C. J. Schüler’s ‘The Wood That Built London’, published by Sandstone Press, charts the fortunes of the North Wood from its earliest times: its ecology, ownership, management, and the gradual encroachment of the metropolis. Mark Hooper reviews.
This ambitious, wide-ranging book tells the story of the Great North Wood, which once covered swathes of the Home Counties bordering what is now South London. The title only tells half the story. Yes, the North Wood built London, but, as Schüler goes on to explain in forensic detail, it was also swallowed up, subsumed and then destroyed by that same city, as a shifting emphasis from land husbandry to ownership and consumption took hold.
Meticulously researched — there probably isn’t a related map or bill of sale from the past 500 years that he hasn’t pored over — Schüler traces this ancient woodland’s origins from the Ice Age right up to the present day and the Covid-19 pandemic. The real story begins at the turn of the 16th century, as this relatively small expanse of wilderness (stretching from Croydon in the south to Deptford in the north, westwards to Streatham, and as far as Lewisham and Beckenham in the east) proves vital in London’s growth and emergence as the world’s greatest city. The woods here (‘an enormous tree farm’) provided the raw materials for the construction of the city’s buildings themselves, not to mention the furniture inside them. They also provided the charcoal for kilns and ovens that fuelled London’s industries (Colliers Wood is so named because of the abundancy of charcoal makers around Croydon — the term ‘grimy’ comes from the 16th century charcoal burner Francis Grimes). Even waste materials found a use — bark was used for leather tanning, while leaves, twigs and acorns were ground into ink. And, of course, London’s position as a global port was helped by an abundant local supply of wood for shipbuilding. (Schüler doesn’t shy away from some hard truths here — observing the links to colonisation, he remarks that the position of Archbishop of Canterbury has institutional links to slavery, with a missionary arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, owning plantations in Barbados.)
But this is only part of the story. Less than a century later, such common land was seen as wasteful and unproductive. The idea of ‘rural guilt’ — where nature makes people idle and even morally corrupt — was fuelled by the King James Bible of 1611, which explicitly commands the God-fearing to ‘replenish the earth, and subdue it’. Schüler sees this as the beginning of an ecological colonialism, where land is seen a commodity, with a God-given right for it to be used to further England’s capitalist drive, as witnessed from Ireland to Virginia and the Caribbean. ‘We have gone on multiplying and subduing and exercising dominion to the point where the Earth may never recover,’ he adds ominously (a conclusion, incidentally, that was also made at We Are History, Ekow Eshun’s brilliant recent show at London’s Somerset House). Schüler describes the Elizabethans and Jacobeans as ‘conquistadors of nature…Bible in one hand, billhook in the other, they sought to subdue the Earth and its people to what they saw as God’s will — which conveniently coincided with their own interests.’
This attitude also lead to enclosure — the practice of removing common land from pubic ownership and breaking it up into allotments for cultivation, sold to private landlords. Suddenly, the locals who had for generations used the land for grazing and foraging became disenfranchised, while the woods become associated with lawlessness and ‘untamed’ wilderness (the word ‘savage’ is derived from the Latin silvaticus, meaning ‘of the woods’ — ‘a relic of a primitive past, a place of darkness, disorder and superstition’). At the same time, the Industrial Revolution saw a shift away from a charcoal and timber economy to coal and iron, minimising the North Wood’s importance and heralding an era of felling, clearance and building on the land. This in turn proved the catalyst for a modern movement of rural protectionism, attracting some notable names, including the reformist social philosopher JS Mill, who opined that the North Wood was ‘being cut up into citizens’ boxes and bits of garden ground’.
And so it goes. The power shifts continue, as Schüler takes on the unenviable task of untangling the micro from the macro, seeing the global in the ultra local. Sometimes you wish he’d step back from the minutiae of boundary changes and botanical surveys to expand on some of his wider points — and then he does, hitting you with a section on diversity that rails against how conservationism is still dominated by the white middle class, drawing links between rural nostalgia and fascism and ‘a desire to preserve some mythical English “root stock”. This woodland is, after all, ‘scattered across one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country’ — and, before anyone can accuse him of wokery, he adds, ‘Nature — and especially the right of access to it — is political and, as I hope the history of the North Wood has made clear, always has been’.
This is central to Schüler’s narrative. The story of these woods matters deeply to him because ‘What we regard as natural is actually the result of millennia of interaction between human beings and their environment’ and — quoting WH Auden — ‘A culture is no better than its woods’.
This book would be entertaining enough if only for the way it is packed with anecdote and incident, from the Plague to the Blitz. Schüler even notes with cold irony that the Great Fire was most likely started by charcoal from the Great North Wood which, ‘having contributed much to the growth of the city, may now have played a part in its destruction’. But there is a greater devastation that he is more concerned with. ‘Ancient woodland is irreplaceable,’ he says. ‘You cannot ‘offset’ the destruction of so complex an ecosystem’. From here he draws a global picture of how a loss of biodiversity threatens life as we know it. He ends on a note of guarded optimism; what remains of the woods are, by and large, now in the hands of the right people, albeit with the public having to be vigilant in the face of short-termism from developers and local councils. He warns against complacency: despite the greater appreciation of nature and ‘rewilding’ during the recent Covid lockdown, he sees us already slipping back into old bad habits. Boris Johnson’s ‘Build, build, build’ mantra is, he notes, ‘old-school, pre-Covid, pre-climate crisis thinking’, and highlights the hypocrisy of announcing green policies in the same breath as promising to ‘scythe through the red tape’ of planning laws, taking aim at ‘newt counters’ — amongst whom Schüler proudly numbers himself.
In fact, the newt counters could tell us a thing or two about the importance of letting nature thrive. After all, as he so poetically puts it, ‘Weeds…are simply wildflowers growing where someone thinks they shouldn’t’…They are not a sign of neglect or decay, but of vigorous life.’
‘The Wood That Built London: A Human History of the Great North Wood’ is out now and available here (£18.58).
Mark Hooper is the author of ‘The Great British Tree Biography’, published by Pavilion.