Episode 51: London’s Forgotten Places

Have you wandered through London and noticed hints to its past? 

Guest Anthony Chalmers talks to us about London’s Forgotten Places, London’s ever-changing environment and how green spaces “London lungs” need to be fought for. 

Places mentioned include South Norwood Country Park, Ravensbourne River, Crayford Marshes, Sydenham Hill Wood, River Lee, the Thames River, Deptford, Honour Oak Park.

Recommended Reading:


London’s Forgotten Places

Show Notes:

Your Host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).


Anthony Chalmers

I’m Anthony Chalmers, London based festival & concert promoter and radio DJ. But more for the purpose of this interview I’m the host of Out for a Walk podcast and enthusiastic London walker, explorer & keen on urban wildlife.

Instagram | Twitter Website


Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

Joining me in the studio is Anthony Chalmers, host of out for a walk podcast. He’s an enthusiastic London walker and explorer. Who’s keen on sharing his love of urban wildlife and to inspire people, to explore the local environment and with lockdown lifting. This is the perfect time to do it. So hello, Anthony.

Anthony: Hi, thanks a lot for having me 

Hazel: Now with lockdown lifting. People may be feeling a little bit more adventurous and exploring a little bit further afield, but still own a foot. And I know that you are Southeast London, so why don’t you tell us all about where you have been walking over?

Anthony: So I live in Lewisham in Southeast London. So everywhere from here down to Kent and heading up into West London and central London, a little bit is sort of my hood. 

Hazel: And is there a London walk? You absolutely love. 

Anthony: Yeah, not, not too far from me, a walk that I absolutely love is my local river.

So I have the river Pool and the river Ravensbourne that starts down at Keston. In a sort of Bromley Kent, right on the edge of London. And I’ve followed the river up through far as tail to Ladywell, Catford and all the way up through Deptford until it comes out into the Thames in Greenwich. I’ve done that walk a couple of times from here up there.

And I also did from back to the source in Keston, common a couple of weeks ago. Through probably common and all the way down, it comes out of a lovely bubbling spring. It was just in, in the ground by some lakes clear spring water, it was, it was very nice. I need to explore that area more because it was a long walk, like maybe 18 to 20 miles round.

So when I got there, it didn’t leave too much time for a potter around. It’s like, you’ve got to get there, would have a drink of water, turn around and get yourself home. 

Hazel: And we know that walking’s good for the soul as well as being good exercise. And how was it for you this story of progressing your walking?

Anthony: I tried to walk most of the streets in the local area, like when, in, in whatever it was in March or April, you know, when we weren’t really allowed to go anywhere and we’re just figuring out what was, what, and then from there I spent a lot of time in South Norwood country park which is old Victorian sewage works.

That’s been reclaimed parkland, as a nature reserve since the 1970s and those sort of ex-industrial, sort of human usage spaces. I think some of the best and most interesting that you have in London gave you the sort of urban rule combination that I feel is quite unique and quite interesting.

Hazel: When I go Woolwich way and I’m walking along the river Thames there, and there’s so much as you said, industrial wasteland, and a lot of it’s been rebuilt now, now they’re actually putting plaques up about the heritage of the area that might not have been obvious before.

So there is a benefit for the areas being regenerated. 

Anthony: It’s curious, like I don’t know exactly which part you’ve been, but I’ve been quite extensively around Crayford marshes. Which is just a little bit further, a little bit further along the Thames from there. And that is an area that I can spend a lot of time in.

And it feels though, even though you’re on the temps and you know, you’re not that far away from London, I guess maybe 12 miles in central London or something, but it definitely feels like you’re somewhere wild there, way more than any you know, South downs or the Surrey Hills or something like that.

You’ve got scrapyards, you’ve got skip hires and cranes as well as loads of seabirds had a sale just there on the, on the, on the sand. When I walked there last. Yeah. 

Hazel: So what I mean, Nelson 

Anthony: babe. Exactly. And I definitely feel that those sorts of spaces that that sort of can connect you with London’s history while making you feel like you’re in, you’re in a wild area.

And to give. So I think that it’s easy to not appreciate these sort of places. And clearly all these businesses are there because of what they probably got, got it for very cheap, you know, it was just like, no one wants to be here. You know, here is some land where you can store your grains here. You can, it’s so rubbish, but these are spaces that I feel.

