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Remnants of the Great North Wood in focus: Spa Wood

Posted: Wednesday 25th July 2018 by Edwin-Malins

Spa Wood (credit Daniel Greenwood)Spa Wood (credit Daniel Greenwood)

Continuing a series of blogs on the Great North Wood, project officer Edwin Malins writes on the history and present-day ecology of Spa Wood.

Once the site of the famous Beulah Spa pleasure gardens, Spa Wood is an important fragment of the old Great North Wood, with its mature trees and numerous woodland-specialist flowers. It envelops a neighbouring area of amenity grassland like a crescent moon, and although a walk down its main path can give the impression that the wood is long and thin, it is quite easy to get lost wandering through its network of informal paths and glades. 

London Wildlife Trust launched the Great North Wood project in 2017 and now works with volunteers, community groups, landowners, and councils, to revive and reimagine this ancient landscape as a home for nature and people.



Formerly known as Bewlye Coppice, an adjacent wood to Bewlye Farm, the area was well-known for its mineral waters flowing from springs in the hillside. These chalybeate waters (containing salts of iron) had been celebrated for a number of years, but the spa and fresh air alone were not providing sufficient income for the site’s owner. In 1831 Beulah Spa opened to the public, a decadent concoction of exciting attractions; including a maze, two wildfowl lakes, a marching band to accompany dancing on the lawns, a camera obscura, and a telescope powerful enough to see Windsor Castle. These pleasure grounds were laid out by famous architect Decimus Burton, noted for his works at London Zoo and Kew Gardens.

For 25 years Beulah Spa attracted the great and good of Victorian society, including Charles Dickens and even Queen Victoria herself. But its fortunes changed in 1854, when the Crystal Palace was erected nearby, ultimately putting Beulah Spa out of business two years later. The site was auctioned off, and a large mansion - ‘The Lawns’ - was constructed, with other parts of the land being separately developed. The mansion was demolished after fire damage in the 1960s, but the remaining wood and meadow had already been conveyed to the Croydon Corporation in 1939 to be managed as an open space in perpetuity. The only surviving building from Beulah Spa is the Tivoli Lodge, now a private house on the corner of Spa Hill and Beulah Hill. 

Spa Wood jay - Andrew Lewis / haseldenphoto



In characteristic Great North Wood fashion, Spa Wood is a mixed oak and hornbeam woodland. It boasts one of the largest oak trees in the surviving Great North Wood, a towering, gnarled specimen close to the entrance from Grange Road. Look out for jays collecting and storing the acorns when they fall.

Spa Wood is known locally for its top path, which is verged with an aromatic carpet of ramsons (also known as wild garlic). This plant is considered an indicator of ancient woodland, as are wood anemone and English bluebell, which are patchily distributed throughout the wood. A fungal highlight is the mystical and luminescent appearance of chicken-of-the-woods, which can appear en masse, glowing through the undergrowth.

Late winter and early spring are a good time to visit to hear the distinctive drumming of great-spotted woodpeckers, with the leafless trees also making the chance of sighting a bird of prey such as a sparrowhawk more likely. The denser sections of the wood are alive with song in the bird breeding season, with chiffchaffs, wrens, nuthatches and other small birds busily setting up territories to defend. A friendly fox has also been known to investigate groups of volunteers working in the wood!  

Spa Wood fox - Andrew Lewis / haseldenphoto



Spa Wood is owned by Croydon Council, which co-ordinates management of the wood with the Friends of Spa Wood, The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), and London Wildlife Trust. Work over the winter of 2017/18 focused on removing stands of cherry laurel, an introduced shrub which has been gradually taking over the wood. It casts a dense shade and is toxic to other plants, suppressing their growth. Efforts have been made to thin out darker groves of holly, and prevent the spread of invasive snowberry. Surveying sessions have also been recording the location of important woodland flowers. 

Spa Wood chicken-of-the-woods - Debbie Paul / Friends of Spa Wood


At the time of writing, the entrances are not well marked or signposted, but public access is allowed from various paths on Spa Hill and Grange Road.

Spa Wood is more or less equidistant between Crystal Palace and Thornton Heath railway stations, around a 30-minute walk away. There are a number of buses that pass nearby along Beulah Hill.  

Find Spa Wood on Google Maps


The Great North Wood project is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, the Mayor of London, Veolia Environmental Trust, Dulwich Estate, and Dulwich Society.  


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