Welcome to our AFON Advent Calendar! Each day leading up to Christmas you will find a wonderful new post by a different member. This years theme is your favourite nature reserve; where do you go to escape from the world and connect with nature? Enjoy!
For those living outside London, the city might seem more concrete jungle than wildlife haven. When I moved here in June, I certainly wasn’t expecting to find goldfinches twizzling away on thistles by the tube, nor peregrines circling the Tate chimney. It didn’t take me long to realise how well nature was flourishing in our capital; with green space covering 40% of Greater London, it’s the greenest city of its size in the world!
With this in mind, I wanted the opportunity get out into the urban wilderness and experience it for myself. I’ve been volunteering with the London Wildlife Trust for several weeks now in Sydenham Hill Wood, a nine-hectare stretch of ancient woodland in south London, and the history of the reserve is mesmerising! After London’s Great Exhibition had been so popular in Hyde Park in the 1850s, the magnificent glass building created to house it was relocated to what is now Crystal Palace, and the council built a railway through the trees to make the exhibition more accessible. It consequently became a Victorian hotspot, with wealthy folk building grand houses and exotic gardens around the wood.
It’s been 150 years since the Great Exhibition and Imperial bloom, and the railway track has rusted away; but traces of Victorian life can still be found throughout the reserve. A crumbling folly and rockery rest in the shade of the hornbeams, and a solitary mulberry tree stands alone in a clearing, all that remains of a demure 19th century garden. Meanwhile, the trees are full of life; wild garlic and wood anemone grow between oaks and elms, while purple hairstreak butterflies, stag beetles and wood mice lollop in the sun. Woodpecker, nuthatch and treecreeper flitter through the glades beneath the cantankerous eyes of the tawny owl. The woodland is also home to a number of bat species and rare fungi, including the resplendent cobalt crust.
Originally from the chalky hills of the South Downs, I was nervous about moving to the big smoke and losing any regular contact with the natural world. This magical pocket of woodland has become my favourite place in London, and I can’t wait to scurry back each week to my patch of ancient wilderness.