Have been very good for wildlife. You can, when you see green parks or something, you think these places are good for wildlife, but they’re really not. You know, it’s not, it’s not, not, not particularly useful for most things there, but somewhere where it might look a lot more overgrown or things. But when you see so many, so lovely stone chats and, but it’s, I would just never say around Lewisham. Yeah, it’s my spot. 

Hazel: And one of the rivers that you mentioned was the Ravensbourne, which is one I have yet to walk. So I’ve done around debt-free Creek around there, but I haven’t walked to the source. Yeah. 

Anthony: Well, so far, I did from Forest Hill, to the Thames, which is up through Ladywell, Catford, St. John’s, Deptford Creek to the Thames. I did that a few times. And then I was like, okay. No. I was like, Oh, where does it start? Because actually I was sort of fairly ignorant on this space. And I just thought that these streams, more of them just sort of came from the salary Hills, but it turns out that looking at it and the Ravensbourne or the Darren or the Cray or all of these rivers that go from sort of Southeast into the temps, nearly all will come up from Springs.

And I’ve found someone’s blog who went down there a little while ago, and it’s in the old land of of a country Manor. And they’d sculpted a few lakes and had a sort of little fountain that they’d made around the source. And I was like, thinking, you know, that, that looks nice. Let let’s, let’s try that.

And yeah, it was, it was a good walk, probably common. Cause when I looked it on the map from the commons, is this enormous green space. And I was hoping we could go down through the middle, but I didn’t really find the best way to go through vomiting. Common later, someone on Instagram was like, it’s not on the map that I said, this lady did give me a route, 

Hazel: something therapeutic about walking for the sake of walking, but then there’s also walking along a river.

And following the course of the river, there’s something quite hypnotic about 

Anthony: that. What do you think? And water and stuff is, is a nice sound. I think pretty much universally. Everyone can appreciate that one. And it was obviously water’s a good place for wildlife generally, and a King fishes on the river pool and the Ravensbourne as well, where you were in Deptford Creek.

Brookmill park is Wonderful for birds, not far from there, and it’s not there, but all these places that used to have all these mails and Deptford with its history of shipbuilding, you know, that’s what, that’s what the Ravensbourne bothers, you know, at that point, it’s, you know, people building and building ships at the top and walking along there and trying to what it might’ve been like or what it might’ve felt like.

And I’m sure it’s something that, you know, you’ve done in every London walking tour you’ve ever done the, tried to walk the streets and try to feel what it might’ve felt, what it sounded like, what it might’ve smelled, like, what it, what people would have felt. And yes, it’s a nice. It is certainly a nice one.

And in that same place, the Cray river was how I ended up in, in the Crayford marshes, because I was like, okay, I’m going to get the train to sit Mary Cray. And I’m going to walk the river to the temps and didn’t really know where it was, what it was going to do particularly, but I have an enormous cheater Manor who house.

You know, with a sculptured mannequin governance next to that, I don’t know which road it is. It’s an enormous motorway. It’s like big old, a roads, loads of industrial stuff, scrap yards or something, and enormous Tudor Manor with the most beautiful garden with the river Cray running through it. It’s very curious.

Hazel: Oh my goodness. It’s amazing. Isn’t it? When you just take a little bit. Out of the normal or normal route. I remember going up to a Brock’s ball and that was really interesting. Seeing how the architecture changed over time, how they, you know, the reservoirs and making a different connection to. Maybe it’s not obvious history, but when you take the time, you know, you’re walking only a certain pace and I’m sure I’ve got shorter legs than you.

But you’re forced to take in the environment, aren’t you, especially when there’s only one path and the water’s right next to you, and you’re just following the calling. But you are forced to take in stuff that normally you’d be too busy with new phone or whizzing to somewhat catching a bus or, or whatever, taking that time to just appreciate the here and now.

It’s something quite powerful 

Anthony: For certain and the river Lee and that part of Northeast London is a, is, is a great place for rural urban spaces would be wetlands, the Waltham stone marshes, the the water Musto wetlands that the London model of trust. That was, I think when was that? I think about five years ago, maybe they sort of like open that as an official place.

Hackney marshes. The Middlesex filter beds are fans. I used to live around that area, but not for seven or eight years now, but definitely walked around it a lot a lot back in the day. And I think, yeah, this is a great example of Sort of, I think you see London encroaching on the land, but sometimes the land encroaches on London as well.

