearly spread because even the baby trees that have popped up around this parental base are eaten up with the same sickness. Later I google an image of the Leaf Miner moth that spreads this now-common tree disease and it looks just like the damage it causes, a vaguely fishy creature made of dirt and orange stripes and bug-eyed indifference.
You’d think there would be loads of old trees in a place that’s been continuously wooded for 8,000 years. This, though, was a working south London wood, coppiced regularly until the 1920s to feed ship-building at Woolwich and Deptford dockyards and to cover London’s unending need for fuel. “These woods are a heritage site. They were a source of industry and they’re as important as the Royal Naval College in Greenwich,” says Hilly slightly crossly outside the café one Tuesday afternoon as we ponder the vague pulse of threat that continues to hover around these woods. “They are worth preserving.”
Hilly is Shooters Hill’s pre-eminent blogger and has agreed to meet only on strict condition of anonymity. So I can’t tell you anything about this person bar the feeling that they are the kind of individual who’d have been publishing pamphlets in the 1800s, a natural-born collector of histories and a tenacious ferreter-out of information – and that they tell great stories on their e-shootershill site.
We’ve met to search out the raised barrows know as cants that were used to mark out areas for coppicing and we go into the woods at the top of Oxleas’ easterly slope at the point where the gravel cap hits clay and where springs were rumoured to emerge. We keep our eyes peeled. Is that one? No, just the lip of a stream bank. Is that one? Nope, not enough corners. And then, right in the middle of the eastern section of the woods, by a wide, dry riverbed that’s so riverine it’s got a shopping trolley in it, there’s a cant. It looks so obviously manmade when you open your eyes to it: rounded, edged, right-angled. Inside the cant there are hazel and sweet chestnut, perfect coppice material.
Once again, we’re standing on one of the many boundaries in this most liminal zone. I sometimes have a feeling in here of things shifting in front of me: an earthen coppice fence shifts into a place highwaymen might have hung out, which morphs into simple ecology (‘that hazel has been coppiced’) then into a site of protest which is also a place of pagan worship, which is also some kid’s back yard smoking den. It’s all of these things, all at once.
Just to our right are the circular carvings made by teenagers doing spins on quad bikes. It reminds me of a Richard Long piece as recreated by a fifteen year old in grey trackie bottoms with a meaty dog following not far behind. The sun is so strong that it’s powering through the canopy and splattering everything with shimmery circles of white light making everything look blessed and holy, even the tracks left by renegade wheelie youth.