We’re staying close to one of last remaining pockets of ancient woodland in Gipsy Hill with Norwood Park, one of the highest points in South London on our doorstep. The name Norwood is a reminder that it was once part of the dense forest of the ‘Great North Wood’ of Tudor times where Henry once hunted deer, amongst other prized catches… such as Anne Boleyn who was known to ride these woods.
These days, the park affords a splendid view across to the city with the amusingly named skyscrapers sparkling in the winter sunshine – The Gherkin, The Shard, The Cheese Grater and The Walkie Scorchie. It’s a thing in London and I guess elsewhere to coin irreverent or even (after time) endearing names to these buildings – perhaps in part to lessen the impact of the endless construction our cities are experiencing.
One of the weirdly confounding things that has happened in London, particularly for some reason, South London over recent years, has been the arrival of the noisy green parakeets. Squadrons of these birds now screech overhead in South London with flocks of them in the parks such as Norwood and Crystal Palace Park – but believe me, they’re everywhere! So how did they get here? There are many theories….and you’ll hear many people cite the following:
- The 1951 film ‘The African Queen’ was filmed in South London and at some stage, the parrot co-stars to Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn escaped
- The Great Storm of ’87 blew out some aviaries in Surrey allowing many parrots to make a bid for freedom
- They escaped from George Michael’s house after burglars broke in
- A plane crashed into an aviary, releasing dozens of parrots into the wild
- And this one (which I’ve heard many times) is that Jimi Hendrix released a pair of parrots from a birdcage on Carnaby Street as a stunt
There’s an ancient and long forgotten river running underneath these parks and the streets of South London – the River Effra, a tributary of the Thames once fed by a succession of springs in the Great North Wood. The Effra has completely disappeared nowadays, not a trace or barely a memory-marker to be seen, covered and built over long ago with the endless march of South London housing. A local story tells of a coffin found floating down the Thames in Victorian times, which was tracked back to West Norwood Cemetery. Cemetery staff then traced the coffin back to a plot and discovered that the ground beneath the grave had subsided and the coffin had dropped into the flowing River Effra beneath and had floated downstream to the Thames. There’s a rather lovely song “Down in the Effra” by British folk band The Effras which was written about this very story.
Just up the road from here at Gipsy Hill is Crystal Palace, once the home of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the ‘Crystal Palace’ itself, a vast cast iron and plate glass structure that spanned some 990,000 square feet, three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was on the evening of 30th November 1936 that passers-by noticed a red glow emanating from within – an explosion in the ladies cloakroom had sparked a small fire. Two staff fought the flames but by the time the fire brigade had arrived it was out of control and the whole Crystal Palace was burnt to the ground. The huge fire could be seen from miles around where my dear old Mum as a very young child recalls seeing the whole night sky lit up. Apparently over 100,000 people turned up to watch the blaze including Winston Churchill who said “this is the end of an age”. Indeed.
Today there’s barely anything left of the Crystal Palace other than some crumbling walls and steps and a faint ghostly outline of the building’s vast footprint. Back in 2013 there was (I think) a crazy plan to re-build a ‘new’ Crystal Palace by a Chinese investment group. Then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson welcomed the announcement and said he would work with the developer to progress the plans… another one of Johnsons crazy hare-brained ideas that came to nothing, along with his ‘elephant in the sky’ Garden Bridge over the Thames. And look where he is now – well, at the time of writing that is…