An ancient wood

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.

Why don’t trees fall down?

SOME YEARS AGO, I was walking in Stoke Common (just north of Slough) with my teacher and close friend, the late Professor Robert Harkness. The Common was a wooded area with a variety of trees. Some of them looked very awkward in that their curved or leaning trunks seemed to defy gravity. Yet, the trees did not fall over despite this.

TREE 3

Robert, who was a renowned physiologist, was also a naturalist. Everything natural aroused his interest. As we walked through the woods, he explained that the trees did not topple over because each of them maintained their own centres of gravity as they grew. These centres of gravity must, he considered change constantly during the long lifetimes of the trees. How, he wondered, did the trees grow in such a way that they never became unbalanced and always remained standing?

He never told me the answer. Maybe, he did not know, but ever since that damp grey afternoon with him on Stoke Common, I always look at trees and wonder whether anyone knows the answer to his question. This afternoon, I was walking along the lovely tree-lined path that leads to Kenwood House from its public car park, when I noticed some trees growing on a steep slope lining it. The trees’ roots seemed to be clinging to the slope, hanging on for dear life. Seeing them reminded me of Robert and his wondering about arboreal ‘assessment’ of centres of balance and a fine old friend, who passed away in June 2006.

Shakespeare in the forest

BIG WOOD SEEMED large to me when I was a child. Although it does not live up to its name, it feels like a big wood once you enter it. Located in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’), this woodland and the much smaller nearby Little Wood are quite ancient. They were part of a forest that was at least 1000 years old, part of land given to Wealdhere, who became Bishop of London late in the 7th century. The woods and surrounding land remained church possessions until 1911, when they were leased to the HGS Trust by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. According to the londongardenstrust.org website:
“When Hampstead Garden Suburb was being planned in 1907, its instigator, Dame Henrietta Barnett, was committed to providing green spaces within the housing, planting trees and preserving those that existed. When additional land was acquired to extend the Suburb in 1911, Big Wood was leased from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and preserved as woodland. In 1933 Finchley UDC took on the freehold.”

BIG 12

Stage and auditorium of Little Wood Theatre

There is a report that circus elephants used to be kept in a field that existed between Big and Little Woods before the construction of houses in this location (now Denman Drive North and South). Colin Gregory wrote (www.hgs.org.uk):

“Before leaving this story, we should pay our respects to one of the last occupiers of Park Farm: the circus proprietor Lord’ George Sanger … His descendants continued the circus in operation until the 1960s. It is said that when he owned Park Farm he allowed the circus animals to winter on his land. An elderly resident of Denman Drive – constructed in 1908 on what was once Westminster Abbey’s land – used to recall ‘elephants grazing’ in the field between Big Wood and Little Wood, before Denman Drive North and Denman Drive South – constructed in 1912 on what was once the Bishop’s land – were completed.”

We re-visited the woods recently on a hot sunny afternoon. We entered Big Wood from the end of Temple Fortune Hill. At this entrance to the tiny forest there is a wooden gate that was put up to commemorate the 29 residents of HGS who died during WW2.  I do not remember seeing this gate when I was a child in the 1960s. Often in those days, my friends and I used to play in the woods, which I recall as being dark and dingy.

Lopa and I walked leisurely from one end of Big Wood to the other along good paths in about five minutes. This made the wood seem far smaller than its name suggests. However, when we wandered off the main tarred paths onto the numerous dirt tracks, made uneven by semi-exposed roots, threading their way amongst the trees, tree stumps, broken branches, and clumps of stinging nettles, the wood seemed dense and dank despite the fine blue sky above the tree tops. Calls of hidden birds punctuated the silence.  On these small paths, we lost all sense of direction and managed to get lost within the tiny area of woodland.

We had asked some locals how we could reach Little Wood from Big Wood and they had told us to follow a certain path, which they pointed out. We set off along it, but it kept bifurcating every few yards and we were clueless as to which of the two branching paths was the one to follow to arrive at Little Wood. Eventually after going around in circles, we gave up and left Big Wood via Oakwood Road, which is appropriately named as many of the trees in the two woods are oaks. We entered Little Wood from Denman Drive North, the continuation of Denman Drive South. These differently named sections of the same stretch of road link the two woods and must pass close to the field where circus elephants once grazed.

Little Wood, whose history is the same as that of Big Wood, contains one of London’s lesser-known performance spaces, a small open-air theatre.  This was created in 1920 by the Play and Pageant Union, one of two drama groups that later merged to form the Garden Suburb Theatre. It was restored in 1997, and now looks like it would benefit from some more restoration. The stage is a clearing in the woods surrounded by trees and bushes. The audience sits on a circular stepped auditorium consisting of three layers of paving stones set in a curve around the stage.

