Wednesday, May 15, 2013

History Corner: New Cross Gate Cutting

A fascinating tour of London Wildlife Trust's New Cross Gate Cutting/Brockley nature reserve last weekend in the company of New Cross Commoners, with volunteer warden Steve Cleall giving us an insight into the site's history and wildlife.

The reserve, situated alongside the railway line with its entrance on Vesta Road SE4, is a great slice of wild London just along the track from New Cross Gate station.  One thing that struck me was how much of what we regard as simply a natural environment is in fact the result of centuries of interaction between human beings, other species and the land.

top path through the woods

The very landscape of the railway cutting was largely dug out by hand by navvies building the route of the Croydon canal and then the railway in the nineteenth century (Karl Marx mentions the terrible working conditions of navvies on the Lewisham-Tunbridge Wells line in Capital). The woodland itself only started to grow after the Second World War, when the site stopped being used for allotments (another allotments site survives of course on the opposite bank of the railway cutting).

The Croydon railroad under construction in 1839, as seen from New Cross. In the distance on the right, workers can be seen on the site of what is now the nature reserve. Incidentally, the house on the right may be Telegraph Cottage, home of the poet Robert Browning in the 1840s.
Detail from above painting showing navvies at work, shaping the landscape. Not sure what the tower was - maybe a temporary building used to help lay out the railway.
Prior to the allotments and indeed prior to the railway, most of the site would have been used for farming. A water trough still stands in the woods which is believed to date back to that period in the 19th century.

Water trough

The soil of the site is acidic as a result of numerous fragments of red brick left over from the manufacture of bricks locally and their use in the building of the area. This favours the growth of some plants and trees.

Red brick fragments on the pathway
While centuries past the area was covered by the Great North Wood which stretched down to Croydon, the oldest tree on the site is probably only about a hundred years old - this sycamore at the furthest point on the lower path. 
The oldest tree in the nature reserve
This human impact on woodland is not new. As the historian Peter Linebaugh notes, even in the days when much of England was covered in woodland, it was extensively shaped by our ancestors: 'Old trees are the result not of the wildwood (of the Ice Age thirteen millennia earlier) but of wooded pasture. The wooded pasture is a human creation, through centuries of accumulated woodsmanship', including the coppicing and pollarding of trees to encourage more growth. As well as grazing their animals amongst the trees, people relied on wood for fuel and building materials: 'Whole towns were timberframed: the strut and beam of cottages, the curved wooden rafters, the oak benches of worship. Then wheels, handles, bowls, tables, stools, spoons, toys, and other implements were all made of wood. Wood was the source of energy'. That is why the struggle to retain common rights of access to the woods was so bitterly fought during centuries of enclosure (Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, 2008).

Today keeping the New Cross Gate Cutting site as a diverse wildlife habitat also requires ongoing human effort - without it a few species would tend to dominate, particularly some of those introduced by humans from other parts of the world in the past. Volunteers meet on the second Saturday of every month to work on the site (details here), and these are also the only days when the site is open to the public. If you've never been for a wander around, you definitely should.

At a time of general pessimism about humans and the natural world, the nature reserve shows not only that 'nature' is more robust than people imagine (taking only a few decades to re-establish woodland) but that as part of nature, human beings can play a constructive role in co-creating the natural landscape.

No comments: