The Woodland Walk is a narrow strip of woodland, most of which is considered to be ancient in origin. It zigzags between the houses of Downham for just over one and a half kilometres.
History of the walk
The Green Chain Walk runs along the length of the site, on its way between Beckenham Place Park and Hither Green nature reserve.
Reference back to a map published in 1805 quite clearly shows the eastern half of the Woodland Walk: the part from Whitefoot Lane to roughly where it crosses Downderry Road today. Moving on to mid-Victorian times, Stanford's Library Map of London and its Suburbs (dated 1862) has the eastern part of the modern-day Woodland Walk extended southwards and then westwards to delineate the boundary of the park of Southend Hall. This last section ran along the northern side of Gipsy Lane, a country lane which now forms Oakridge Road, to terminate (as today) at Bromley Road.
A map from the first decade of the 20th century shows an almost unchanged situation, except that the park of Southend Hall has been divided into several fields. Nothing much changed until the 1920s, and then the local scene was transformed between 1924 and 1930 with construction of the Downham Estate by the London County Council.
In an imaginative move for the time, the existing woodland strip from Whitefoot Terrace to Bromley Road was retained to become the Woodland Walk, a pleasant green trail through the estate. When first built, most of the roads at Downham had grass verges and trees, but the increase in car parking has led to the removal of many of these. This loss of greenery has made the survival of Woodland Walk even more important for the residents of the Downham Estate.
The best section of the Woodland Walk is between Downderry Road and Moorside Road, where it runs beside the southern edge of Whitefoot Recreation Ground. This is part of the strip which was in existence in 1805, and is almost certainly ancient woodland.
The woodland is at its broadest here, up to 40 metres wide, and has an excellent structure. Pedunculate oak is the dominant canopy tree, with frequent hornbeam, some of the which appear to have been coppiced at some time in the past. A few ashes and field maples are also present, and one or two limes and beech have been planted near the entrances. Two wild service-trees are very good indicators that this is ancient woodland.
A dense shrub layer contains hawthorn, Midland hawthorn, crab apple, elder, wild cherry, holly, hazel and blackthorn, as well as a few clumps of snowberry, presumably bird-sown from nearby gardens. Snowberry can be very invasive, and may need controlling in the not-too-distant future.
The ground flora contains several species which are usually associated with ancient woodland. The abundant bluebells are mostly of the native species, although a few Spanish bluebells and hybrids are also present.
Other ancient woodland indicators include a single patch of wood anemone and dog's mercury growing side-by-side, remote sedge, and three grasses: wood millet, wood melick and wood meadow-grass. Adding further variety to the woodland floor vegetation are lords-and-ladies, garlic mustard, lesser celandine, herb-robert, hedgerow crane’s-bill, ivy, bramble and an abundance of cow parsley.
To the west of Downderry Road, the woodland strip is much narrower, and the flora becomes less diverse. Elm replaces hornbeam in the understorey, and snowberry is rampant in places. The ground flora is much poorer, with few bluebells and none of the other ancient woodland indicators. This relates to the maps, which suggest that this area was planted between 1805 and 1862. A small stream runs along the southern edge of the westernmost section of the woodland, but contains no aquatic vegetation.
The Woodland Walk proper ends at the eastern end of the recreation ground, but the trees continue alongside Undershaw Road. All woodland character has been lost from this section, however, and beneath the mature oaks is nothing but short-mown grass.
For the last 200 metres, where the strip of trees runs north-south along Woodbank Road, a broken line of hawthorns beneath the oaks perhaps marks an old hedge. A few plants of cow parsley survive at the bases of the hawthorns, where the mower cannot reach.
The section of the Woodland Walk from Moorside Road to Whitefoot Terrace is part of the original, pre-19th century woodland strip, and has a far longer history than the section to the west of Downderry Road.
If mowing was stopped beneath the trees, trees and shrubs would have a chance to regenerate, and woodland wild flowers could recolonise. Shrubs and flowers could be planted to speed up the process, using stock taken from the rest of Woodland Walk. Residents of adjacent houses would, of course, need to be consulted before any changes in management.
The woodland supports a good variety of birds. In addition to the familiar birds of parks and gardens, great spotted and green woodpeckers, treecreepers, long-tailed tits, bullfinches and willow warblers can all be seen. A woodcock was a surprising find for one birdwatcher in November 1998.
An invertebrate survey was carried out in 1999. Several nationally scarce insects have already been found, including the ant Lasius brunneus, the fungus beetle Phloiotrya vaudoueri, the bark beetle Platypus cylindricus and the leaf beetle Chrysolina oricalcea. Other interesting finds include Britain’s largest beetle, the stag beetle, and largest crane fly, Tipula maxima.
The hawthorns support a good population of the nationally scarce jewel beetle Agrilus sinuatus, while the nationally scarce weevil Dorytomus ictor has been found on the large hybrid black-poplar near the northern end of Woodbank Road.