Like with the, like with the filter pets, aren’t filtering the water anymore, but it’s become a more rural space. I think that also part of the reason is just simply when you not getting the tube. And this is probably I’m. I imagine that a lot of the listeners here are people from London or at the very least people who are interested in London, when you always getting the tube or the train, it can give you a false sense of how far you’ve gone.

I think I couldn’t read, I didn’t read, I knew it in the abstract, but I didn’t realize that, you know, you could really just wake up in the morning in forest Hill and walk to Alexandra palace, you know, by the early evening. 

Hazel: Well, that’s it. During London in Charles Dickens’s time, before the railway, before the tube, they had to walk everywhere. This was the mode of transport for most people. And so as a little boy, 12 years old, he would walk from his lodgings in Camden. And he would pick up his sister on a Sunday, Hanover square and walk all the way down to where basically borough tube station is now, which is where Marshalsea prison.

And he would do that on his own as a 12 year old boy spend some time with his family meal time and then he’d walk all the way back. That was normal.

Anthony: It’s interesting, I buy these ordinance survey maps because you can buy them off eBay for two pound 90, and it’s like ordinance survey, map of forest Hill 1890, 1920.

And to see how the area has built up and. Well, Forest Hill is a pretty established little village town, whatever Catford is more or less completely empty, you know, there’s a Manor down there and a couple of farms. And then to have it as a sort of bustling metropolis centre of Southeast London, which is what it is really interesting.

I haven’t sort of, I need to. Okay, so the interim bit, because I’ve got, I’ve got one more. It’s not there. And I’ve got one where it is that I haven’t quite fully understood the journey. 

Hazel: Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? And that’s when you walk around these areas and that you can see like with the cut foot they had, Oh, they still have very nice Victorian buildings.

It’s just that they’ve sort of been added on a porch, you know, these houses and not necessarily been looked after as much as they would have been them, but if I’d had a house. Back looking like that back in Victorian times, that would, I would have been so proud and over time our expectations of housing requirements and that has changed.

And you can see that on the front of of the streets, really in the houses. 

Anthony: Close to me, we have the wonderful Sydney Hill woods, which is the largest remnant of South London’s great Northwood is actually the, the first place that the London wildlife trust actually took on. In the eighties, I think it was run by the council and that on the wildlife trust as a formative charity.

And it was donated to them, I think in 1983. And and it’s been, it’s been, it’s one of those ones where during the last 12 months, a lot of people have taken refuge in there as to get some fresh air, go for some walks, et cetera. And it means there’s a lot busier for me, but but it is still it is nice to see people discovering, discovering their ancient Woodlands.

But I think that one thing that I wanted to talk about on here is that people, I think people often think of it as a a bit of a linear line where London. You know, is, you know, built by the Romans and sort of expanded outwards, which has happened, but it’s obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that, of expanding contracting areas that all once built up or not anymore areas that were once wooded and not anymore, but areas that weren’t worded in 1840 might now be a big word.

And I think it’s all. Yeah, it’s, it’s changing. There’s a painting by Camille Pissarro from in synonym. Hillwoods from the bridge looking from there towards forest Hill station. And there’s not a tree in sight. And when you stand on that bridge, now you’re in the middle of a forest. And to see how it’s been reclaimed from all sorts of different places, quite a lot of gardens.

The train line that ran from when the crystal palace opened, which is post like the transport transformative event of Victorian times for this area of London or Southeast London for a place that nobody really wanted to own. Suddenly you had the biggest tourist attraction in London and everybody of their day wanted to, wanted to come down.

So people were building houses and all that, but the train line went, but then when the crystal palace went. Nobody had suddenly, like nobody really wanted to go anymore. And the train line was just taken up and I guess, I dunno, melted down or laid to a different train line somewhere else. And the woods grew up around it and Yeah, it’s definitely, yeah, it’s definitely a lovely place to go.

Although it does add a small bugbear of mine is the Google map bugbear. And I was like, should I bring this up? And it was just me being, being basically on Google maps is green. Like that’s what green means, park Woodland, or somewhere like that. That’s not green. That’s just generally empty. And if you look on the map and if you look at it, It doesn’t feel immediately obvious that’s a green space.

Hazel: I thought, and this is what they, they just leave it space. Like it is like unclaimed. 

