Dacres Wood is a small nature reserve beside the railway line between Forest Hill and Sydenham. Despite its name, a major nature conservation interest on the site lies in its ponds and wetlands, which are relics of the old Croydon Canal.
The direct route taken by the railway left a large number of the old loops of the canal as ox-bows, and in time most of these were drained, then filled in and built over. By an accident of history, the loop on this site, running to the east of the railway, survived. It became the garden of a Victorian house called Irongates; this was one of a pair, the other called Thriffwood. By 1895, the grounds of both houses were wooded, with trees separating the two gardens. Bacon’s Atlas of 1904 quite clearly shows the loop of the old canal some 300 metres in length, although it is not clear whether or not it held water.
Thriffwood was demolished by 1952 and Irongates was replaced by a block of flats, Homefield House, in 1962. The former garden of Irongates came into the ownership of the Greater London Council and was subsequently passed to Lewisham. Originally intended for housing, it was taken over by the parks department in 1984, and became a nature reserve in 1989.
The adjacent railway cutting is vegetated with young oak and sycamore woodland, bramble scrub and rough grassland. It complements the habitats in the nature reserve, and is therefore included in the Site of Borough Importance.
Access and education
The site is locked for health and safety reasons but is well used by both schools and conservation volunteers. A field centre, opened in 1993, is available for use by schools and also serves as a base for volunteer workdays. Sessions at the site can be run the Lewisham's Nature Conservation team.
If you are interested in using the site as part of outdoor learning, please contact the team using the details below.
There is also a Friends Group for the site who help the Nature Conservation team with the management and maintenance of the site. If you would like to get involved please get in contact using the details below.
A variety of wetland plants were introduced, and these have been augmented by natural colonisation to produce an attractive and diverse feature. The ponds are fringed with great reedmace, lesser pond-sedge, reed sweet-grass, yellow iris and water-plantain, while beneath the surface a tangle of Canadian waterweed, rigid hornwort and curly waterweed provides cover for aquatic invertebrates, frogs and a large population of smooth newts. Herons visit from time to time to feed on these amphibians.
Dragonflies breeding in the pond include broad-bodied chaser, common darter and southern hawker, along with blue-tailed and azure damselflies. The marsh contains creeping bent, floating sweet-grass, brooklime, great reedmace and soft-rush, with a scatter of small willows. The latter will need periodic thinning and coppicing if the marsh is not to become wet woodland.
Blackcap, chiffchaff and nuthatch sometimes nest in the woodland. An invertebrate survey in 1996 found many interesting insects, including the inevitable stag beetles and the purple hairstreak butterfly. This rather elusive butterfly, which frequents the tops of oak trees where it is easily overlooked, has only been found in three sites in Lewisham.
The survey also turned up a rare bee-chafer, Trichius zonatus, which was last seen in Britain in the early 1960s. This species, which breeds in rotten wood, is thought to be a rare migrant to Britain, becoming temporarily established if conditions are right. The habitat at Dacres Wood seems suitable, but extensive searching produced no more of this striking black-and-orange beetle.
Most of the site is secondary woodland, with a few very large Turkey oaks, presumably relics of Victorian landscaping, towering over a dense tangle of young sycamore, regenerating elm and a variety of other trees and shrubs, both native and exotic. Initial management involved removal of most of the sycamore and the shrubs, such as cherry laurel and spotted-laurel, which remained from the former gardens.
This resulted in the woodland which occupies the western half of the site today. The Turkey oaks still dominate the scene, but beneath them, pedunculate oak and ash are preparing to take over the canopy when the Turkey oaks reach the end of their lives, and hawthorn is increasing in the shrub layer. Bramble and ivy cover much of the ground, with woodland flowers such as bluebell, lords-and-ladies and red campion.
In 1989, the eastern edge of the site was very damp, with standing water forming a sort of informal pond. This had become choked with hybrid sweet-grass and filled with rubbish, with oil floating on the top. Even in this state, frogs and newts were observed trying to breed in the water.
The source of at least some of the water in this 'wetland' was traced to a leaking water main, which caused serious flooding of houses in nearby Catling Close. This was duly repaired. However, as the drainage on this part of the site was clearly poor, the idea of creating a more valuable wetland feature seemed an obvious one.
A little historical research revealed the link with the Croydon Canal, making the idea of a wetland doubly attractive. Therefore, in 1990, the southern end of the former canal bed was dug out as far as the original canal walls, and lined with clay to form a pond. A smaller pond was created at the northern end, with a shallow marshy area linking the two. A wooden footbridge carries visitors across the marsh, and there is a pond-dipping platform.