Caught by the River

A Year In Oxleas Woods: September

Emma Warren | 13th October 2014


Words and pictures by Emma Warren.

Every area has a parakeet creation myth. I’ve heard south Londoners say they originated from a pair of hippies in Charlton or that they escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of The African Queen. Local lore around Eel Pie Island has it that the first pair escaped their owners when parrot-keeping was popular in the 18th century. Either way, the squawking sound of ring-necked parakeets is how the outer London skies sound now. They’re often the loudest thing in the woods, too.

I’ve gone into Oxleas with my Tascam recorder. I put my phone onto flight mode to avoid the sound being disrupted by feedback, put on my headphones and instantly feel like an ancient who has just seen television. The birdsong is overwhelming and everywhere. My feet make a deep and satisfying crunch on the beech mast confetti. My microphone has revealed the woods as an avian Babel. I can hear the natural echo and reverb as the bird song bounces around the trees and I hear the essential sound of autumn – the sound of things falling. I later look up the root of the word ‘amplify’ and it comes from the Latin ‘amplus’ meaning abundant and that’s exactly how the woods sound, overflowing with birdsong and the gentle outbreath of the wind in the ash tops.


It’s a visually lovely scene, too. Birch leaves are dropping like snowflakes across the path and there are crepuscular rays ploughing through the canopy and into an expanse of bracken. I hear a dog barking, amplified, and it makes me jump after the gorgeous scatter-trill and swoops of the birds. The dog appears in front of me, and it is not happy. It’s a black labrador with a red neckerchief and a owner who doesn’t seem entirely in control. It’s a standoff: I’m standing stock-still under a hazel tree, headphones on, recorder pointing outwards like an unwanted gift. I’ve already come to the conclusion that this is a technophobic dog but I’m also thinking that this is quite good from a sound point of view. The dog is about ten metres away, barking on the spot and moving incrementally forwards then stopping like I’ve got a forcefield around me. The owner is fussing and calling the dog’s name but hasn’t got it by the neck yet, which means we’re stuck: me here, the dog over there.

“I think it’s the headphones. He’s never normally like this.”

I pull my headphones down and off and stuff them into my bag with the recorder, still recording. Now the owner’s got hold of the dog and we move past each other gingerly, like dancers. Around the corner and the sounds are too beguiling to miss so I fish out my Bowers & Wilkins and put them back on and immediately I’m in the middle of this extended version of the woods, where everything has been fished out of the mud and made clean and new and near.

Hearing the woods is helping me see the woods, too. I spy my first woodpecker after hearing it at work, tap tap tap. I see a small grey mouse sitting on a bramble leaf, tiny and stock-still, hands to mouth like a cartoon. It has shiny berry-black eyes and just sits there while I look at it until it skitters off. While I’m standing there I notice a plant with strong, long-lozenge leaves and red berries and connect it with an image I’ve seen before of Butcher’s Broom, another of the ancient woodland indicators Oxleas is full of. This is one of the things I like most about the woods; this passive ability to teach, like a big, free, open-air Open University. There are lessons down every path, in every stand of trees.


I’m sitting outside the cafe and pondering the solitary rowan which sits like a signal guard at the top entrance to Oxleas and which has already lost half its greenery. A crow is snacking in the leaf litter and a squirrel runs a line across the grass with some hibernation food in her mouth. Everyone’s stocking up. There’s a small murmuration over the meadow, with a lone bird swooping in and out of the group like the discordant note that brings unexpected sweetness to a piece of music. I spot a Kelvin-Helmholz cloud in the sky. In its finest form it looks like a wave of Japanese surf cloud-drawn across a rectangular base. This one is grey and scrappy but there are definite surf tendrils and this cloud is, for me, always a good omen. I bank it.

The colours at the margins of the meadow are changing under the changing light and there’s a minor and transitory dog fight by the water fountain. It’s pretty huge, this absence at the heart of the woods and makes for enjoyably absent looking. I settle on the short line of ancient hedgerow that sits by itself on the bottom right of the meadow, apropos of nothing. Most hedgerows were originally planted or left during clearance as boundary markers. This hedge marks a border that no longer exists. It’s the natural equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie, a marker that once explained clearly the difference between two distinct worlds. What does it mark now? Nothing more than survival. Like so much in these woods, the most impressive thing is that it remains at all.

From London, the woods loom on the south easterly horizon, trees suspended high on the sloping summit of Shooters Hill. On the way home I notice something else: The Shard. It’s right in the middle of the view as you decompress down Shooters Hill, like someone had planned for this to be the connection; The Shard to Shooters Hill, the future to the past, the city to the woods, like the line between Arc De Triomphe and the obelisk in Place de la Concorde. I don’t really like The Shard close up, but from here, up on Shooters Hill, it looks remote and beautiful and yes, magical.

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