Downham in South East London

Downham in South East London is built-up residential area today but up to WWI this was still open countryside. It is probably a little-known area to those living in the more fashionable and trendy parts of London, but I believe that development there has interesting lessons for us in the 21C. 

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Discovering the Great North Wood

During lockdown, Catherine, like many of us, suddenly found herself spending a lot more time at home, and in need of something to do to break up the zoom call schedule (I think we can all relate to the zoom fatigue!). What better way to do this than getting outside, exploring the local area, and getting involved with a charity? Catherine has kindly written about her lockdown experience, and how it inspired her to become an outdoors person.

“Like many people, I learnt a lot about both myself and my neighbourhood during Lockdown. One of the most significant things was discovering that just 10 minutes’ walk from the flat I have lived in for 16 years is a lovely little wood. That wood became one of my Lockdown happy places.  

Let me rewind. It was the morning of 23rd April and I was heading to the park at the end of my road for a quick breath of fresh air before a day full of Zoom workshops. I bumped into one of my neighbours and her kids coming out of their house: ‘We’re off to pick wild garlic in the woods’, she said. ‘Which woods?’ I replied. ‘That makes me feel so much better,’ she exclaimed, ‘I felt so guilty when I discovered them last week. I have lived on this street six years!’ I have lived on this street for 16 years this week.  

The following day (when I was blissfully free of Zoom calls!) I followed her instructions to go through the gateposts on the corner of Beulah Hill and Spa Hill: ‘The ones that look like you’re going to go into someone’s garden.’ Twenty metres or so on a beautiful tranquil path opened up in front of me and within seconds I was plunged into a green oasis that smelt of wild garlic and was noisy with bird song. I spent the next hour or so wandering around the woods, discovering the fairy houses and wooden carvings that have been the hard work of The Friends of Spa Wood

Since then I have gone walking in those woods more times than I can remember. I soon realised that it provided a handy short cut to my partner’s house so I would cut through it on the way for garden gate chats and cake deliveries. I saw numerous dog walkers and runners and even spotted one person sat on a fallen tree working on their laptop.

I happened across temporary street art that just looked so amazing strung between two trees. One day I said to my oldest friends in our WhatsApp group: ‘I am off to the woods to listen to the birdsong,’ to which one of them quipped: ‘Is this your emergency message? Have you been kidnapped?’ I very much was not the kind of person who would go listening to birdsong, but listen to this – in the silent days of Lockdown the birds were magnificent. 

At some point I took to Google to find out more about Spa Wood. I had heard of the Great North Wood and knew that my area of Upper Norwood (better known as Crystal Palace) and the neighbouring West Norwood and South Norwood carried its name. My Googling quickly led me to the London Wildlife Trust and their conservation work on 13 remaining patches of the ancient wood. Their Go Jauntly App showed me walking routes to visit these sites. I decided that one of my Lockdown projects would be to visit all the sites in the London Wildlife Trust project. On the 12th of July I ticked off the last on the list with a trip to One Tree Hill.

Well, I say the last. Actually I couldn’t visit the New Cross Gate Cutting site because it is restricted access, but hopefully before too long I will get there. That’s because after my visit to One Tree Hill I came home, signed up to be a member of London Wildlife Trust and am now a volunteer on the Great North Wood project. I run my own business, a storytelling agency called Mile 91, so I am lucky enough to be have the flexibility to be able to take time out to volunteer during the week. My first session was at Spa Woods and I will be there again next Friday. They’re easy sessions to get to as I only need to leave my desk 15 minutes before the start time. When work allows I hope to volunteer at some of the sites further afield and I’ll make getting to the New Cross Gate Cutting a priority.

At the start of 2020, if someone had told me I would spend a large chunk of my year walking around woods in South London and by the time September came I’d be a volunteer for a conservation charity I would never have believed them. But would anyone have believed what was to come at the start of the year? Discovering the woodland areas near me as been one of the great joys of this unbelievable year though and I am really happy to now be doing my small bit to keep them healthy for others to enjoy.”

