AN ANCIENT WOOD IS one that is at least 400 years old and has probably been in existence since time immemorial. Several of these ‘prehistoric’ woods have survived the spread of London over the centuries. Often, they are islands of wildness in a sea of suburbia, as is the case of Coldfall Wood near East Finchley and Muswell Hill in North London. We visited it on a damp afternoon when the trees were dripping with rainfall. This heightened the sense that we were strolling through a landscape little changed from the time when London had not extended so far into what was mostly untamed countryside.
Coldfall Wood was originally named ‘Colefall’, a word possibly derived from the Old English words ‘cole’ and ‘gefeall’, probably used to describe a place where charcoal was burnt. It is named that way in a document dated 1599 and on an Ordnance Survey map published as late as 1877. In 1599, there was a murder in the wood. This was not an uncommon event in Finchley, whose common land (which included Coldfall Wood) was the haunt of highwaymen and other miscreants for many centuries, and especially during the 18th. The wood made history in the world of geology in 1835 when (according to an article that can be found at http://www.locallocalhistory.co.uk/gd/gdpage04.htm):
“…At a spot in Coldfall Wood, just beneath the vegetable soil, an eminent London geologist, Mr. N. T Wetherell, of Highgate, discovered a strange accumulation of fossil remains, consisting of miscellaneous rocks, shells, teeth of fish, and bones of saurians of extinct species, evidently brought hither by some unknown agency from the formations of various northern areas of England.”
The importance of this discovery led to the suggestion that:
“… the southern lowlands of England, as well as the mountains of Wales and the northern counties, showed traces of their former occupation by glaciers, and perhaps a glacial sea.”
However, this idea mooted in the 19th century has been challenged. It is now thought unlikely that Muswell Hill was once submerged beneath a glacial sea (although the glaciers did reach the area).
The present Coldfall Wood, which is a reduced version of what it was before the mid-19th century, is a deformed square in plan, its southern border, which is bounded by Creighton Avenue, being longer than its northern one. In the past, the wood extended southwards and reached the road now called ‘Fortis Green’ that existed from the early 19th century. Incidentally, the settlement of Fortis Green was in existence by the 16th century. The wood slopes downhill from its southern and western edges. At its southwest corner, it is just over 300 feet above sea level and at its north eastern corner, it is at least 60 feet lower.
Distinct footpaths both circumnavigate and traverse the wood. Because of the density of the trees, the buildings surrounding the wood are mostly hidden and the 14-hectare (35 acre) woodland feels much larger than it is. Every now and then, the footpaths cross small footbridges. These structures traverse often barely perceptible beds of streams, many of which were waterless on the August afternoon of our visit. In the lower reaches of the wood, the streams were filled with water. At the lowest corner of the wood, there is a wetland area traversed by an elevated wooden walkway. The water that flows down the slopes of Coldfall Wood disappears underground at the lowest (north east) corner of the woodland.
East Finchley, in which Coldfall Wood is located, is a watershed for two of London’s rivers, both tributaries of the Thames. From the western slopes of East Finchley, water runs into the River Brent whose mouth is at Brentford in West London. Water from the eastern slopes heads eastwards towards the River Lea whose waters flow into the Thames in London’s East End. I believe that this is the case for the water from the streams in Coldfall Wood.
I believe that I might have visited Coldfall Woods once before while visiting a dear friend, sometime in the late 1970s. Neither then nor a few days ago, when I made my second visit there, did I have even the slightest inkling of its history and geological significance. As we still have good friends who live close to it, it is likely that my next visit to Coldfall Wood will be in much less than forty years’ time.