To Highgate library at the start of the cold snap on Wednesday to pick up Submerged Forests (1913) by Clement Reid, the Godfather of North Sea archaeology. (See last week’s blog.)
The weather was brighter than I was: an Edward Thomas kind of a day – clean and clear and sweet and cold – but I had just been to K-Town police station to report our car having been bashed. It was parked and the driver drove off without leaving his details but not without being seen by a witness who took down his reg details and left her phone number under the windscreen wiper.
Taking the alley by the side of the library it struck me that entering Queen’s Wood from the direction of Shepherds Hill was not unlike going down into a submerged forest. Like Highgate Wood, it is a remnant of the great Middlesex forest – how old exactly is not known but species like hornbeam are characteristic of ancient woodland (it was once coppiced for charcoal) and records date back at least to 1600.
I love the curves of Highgate. Yes we have our own curves in the Kentish lowlands but development is a great leveller – at least in the mind. Once in the middle of the wood you could be in the Quantocks or Epping Forest.
A.E. Houseman once complained in a letter to the editor of The Standard (12 March 1894) that over zealous thinning of the brushwood meant that standing in the heart of the wood he could see scarlet flannel petticoats drying on the lines in the back gardens of Archway Road.
Proof perhaps that the wood is better managed today or perhaps that A.E.H. had misremembered. He did after all build his literary reputation creatively misremembering the Shropshire Hills. Today, I couldn’t have told you with any confidence which direction the road was let alone what items of clothing were flying in the gardens in the late November sunshine.
Leaving the wood by the cafe I decided against entering Highgate Wood opposite and instead followed the Parkland Walk signs north along Muswell Hill Road soon diving off east to hitch a ride on the ghost train. Not a chip board and damp sponge job but the old railway to Ally Pally, now a nature trail. I was soon overflown by a grey bin liner which in the same instant I realized there wasn’t any wind, saw to be a heron, which I took to be a good omen.
The views, as the impermanent way unwinds along the lip of the London basin are majestic – as befits the entrance to a palace. Views back to Highgate and the familiar landmark of St Joe’s and out across London and the City to Kent and Essex. Somewhere in the middle distance a river, submerged in a stone canyon. Below that, a forest, remnants of which – like farmers’ teeth, the rotting stumps of old sea defences – are still sometimes visible at low tide. Pepys mentions the submerged forest in his diary after visiting his friend Henry Johnson, the owner of Blackwall Yard who had recently commissioned the building of a new wet dock primarily designed to service East India Company ships.1
” … in digging his late Docke, he did 12 foot under ground find perfect trees over-covered with earth. Nut trees, with the branches and the very nuts upon them; some of whose nuts he showed us. Their shells black with age, and their kernell, upon opening, decayed, but their shell perfectly hard as ever. And a yew tree he showed us (upon which, he says, the very ivy was taken up whole about it), which upon cutting with an addes [adze], we found to be rather harder than the living tree usually is. They say, very much, but I do not know how hard a yew tree naturally is. The armes, they say, were taken up at first whole, about the body, which is very strange.”2
It was Friday 22 September 1665. The same day that Pepys met Lord Sandwich (see Benfleet-Southend-101027) off Woolwich & took him home to introduce him to his wife.
1‘Blackwall Yard: Development, to c.1819’, Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs (1994), pp. 553-565. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=46533&strquery=Henry+Johnson Date accessed: 26 November 2010.
2The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 22 September 1665. URL:
Date accessed: 26 November 2010.