Anthony: Exactly. Sydenham Hill Woods you have all green for the golf course. That’s all great. The golf course. And then next to it, it’s just blank. Yeah, there’s a site. There’s a little tick that says Dulwich word or Hillcrest word, but essentially it’s just empty.

Hazel: That’s such a missed opportunity, isn’t it? Because people don’t know necessarily that they can go there. 

Anthony: Exactly. And in many ways, these sort of places offer so much more. Then the parks and I hope that in the next 10, 20, 30 years, London tries to get a more sustainable approach to its parks. So how it can be integrated better.

In into four into those sort of wild spaces. So it can be a good place for humans to, you know, whatever, play football, picnic, and walk or whatever it is that you like to do in the park. But it can also not be essentially a and near desert. In terms of wildlife. That’s 

Hazel: amazing. Cause you know, it’s not too far away from the Horniman museum and gardens at all, looking at the map and I’ve been there plenty of times and I didn’t know that Sydney Hillwood existed 

Anthony: and, and I’m sure I lived here for at least a year or more.

Before I, you know, noticed it was there. I can’t remember exactly what happened now, but the, Oh, the history of that place is very interesting. And I’m actually tomorrow morning, I’m meeting my producer, Sarah at six 45 in the woods to record our podcast. And I think we’ll get the best recordings of the birds and the wildlife.

And we can have a nice, have a nice walk around there. Yeah. Yeah. The great North woods, the Norwood. Which gives name to that part of London you know, went through the whole of Southeast London and what I thought CJ Schuller did a great YouTube video. And I think he’s just released a book as well about the history of the great northward and what I would have thought and what we would have anything is that, you know, it was a Woodland as London expanded more people that chopped it down and turned it into farmland or whatever.

And that is true to an extent, but actually. All three time. This would was, was vital to the people that lived there. This was what they burnt for the fuel to keep them warm, to cook their food. No words meant salvation. And it’s really only with the industrial revolution when they didn’t need the word anymore was actually when they cut it down.

It wasn’t so much like the population increase. It was just like, we don’t need that with anymore. We use coal now. I think I thought that was, that was very curious, but we’re lucky to still have some of it. I mean, the big, there was, cause it was owned by Dulwich college that was there and you know, that was some extremely rich college that didn’t have any need to sell it off.

And with the train line posing getting that extra corridor. But I think also another point that’s important is the point to remember that these spaces are not there by coincidence, like nearly all of our open spaces have had to be fought for throughout time, you know, London spaces are worth money and people will want to build on them and.

From early time until now. Right. You know, I’m sure there’s loads going on right now more than I have any idea about people are having to campaign so that people don’t don’t build and build on these places. And yeah, I mean, in, in 83, when it was handed over to the wildlife trust, a whole section of the top end of the woods, essentially it used to be this used to be six big manners.

And that’s why you get these quite fancy trees in the woods that aren’t native. There’s a Mulberry as a Cedar, you know, ones that people would have planted in their gardens, but, and only rebel remains of those houses. And they wanted to build a load of flats and the people campaigned campaign to stop it.

I mean, on the road a Hill, just up the road from me. Was was famously had a huge riot when it was the entire area was fenced off when it was sold in 1890 and it was going to be a golf course. Don’t get me started on golf courses. Approximately 2% of all land in England is devoted to golf courses. More than housing.

1% of the UK is housing and 2% is golf courses. 

Hazel: I can’t get my head round that I, that is, I mean, 2% doesn’t sound very much, but when you compare that to housing, which actually we need, that is outrageous,

Anthony: it is mad. And I think basically how past strapped councils after the war had a lot of space and not a lot of money. And they, and some of this area, what was allowed to be built on was built on, but some lots of spaces was, it may say in the green belt or for some other reason or another couldn’t get permission, but building like that.

So they’re like, okay, well, we’ll get what we can get from it. And we’ll sell it as a golf course. I mean, it could be worse. I’d rather have golf courses than, you know, car parks. 

Hazel: Yeah. I mean, imagine what a sales bank would have been like if they had actually run with the 1960s plan of turning the South bank into a gigantic carpark.

I mean, it’d be a very different London now, 

Anthony: but I don’t want to say that it’s all that it’s the very worst, but I think we can do better.

Listen now to discover more about London's history

Latest podcast episodes

Latest Episodes

Upcoming Guided Walks

Scroll to Top