An Introduction to the History of South Norwood Country Park
By Croydon historian, John Hickman.
THE GREAT NORTH WOOD
The small area of wood lying to the left of Long Lane as it passes from Woodside to Elmers End is ancient oak woodland. This is a remnant of The Great North Wood and continued, as may be seen on mid-19th century maps, as a swathe to the top of the Norwood Hills. Remains of ancient woodland - The Great North Wood in Croydon, exist at Beaulieu Heights. Given that oak leaves, acorns and hazel nuts have been discovered in trenches, it is likely the land now occupied by The South Norwood Country Park was once covered by oak and hazel woodland. Parts of The Great North Wood may have survived into the fifteenth century, and possibly beyond. Fields arose as a result of assarting or clearing of woodland, and enclosure may have occurred around the same time as that of Croydon Common to the west and north.
Maps surveyed during the 19th century show the location of a double moated site in the Country Park. This was to the left of, and about two thirds the way along the path running from Harrington Road tram stop to Elmer’s End, or Elms End as it was formerly called. Preliminary excavation of the site was carried out in 1972 by the Archaeological Section of Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society (CNHSS). Finds included the base of a medieval wooden bridge across the inner moat, building materials and sherds of a large, glazed jug (see illustration). The archaeological evidence suggests a 13th century date for a manor and inner moat and its abandonment in the 14th century probably as a result of years of flooding. The outer moat was dug after the inner one, possibly at the onset of worsening weather conditions. The moats were filled in late in the 19th century.
LOCATION OF THE MOATED SITE
Image 1: Moat illustrated on the 1862 Ordnance Survey Map. (Courtesy of Museum of Croydon Archives Collection)
Image 2: Moat photographed present day showing disturbances in the soil revealing location of earthworks. (©2017 Google, Map data©2017 Google)
Documentary evidence shows the manor belonged to someone fairly well-off in the thirteenth century. It was owned by Robert de Retford, a travelling crown judge, in 1300, and was apparently abandoned and demolished by 1467. It was known as ‘Leweland’ at the time, later becoming ‘Lewemote’. By the 18th century the name appears as ‘La Motes’, and evolved to ‘Lame Oats’. The moated area and its surrounding agricultural area was lost when Croydon Board of Health acquired low lying land piecemeal fashion in Woodside, Penge and Elmers End in the middle of the 19th century to establish a sewage disposal works – a sewage farm.
THE SEWAGE WORKS
The architect of Park Hill reservoir and water tower was a Croydon resident, Baldwin Latham (1837-1917). He was an internationally famous civil engineer who, as an expert in sanitary matters, was engaged as consultant to the Croydon Local Board of Health – a fore-runner of the Council. Baldwin Latham was responsible for the development of Croydon’s water supply south of Surrey Street and was instrumental in designing the mid-Victorian sewage farm at South Norwood. Although later thought by some to be inefficient because of the underlying clay subsoil and therefore poorly drained; it was working into the second half of the 20th century.
Brought into operation in 1865 and termed by the Local Board of Health, ‘South Norwood Irrigation Farm,’ the sewage works was regularly monitored by the Croydon Board of Guardians whose minutes were published. At South Norwood the works initially gave some cause for concern being in close proximity to some of the inhabited houses, and was within 400 yards of a densely populated district. Alfred Cresswell, an early South Norwood physician remarked that the offensive odour coming from the sewage farm was harmless; indeed beneficial to health.
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During the 19th century tables of mortality rates were used as indicators of the ‘healthiness’ of a locality. Naturally people wanted to live in healthy areas and mortality statistics were regularly published in newspapers. The rate of mortality in South Norwood declined since the establishment of the Irrigation Works to a point lower than that recorded in any other town district having a similar population.
Because of insufficient drainage the vast fields would lay wet for long periods of time. Despite this, during the 19th century the sewage farm was quite productive. Grass was grown probably for sale as hay, as were mangold worzels (beets) for animal feed. The Board of Guardians monitored the quality and quantity of grass being produced being keen to make it as productive as possible. It appears that the profit from the ‘farm’ would contribute towards paying for the sewage works and thereby keep the annual rate demand low. During the 1860’s there had been near rebellion over the rate demands made of South Norwood gentlemen over the costs of acquiring fresh drinking water; so much so that a serious attempt was made to leave Croydon and establish a separate administration.
Later improvements to the works included a series of concrete channels, constructed over the farm to direct sewage out and over the numerous fields, essentially in an east to west direction. A change in sewage treatment, however led to the building of filter beds near the middle of the site, and the old irrigation beds were abandoned.
