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The Great North Wood in focus: New Cross Gate Cutting

Posted: Thursday 23rd August 2018 by Edwin-Malins

New Cross Gate Cutting - Ian TokeloveNew Cross Gate Cutting - Ian Tokelove

Continuing a series of blogs on the Great North Wood, project officer Edwin Malins celebrates the 30th anniversary of London Wildlife Trust’s management of New Cross Gate Cutting. 

New Cross Gate Cutting (also known as Brockley Nature Reserve) is part of a string of young woodlands bordering the railway line from New Cross Gate to Forest Hill, which together make up a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation.

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.

History of New Cross Gate Cutting 

A cutting was first dug through the area in 1809 for the opening of the Croydon Canal, an ultimately doomed project that cut a course through what was then a fairly rural landscape. The canal closed in 1836 after being bought by the London & Croydon Railway, which opened a new line along the route in 1839. The railway company straightened and widened the canal cutting to the route that we know today.

The fledgling railway experimented with the futuristic ‘atmospheric railway’ between 1844 and 1846, where a pipe below the train housed a piston sealed with a leather valve. Air would be pumped out of the pipe, drawing the train towards the pumping station using the vacuum. The concept worked to some extent, but rats chewing through the leather seal ultimately caused the novel invention to fail. 

A licence agreement was signed in 1988 between British Rail and London Wildlife Trust for the cutting to be managed as a nature reserve, with similar agreements being struck with Lewisham Council at Devonshire Road, Garthorne Road and Dacres Wood nature reserves further down the line.   

New Cross Gate Cutting open day and folk festival 2017

Ecology of New Cross Gate Cutting

British Rail formerly managed the linesides as closely mown grassland which would have been peppered with wildflowers. A water trough and abundant suckering plum reveal the site's past use as allotments during the first half of the 20th century.

In the absence of any habitat management in the subsequent decades, the slopes of the railway cutting have developed into dense secondary woodland, with oaks (English, Turkey and holm), ash, cherry, hawthorn, sycamore and hybrid black poplar being prevalent, along with young elm and a couple of wild service trees.

Much of the soil is in fact crushed red brick dumped here by a brickworks which was situated on the lineside just south of the reserve. It is thought that clay from the excavation of the cutting was used to make bricks and that spoilage from the brick-making process was returned to shore up the slopes.

Broad-leaved helleborine is the undoubted star of the reserve, floristically speaking. This orchid, uncommon in the inner London boroughs, has popped up in two locations in the reserve – both riskily fringing the main path.

The meadow areas are another highlight, where butterflies such as ringlets and large skippers can be found in large numbers in midsummer. The aforementioned crushed-brick creates a free draining low pH substrate which allows some of the acid grassland species such as sheep’s sorrel and sheep’s fescue to thrive. Acid grassland, because of its scarcity, is a biodiversity action plan priority habitat for London. 

Two films created by a local filmmaker reveal how the nature reserve is a haven for urban foxes, great spotted woodpeckers, bats and sparrowhawks (links at the bottom of this page). The dense areas of scrub and woodland provide perfect nesting opportunities for wrens, robins, chiffchaff and the tuneful blackcap.  

Young robin at New Cross Gate Cutting - Jeremiah Quinn


Management of New Cross Gate Cutting

In the absence of grazing mammals, it is the meadow that requires the most active management to prevent it from being subsumed by the surrounding woodland. It is cut twice a year to prevent its succession from grassland to scrub. The arisings are raked-up and removed to gradually reduce the nutrient content of the soil. Low nutrient soils are able to support more plant species because they don’t become dominated by a small cast of nutrient-loving grasses and herbs.

A remnant patch of reedbed adjacent to the railway line is thought to be left over from the canal. Volunteers work to conserve this by removing scrub and self-set trees.

To enable access on open days, work has focused on improving paths and installing new benches. A new fenceline and decorative gate will be installed soon. Volunteers have also recently been working to convert a disused toilet block (see below) into a small exhibition space that can be used to welcome visitors to the site!   

New Cross Gate Cutting volunteers - Sam Bentley-Toon


New Cross Gate Cutting is typically open once a month, allowing public access. These tend to be on the last Saturday of each month 1pm-4pm, but please check our “What’s On” page to check that these are going ahead as planned.

New Cross Gate Cutting can be reached using the London Overground and National Rail services that pass along the cutting. The reserve is between New Cross Gate and Brockley stations, although the entrance is closer to Brockley. It is also served by the 484 bus on Vesta Road, with other buses passing nearby in Brockley and New Cross.  

Jeremiah Quinn's films: New Cross Gate Cutting Nature Reserve and Autumn Leaves

Visit our New Cross Gate Cutting reseve page for more information. 

Learn more about our Great North Wood project

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

Heritage Lottery Fund logo

Read Edwin-Malins's latest blog entries.


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