The Great North Wood

16th Century Map of Great North Wood

The area were Garthorne Road Nature Reserve is now was wooded and called Forest Wood and a small part of the much larger Great North Wood that stretched from New Cross (Hatcham) to just north of Croydon and from Sydenham to Streatham.

This large woodland gave rise to the names of local districts such as Norwood, Forest Hill and Penge (‘edge of wood’) amongst others. The Wood was mainly sessile oak and hornbeam with more open common land and a history of strong ownership by local people . It was managed for timber (including shipbuilding), charcoal, tannin for Bermondsey’s leather-making industries) using the oak bark and firewood. Also the wood was occupied by gipises and wood hermits. However, the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts from the late 18th Century led to the Great North Wood losing its economic validity, and much of it was partitioned and sold off for development.

The Great North Wood stills survives, fragmented into a patten of small woodlands, parks, cemeteries, sports grounds, railway embankments, and gardens – all of which provide a home for nature within a modern urban landscape today and around twenty sites stills exists some still been ancient woodlands the largest being Sydenham Hill, Cox’s Walk & Dulwich Wood, were you can still see woodpeckers and butterflies such as the purple hairstreak high on oak trees.

The wood is a important been rich in wildlife and natural heritage resource an effective ‘green lung’ providing ecosystems services as cleaner air for all and a place for people to relax and enjoy and mental well-being.

The London Wildlife Trust an conservation charity has secured funding from Heritage Lottery Fund for the Great North Wood Project until December 2022 assisting ‘Friends’ of group maintaining many former Great North Wood woodland sites covering the London boroughs of Lewisham, Lambeth, Southwark & Croydon that has either been neglected or mismanaged for years and to revive and raise people’s awareness of this largely forgotten woodland, encouraging residents to explore, enjoy and value the natural wealth on their doorsteps.

The former Friends of the Great North Wood produced an leaflet about the Great North Wood and a map of the existing sites and further information and is available for sale priced at £1 plus postage for further details contact the Friends of Garthorne Road Nature Reserve by E-mail: . All the money raised goes to purchasing tools and equipment to further improve the biodiversity of the reserve.

Croydon Canal

The reserve and much of the surrounding land has been subject to much disturbance by public works. Up to the early 1800s with the construction of the Canal the remaining part of Forest Wood stood on the eastern flanks and shows the wood to be L-shaped, bisected by the canal which ran for 9.25 miles from the Grand Surrey Canal at New Cross in south London to West Croydon, via Forest Hill, to. Authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1801, the canal was originally intended to extend northwards to Rotherhithe, but the simultaneous construction of the Grand Surrey Canal provided a convenient access route and the canal opened on 22nd October 1809.

The canal at West Croydon also linked Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway (itself connected to the Surrey Iron Railway), enabling the canal to be used to transport stone and lime from workings at Merstham. The canal was never extended further south-west, as was initially intended, to reach Epsom. Most of the canal followed the 161 ft contour and was originally planned with two inclined planes but in the end 28 locks was constructed and arranged in two flights with the largest amount of 17 locks between Brockley and Honor Oak and was the highest point on the canal and was 34 feet wide with a maximum depth of 5 feet. It continued snaking around the contour of the land and part of the canal came through the reserve from the north-end before crossing back over to Devonshire Road again following the lay of the land. Extensive earth movements must have created huge amounts of spoil which may account for the uneven topography of the site.  Evidence of past building materials can be found and this may be a clue to the path of the canal. The Tithe Maps and the equivalent Apportionment Book show that the surrounding land use at the time was mainly pasture with some arable.  The may have affected the site when the woodland was cleared.

Route of Croydon Canal through reserve

To keep the canal supplied with water reservoirs constructed at Forest Hill (Sainsbury’s car park) and Sydenham (Albion Villas Millennium Green), with another at South Norwood which still exists as South Norwood Lake in a public park. There is still parts of the canal still exists today at Darces Wood Nature Reserve between Forest Hill and Sydenham stations and at Betts Park in Anerley. The canal company charged a toll for goods traveling along the route such as stone, timber, coals, at 3d (55p) per ton per mile while lime. chalk, marl & dung was 1.5d (82½p) per ton per mile. The canal was a failure due to many factors from the banks falling in at Forest Hill and leaking canal bed as well the lack of financial returns and and it closed in August 1836. It was the first canal to be formally abandoned by an Act of Parliament.

More information about this can be found on Diamond Geezers blog.  More images of the old Croydon Canal can be found on Steve Grindlay’s Flickr page.

© Croydon Local Studies Library
Croydon Canal from Deptford © Croydon Local Studies Library


In 1834 Joseph Gibbs, engineer to the proposed London and Croydon Railway (L&CR) done a survey for a route between London and Croydon and the canal was purchased by the railway company in July 1836 for £40,250 plus one shilling. When constructing the railway it did not completely follow the old canal route leaving parts of it isolated such as at Dacres Wood Nature Reserve and Betts Park in Anerley the cuttings was direct, broad deep, cuttimgs where it crossed level ground. Extensive earth movements must have created huge amounts of spoil which may account for the uneven topography of the site.

In August 1844 a further Act authorised the railway company to widen its track to four lines and to work one of them on an atmospheric principle. This involved the laying of a large pipe, with a continuous slot closed by a leather flap value along the top, between the rails. Between Forest Hill and West Croydon pumping houses was built at Forest Hill, Norwood and Croydon no locomotives were used and was powered by air pressure or vacuum is used to provide power for traction which lasted about a year but due to high cost of operation and maintenance. The present railway route between London Bridge and Crystal Palace (Low level) was electrified in 1928.

Print published in 1836 looking towards Forest Hill from opposite at Devonshire Road Nature Reserve during construction of the railway

World War II (1939-1945)

During the Second World War the local area was heavily damaged by enemy bombs and a large amount of the properties was either badly damaged or destroyed along Garthorne Road probably targeting the nearby railway line, numbers 76 – 108 Garthorne Road was destroyed and beyond repair and was demolished and prefabs was built in there place there is a rumour of that several of the bombs may of felled into the reserve behind the houses and that is why some of the area has a couple of large craters. The two natures reserves is outlines in red.

War Damage maps of Forest Hill and Honor Oak Park (Layers of London website)

The Green Line Nature’s Railway

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