The Wood that Built London: A Human History of the Great North Wood by C J Schüler - review by Nigel Andrew

Nigel Andrew

Roots of the City

The Wood that Built London: A Human History of the Great North Wood


Sandstone Press 321pp £19.99

There was a time, not so long ago, when woodland stretched across south London in a great seven-mile swathe from Croydon (which literally means ‘crocus valley’) to Deptford. Only in Victorian times, when it was already seriously depleted, was it given a name: the Great North Wood. Now that it is depleted still further, reduced to scattered patches amid suburban sprawl, it is attracting renewed attention and being recognised as an important survival of ancient woodland. That’s ancient woodland, not wild wood: there is scarcely any of that, or of any other true wilderness, in this country. The ancient woodland was a working environment, intensively managed to provide timber for building, wood for domestic and agricultural use, charcoal for kilns, bakers’ ovens and smiths’ forges, and food for humans and animals. The history of the Great North Wood is ‘not only a natural history but a human one’, as C J Schüler puts it in the introduction to his timely and informative survey of this remarkable woodland.

The story begins to take shape in Anglo-Saxon times. By 871, Croydon and all its surrounding land had come into the possession of the archbishop of Canterbury (hence the bishop’s palace that can still be seen in that unlovely town). A hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins was dug up

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