Recently a South Norwood resident whose parents ran a florist and grocery business during the 20th century recalled the abundance of tomato plants growing on the sewage farm. As a youngster she accompanied her mother harvesting the crop which they sold to the ‘well-to-do’ people living in the large houses in South Norwood Park – now Lancaster Road and Avenue Road. They smiled in amusement as the ‘better-off’ paid for their tomatoes not knowing where they had grown.
By 1967 raw sewage treatment ceased at the site and it was no longer used as a sewage farm. Left alone, the fields regenerated naturally and this led to the formation of undisturbed wetland and grassland.
THE CREATION OF A COUNTRY PARK
The highest point in the Country Park is artificially built. It is made of the hardcore rubble from homes and buildings demolished in the Second World War. It was landscaped in 1988, being the first project in the formation of the South Norwood Country Park.
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In 1982 South Norwood Sewage Farm site was declared Metropolitan Open Land. Being identified on the basis of natural history, position and location in Greater London, the area was designated a site of Metropolitan Importance. Such sites have high conservation priority. Their management seeks not only to maintain and enhance the variety of habitats, but also to provide use as an amenity for public enjoyment and education. It is important that no large area of the metropolis remains without such sites; they are frequently referred to as ‘green lungs’. The Country Park is considered a very good site for wildlife. Few places in London have the damp and shrubby areas so ideally suited for birds that breed in such habitats as are found here.
An important focus for development of the site as a Country Park was the potential for the development of wetland habitats for birds. A similar site at Munster, West Germany had been developed and managed for a number of years and is recognised internationally for its significant populations of water fowl and wading birds. In the late 1980’s there were very few comparable areas existing in Croydon.
Much of the site within the Borough of Croydon has been used as a rubbish tip. The topography here is hummocky. Some areas of soil are rich in humus, while others are largely of gravely rubble. The vegetation tends to be of rank species, with the invasion of scrub in the north. Abundant plants in the field layer include bramble, coarse grasses, cow parsley, docks, horseradish, Japanese knotweed, nettles, rosebay willow herb and thistles. A common shrub/tree is elder. Trees include goat willow, of which a small copse exists in the north west of the Croydon area, poplar and sycamore. A concrete culvert carries a stream from the goat willow copse to the northern boundary where it meets Beckenham Cemetery. Here the water is typically 1m below ground level.
The early water purification process involved a network of slightly raised concrete channels and ditches running at right angles. These carried sewage liquids to lagoons, which then became flooded. These old sewage lagoons occupy almost all of the rest of the area, and have been colonised by rough grassland species, as has the higher ground. Plant species here comprise largely couch grass with a few flowers typically common to rough grassland and include cow parsley, hogweed, hedge mustard, and thistles.
The sloping of the lagoons slope west to east is barely noticeable, but they run down to a stream at their eastern margin. A low lying, south westerly lagoon frequently flooding in winter has abundant common reeds, reed canary grass, meadow sweet, and similar wetland species. The drier areas of lagoons have been encroached by brambles and willows, and are sometimes subject to creeping fires. The visual appearance of the lagoons is of a flat, open expanse of land with a tram line and a built up area with ‘industrial’ units in the east, and tree lined in the northwest.
The planted Corsican pine and hybrid black poplar lining the northwestern edge of the old lagoons are of little wildlife value but provide pleasing visual appearance.
The steam along the eastern margin is a tributary, possibly of the river Pool, but ultimately of the Ravensbourne. A moderate current flows in a silty channel, between largely natural banks about a metre apart. Common vegetation here includes great hairy willow herb, flote grass, and fool’s watercress among other frequent aquatic species. The stream is culverted along the northern edge, and joins the other stream coming from the west at a sluice. The stream leaves the area flowing northwards.
Among invertebrate species, lepidopterists have recorded 19 species of butterfly in the park. While all are, or at least were, common, it is unusual to find this degree of diversity in an essentially urban site.
In excess of 59 species of birds have been recorded as frequenting the area. These include a short-eared owl and stonechat, both of which require expanses of open land. Historically the site was the nearest to central London where stonechat bred. Other birds frequently recorded at the site between 1934 and 1994 include kingfisher, green woodpecker, greater-spotted woodpecker, lesser-spotted woodpecker, nightingale, goldcrest, firecrest, barn owl, little owl, tawny owl and cuckoo. Considerable numbers of starlings and house sparrows have been counted, along with occasional skylarks. Observers beside the lake have recorded Canada geese, mallard, coot, moorhen together with numbers of pochard, tufted duck, little grebe and great crested grebe. In the grass and hedges goldfinch and yellowhammer have been listed. Kestrel, swallows and house martins have been recorded on species lists as visitors; whitethroat and pheasant have been observed in the former dump.
Amphibians recorded as breeding in the Country Park have included a variety of frogs, newts and toads. A grass snake has also been reported. Small mammals are reported as being abundant in the long grass.