Thursday, 12 April 2007

Off the grid: Go down to the woods today

Welcome to the inaugural posting of what I hope will become a regular, if erratic, feature. With Off the grid I will aim to bring to you word of the many places that lie off the beaten track.

Aye, wood: This ancient woodland is just eight miles from the centre of London

Shooters Hill

The first to qualify is Oxleas Woods in Shooters Hill, southeast London. Shooters Hill is about as far away as you can get from tourist London and still be in London. It's part of the borough of Greenwich but it's closer to Woolwich, Eltham and Plumstead.

The woods are made up of Oxleas Wood, Shepherdleas Wood, Oxleas Meadows, Jackwood and Castle Wood. Eltham Common and Woodlands Farm are also attached. The woods cover 77 hectares and are at least 8,000 years old. Oxleas Woods are are one of the last remaining ancient woodlands in London. They contain oak, silver birch, hornbeam, coppice hazel and several fine examples of the wild service tree, a relatively rare specimem that is generally confined to pockets of ancient woodland.

Watch the birdie: The colourful jay prefers to live in wooded areas where there is plenty of space to hide

The woods are home to a great number of birds, animals and plants. It was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1984 in recognition of the thousands of plant and animal species that have lived there since the last Ice Age. We were lucky enough to see a jay, a colourful but shy bird that often flies away before being spotted.
Mr The London Lowdown and I visited the woodland just last week, on the cusp of spring. The weather was beautiful and a few blossom trees had started to flower. New leaves were growing and the woods were thick with the dark green leaves of bluebells and rhododendrons. In a couple of weeks' time the woods will be spectacular with colour and scents. I'll be going back with a picnic. There is a cafe so you don't have to supply your own snacks.

Man's folly : Severndroog Castle was built to commemorate Sir William James, late of the East India Company

We walked through Jackwood to Castle Wood to satisfy my desire to find Severndroog Castle, a folly built in 1784 with a history that deserves an entry all of its own. We found the castle and wandered back to Jackwood where we found rose gardens, some lovely terraced gardens and the remains of 20th century mansion. Then it was on to Oxleas Wood, where a very vocal blue tit seemed to be warning us away from something. I wonder if she was protecting her eggs.

Shooters Hill Road, the main way to the woodland, follows the route of ancient Watling Street, an important thoroughfare into London for almost 2,000 years. The woods here were once a notorious haunt of highwaymen, one possible origin of the name Shooters Hill. The bodies of convicted highwaymen were left hanging in roadside gibbets as a deterrent to others.

In ancient times these woods would been essential to the community, providing fuel, building materials for homes and ships and bark for tanning leather (as well as a hiding place for those highwaymen). Wild animals, fruits and herbs would have been food and medicine, while woodland clearings would have been used for grazing stock - hence the names Oxleas and Shepherdleas, pastures for oxen and sheep, respectively.

Oxleas Woods


Helen said...

Fascinating stuff. I always imagine London to be one big urban sprawl. Nice to be proved wrong :)

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