The theatre in Little Wood occupies an important place in my memories of childhood. It was here when I was about ten years old, back in the early 1960s, that I first saw a performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It must have been on a summer evening when I watched this with a sense of wonder that still lives with me. Apart from the odd logs, there were no other props. The actors and actresses appeared on, and disappeared from, the simple stage almost magically, popping through gaps between the trees and bushes surrounding the theatre.

I cannot begin to imagine what The Bard was thinking when he created The Dream, but I feel sure that he would have approved of its being acted out in on the sylvan stage in Little Wood. Furthermore, I think that he would have appreciated a play that contains six amateur actors in its plot being performed by a troupe of amateur actors such as we were watching that far-off evening. Since watching that play in Little Wood so many years ago, I have seen several other performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and only one has given me as much pleasure as that. It was a recent staging of the play directed by Nicholas Hytner at the relatively new Bridge Theatre near London’s Tower Bridge. In that recent show, as the theatre’s publicity said:

“The theatre becomes the forest – a dream world of flying fairies, contagious fogs and moonlight revels.”

And, the result at the Bridge was more than wonderful, although seeing the play in a real forest (Little Wood, in my case) is hard to beat.

Returning to the little theatre in Little Wood the other day, though it was out of use during the Covid-19 pandemic, it kindled many happy memories. Although I had not visited that theatre for many decades, it looked just as I remembered it.

A WALK IN THE PARK

BANGALORE IS RAPIDLY BECOMING AN URBAN DESERT, but luckily there are some green oases. One of these is Cubbon Park, named in honour of Sir Mark Cubbon (1775-1861). When it was first laid out in 1870 it was called ‘Meades Park’. Now, its official name is ‘Sri Chamarajendra Park’, although few Bangaloreans would recognize that name as being Cubbon Park.

Although a few roads traverse the park, they do not detract from ots pleasant sylvan nature. And, on Sundays many of these roads are closed to make them free of traffic.

Most of the park is not laid out in an obviously planned way and much of it is pleasantly in the shade of the leafy branches of huge old trees. Wherever you go, you will encounter dogs with their owners, wild dogs, people sitting or sleeping on benches or logs, people exercising, and picnickers. During a recent visit, I saw groups of young art students sitting in circles on the ground. They were cutting up old newspapers and magazines to gather materials for collages they were preparing.

Cubbon Park has its own metro station. One of its entrances is close to both a statue of King Edward VII of Great Britain and also a disused fighter jet, advertising the products of HAL, whose offices face the park.

After passing through the security check, which is present at all metro stations, I descended to the subterranean concourse. This and other parts of the station has been decorated by artworks created, with varying degrees of skill, by students of the Shristi school of design, which is located at Yelahanka, in between Bangalore and its Kempe Gowda Airport.

I was escorted by one of the Shristi students through the metro ticket barrier to another concourse that can be entered via a station entrance near the Chinnaswamy Cricket Stadium. This particular concourse had a temporary exhibition of photos of Indians who served in British armed forces during WW2. Sadly, this exhibition looked hastily conceived and did not make much of an impact either visually or historically. The involvement of Indian troops and officers during WW2 is undoubtedly of great interest, but this exhibition did not really explore this even superficially. While I was looking at the show, a Sikh gentleman spoke with me and pointed to one of the photos on display. It showed his father, who had fought during the War.

The exhibition ends on the 22nd December, but the delights of Cubbon Park remain … at least for the foreseeable future, but for how long it is impossible to say in a city that gives more importance to real estate investments than to preservation of heritage.

The FREEdom of the press

EVE STAND

 

In my youth, there were no free newspapers in London. There were, and still are, daily newspapers that were available to buy every morning. In the evening, there was a choice of the Evening Standard and the Evening News. Both were available to buy for a few pennies.

The Evening News disappeared some years ago. The Evening Standard remained on sale. Then, a few years ago (in 2009), the Standard became available free of charge. In my opinion, its quality decreased a bit after it became free. Shortly before the Standard became free of charge, a morning paper, the Metro, came into existence in 1999. It was free of charge.

The Metro is a perfect read for a bus or train journey lasting 15 to 25 minutes. It covers much news and contains plenty of other interesting features. As free newspapers go, I would far rather have a copy of the Metro than the Standard.

Time Out is a weekly which provides fairly thorough information about what is happening on the London leisure scene and includes often useful reviews of films, restaurants, bars, theatres, etc. Founded in 1968, it provided a far more intelligent and edgy account of the London scene than its rivals. Until 2012, Time Out was sold to readers for a fee, which was well worth paying. Since September 2012, it has been handed out free of charge each week. For sveral years, I thought that the free version was not as interesting as the former paid version, but of late the quality of Time Out‘s contents has been improving.