Catherine Raynor is a founding director of Mile 91, a storytelling agency for people who do good things. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @catherineraynor. All images courtesy of Catherine Raynor.

Vestry House Garden

Nathan, one of our Trustees, has been visiting some of our gardens, learning more about their history and the people behind them. This week he chatted to Marion, a professional gardener and florist, a City of London Tour guide specialising in green spaces, a member of Friends of City Gardens, an accredited guide for Smithfield market & The Temple, and one of our area coordinators. Marion also works at Vestry House, maintaining the garden. She spoke to Nathan about the history of the garden and how she became involved with Vestry House (unfortunately, she doesn’t share how she manages to fit all of that in!) You can listen to Marion’s interview on our website.

Vestry House Garden is one of a pair of award-winning gardens, which are privately owned. The garden was originally created on the site of the 12th Century Churchyard of St Laurence Pountney and the College of Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi College was founded by Sir John Poultney who was Lord Mayor in 1330, 1331, 1333 and 1336, in the parish of St. Lawrence. His name was also given to the church. Both the church and the college were destroyed during the Great Fire of 1666 and were not rebuilt. Sir John Poultney’s house had been on the west of Laurence Pountney Hill. A number of fine late C17th and early C18th houses survive in this area.

This former graveyard consists of two raised garden areas, which are divided by a sunken pedestrian passageway to Martin Lane. The area to the north is believed to be the site of the church of St Laurence Pountney. Both gardens are planted with trees and shrubs and are contained by railings which date from c.1780. Restoration works were undertaken in the south ground in 2003 as a private residential garden of adjoining property.

The gardens combine traditional parterre planting with a more contemporary design which works its way around tombs and headstones. There is a secluded planted area, naturalistic in style, and containing nectar-rich flowers to encourage wildlife. A wisteria walkway and espalier fruit trees provide formality, while the textural hard landscaping contrasts with the perfect grass lawn. The garden focuses on increasing biodiversity within The City. 

While the gardens are now private and residential, in 1370 the churchyard was used as a meeting place of Flemish weavers for the purpose of hiring. Weaves of Brabant gathered in the churchyard of St Mary Somerset. This separation was due to a disagreement between the weavers. We’re pleased to say that hiring practices have moved on since the 1300’s and we much prefer the ‘c.v via email’ route! 

You can read more about the St Laurence Pountney Graveyards on our inventory

Guest blog from the Core Landscapes Community Garden

A Core Arts Project

At Core Landscapes, we transform temporary sites into green havens to promote positive mental health for all. During Lockdown we have a skeleton staff and volunteer rota maintain our roof and street gardens and have shifted all learning engagement online. When the lock down began we worked quickly to create a series of  “how to” films on all aspects of horticulture films, spotlights on wild plants and seasonal garden updates. We are supporting our beneficiaries with calls, texts and whatsapp groups to share gardening information and to keep in touch with everyone and aim to deliver plant + compost packs to them in the near future. The films are fully accessible via our website link www.core-landscapes.co.uk

Core Landscapes began in 2009 and has moved 4 times across 3 East London Boroughs since then. We’re currently situated on a roof in Hackney next to Core Arts’ award-winning mental health charity after relocating from Whitechapel last year. 

We work with people who have been referred to the project via health and social care professionals and also with community, support and corporate volunteers as well as the wider community and general public. We also support other community green projects with advice, support and training.

Whereever we are situated the project always has an orchard, teaching space, medicinal plants, pond, food growing area as well as a wide range of flowers, shrubs and other trees – all movable and container grown showcasing that the sky’s the limit with container growing. We demonstrate that just because you may not have much space or actual ground to grow into, you can still garden and create gardens to promote your mental health and wellbeing through gardening.

For more information – follow Core Landscapes at

www.core-landscapes.co.uk and www.corearts.co.uk or join our instagram @CoreLandscapesLondon or facebook group @communitymeanwhilegarden