These various free periodicals are great but in these days of worrying about the planet, should we not be minimising the amount of paper being used just as we are trying with plastics? Although I am not so keen about using on-line versions of newspapers, they do not involve sacrificing trees or rubbish creation.

Climate, cycles, and trees

cycle

 

Undoubtedly, there is much concern about the future of planet Earth’s climate. So much so that children are missing school to go on protest marches because they are worried that they might never complete their lives because of catastrophic flooding or abnormally high ambient temperatures. Whether or not the dire predictions will turn out to be fulfilled remains to be seen, but there is no harm in trying to do something to address and then ameliorate or extinguish the perceived causes of the predicted ultimate disaster(s).

One of many measures being taken in London to reduce the output of gases toxic to the environment is to encourage the use of bicycles instead of motor vehicles. At present, cycling in London is fraught with dangers. There have been many collisions between cyclists and motor vehicles with quite a few fatalities amongst the cyclists. Many attempts are being made to segregate cyclists from other road traffic by constructing dedicated cycle lanes. Countries like the Netherlands have demonstrated very successfully that cycling can be made both safe and enjoyable by means of a comprehensive network of cycle lanes. 

Recently, there was a plan to construct a cycle lane along the tree-lined Holland Park Avenue in west London. From my frequent observations of this thoroughfare, there is only heavy cycle traffic in the morning and evening rush hours. Outside these busy times, there are few cyclists using this stretch of road. I felt that because of this a cycle lane was of questionable value.

To build the proposed cycle lane, planners faced a problem, which they might not have anticipated. In order to construct the cycle lane, twenty mature leafy trees would have had to be removed from Holland Park Avenue. This prospect aroused the anger of protestors in the area, who felt it was wrong to chop down trees to make way for a cycle lane. In a way they were correct.

Trees, as most people now know, help to protect the climate, which motorists (in cars powered by fuels other than electricity) are destroying. One need only look at the recent international protests against cutting down the rainforests in Brazil to understand the perceived importance of trees. Granted, Holland Park Avenue is hardly a rain forest, but chopping down trees does not seem like a good thing. In Bangalore (India), many trees have been removed to accomodate the needs of a rapidly growing metropolis, and the city’s climate and water supply are being adversely affected by factors such as this.

So, we have a conundrum: cyclists or trees? Rather than sit on the fence, let me give you my answer. The object of encouraging cycling and preserving trees is to save the future of human existence. If that is accepted, then saving cyclists’ lives and protecting them from harm has to take preference over saving twenty undoubtedly attractive trees.

All I ask of the cyclists is to protect themselves and pedestrians by obeying traffic signals.

For more about the Holland Park cycle lane, see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-48635369

Cycles and branches

bike

 

There are plans to make a cycle super highway through west London. This might make cycling more attractive to people living in the areas it passes through as well as making it safer for cyclists by separating them from other road users. All very well, so far.

In order to creat this cycle thoroughfare, quite a number of well-established old trees will have to be cut down and removed. While cycling no doubt reduces the amount of toxic gases emitted by vehicles, removing the trees cannot be so beneficial to the climate of the future, about which so many people have become concerned.

The authorities have said that the felled trees will be replaced by new trees nearby. That is good, but many trees take a long time to reach the size and ecological efficiency of the trees that will get the chop. A large number of people have protested about the proposed  sacrifice of trees for the cyclists, so we wait with baited breath to see whether the trees will survive or the new cycle route will come to fruition. Being Britain, there will probably be a compromise!

 

Picture by Natalia Goncharova in an exhibition at the Tate Modern, London

A North London idyll

Highgate Wood in late February

Trees with bare branches will soon bear leaves.

The sun shines through the cool, clear morning air.

Shadows  of tree trunks fall across the gravelly path, along which a man walks his dog.

A mother wheels her baby in a pushchair. 

And a jogger lopes past me, panting wheezily. 

An occasional bus passes by a signboard on the barely used pavement. It invites customers to take refreshment in a sylvan café.

It is Monday morning, and most people are at work.

A suburban idyll.

 

View of palms

I am not certain when I first saw palm trees. Maybe, it was when I was three years old. Then, my parents took me for a holiday in South Africa, where they were born.

Some of the first palm trees that I remember seeing are still growing in a small garden next to the entrance of St John’s Wood Underground station near Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. We used to visit St John’s Wood regularly when I was a child because our family dentist, Dr Samuels – a refugee from Nazi Germany, had his surgery opposite the station.

My first view of palm trees growing en-masse was from the air on an early morning in late December 1993. Our plane was landing at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were travelling via Colombo to Bangalore in India. A week or so after seeing this vast plantation of palms, my wife and I were married during a colourful Hindu ceremony.

Although I have seen many, many palm trees since then, I still find them beautiful and exotic.