Littleheath Woods: Croydon’s hidden green haven

It’s easy to think of a town or city and to picture a grey, lifeless area, covered in concrete, and absent of trees and plants. This may be the case for some places, but not Croydon. This large town in South London has a number of green spaces encapsulated within its urban sprawl. One of these is Littleheath Woods.

Croydon is one of the largest commercial districts outside of Central London. At the 2011 census it had a population of 52,104. Despite this, it actually has an abundance of green spaces. There are many woods within its bound, many of them remnants of the Great North Wood that once covered the area. With 626.46 hectares of woodland, Croydon contains 8.5% of Greater London’s woodland resources. Some of these woods are concealed behind busy roads and buildings, and can easily be passed by, unnoticed by non-residents. Littleheath Woods is one such hidden green gem.

Littleheath Woods is 25 hectares of amenity woodland in Selsdon, South Croydon. It is an Area of Special Character, a Grade 1 site of Borough Interest, and also an Ancient Semi Natural Woodland situated in a green belt area. Despite its size, it is a space easily overlooked by anyone unaware of its presence. Roads surround it on all sides. Only the tips of the trees are visible over the buildings.

The area actually consists of several woods that together form the space known as Littleheath Woods. Gee Wood sits at the south-west point and Littleheath Wood the north-west. Foxearth Wood and Queenhill Shaw lie along the eastern edge. Gruttendens, a former agricultural field that was allowed to turn into new woodland in the twentieth century, joins them all together at the centre. Some areas are mature woodland, and others are young trees planted over the last decade. There are yet other areas that comprise of coppiced woodland at different stages of regrowth.

Certain trees are more prominent in particular parts of the wood. Sweet chestnuts grow in the north, yew trees dominate Queenhill Shaw, and beeches create a cathedral like glade within Gruttendens. Littleheath Woods contains two meadows–Clear’s Croft and Fallen Oak Field–and three ponds and a quarry also lie within its bounds. In addition to this the terrain ranges from a high point of 161m above sea level in Gee Wood, down to 125m above sea level in Fallen Oak Field. Soil type varies widely across the space, with some areas being predominantly chalk or clay, while others are sandy or pebbly.

This wide variety of landscapes provides a wonderful range of habitats for different plants and creatures with varying needs. In the spring, wildflowers form carpets of colour within the woods–bluebells, wood anenome, yellow archangel, wood sorrel, primrose, and celandines can all be found. Badgers, foxes and roe deer all make their home in the woodland, and can occasionally be spotted by sharp-eyed visitors. Birds such as woodpeckers, chiffchaffs, and sparrowhawks have all been seen, while in winter fieldfares and redwings visit, drawn to the abundant berries in the woods. Frogs, dragonflies and damselflies are attracted to the ponds, while a varied population of butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, spiders, bugs, and beetles all make their homes in the meadows. If you’d like to know more about the different flora and fauna to be found at Littleheath Woods, yearly surveys carried out by conservators can be found here.
The woods provide not only a haven for wildlife but also a place in which residents and visitors can escape for a time from the stresses of the modern world. There are two different long distance footpaths that cross the woods, the Vanguard Way and the London Loop, plus numerous other paths that form a meandering network through the space. Several bridleways also cross the woods for horse riders to traverse. With the wide variety of species to be found, it’s a perfect place for birdwatching and wildlife photography.

Littleheath Woods is also used by a local school, Elmshurst Boys School, as the site of their forest schools project. Pupils at the school, from Reception to Year 6, regularly visit the woods where they investigate and learn. Activities that they’ve undertaken during the past year include minibeast hunting in logpiles, pond dipping for tadpoles with accompanying lessons on life cycles, catapult making to develop their understanding of seed dispersal, whittling, weaving and creating using hazel, and much, much more. Woodlands such as this are priceless resources for teaching and learning. Children gain practical, hands-on, meaningful experiences in a stress free environment, learning lessons that they will carry with them through the rest of their lives.

The woods are owned by Croydon Council, but most of its care and management is undertaken by the volunteer group, the Friends of Littleheath Woods. It is thanks to them that the woodland is the inviting space it is today. The group was first formed in 1995 after the woods had been left in a poor state following the storms of 1987. Over the past decade they’ve worked at planting new trees to replace the mature ones that have fallen, and they’ve created habitat piles out of sawn logs and deadwood. Recently they’ve built two dams across the brook that runs from the Old Pond and down through Gruttendens, creating a new marsh habitat to support any plants and wildlife that prefer wetter areas. They are currently cultivating a wildflower glade near to Clear’s Croft meadow.

As well as management of the habitats in the woods, the Friends of Littleheath Woods have also created a Nature Trail for visitors to follow. This is a circular walk around the woodland with an accompanying written guide that shows what can be seen and heard in different areas at different times of year. This can either be printed off or accessed through a smartphone, and is perfect for any nature lover keen to know more about the place.

The Friends of Littleheath Woods are not the only group to do work in the woods, however. The Croydon branch of the Community Volunteers (TVC) also regularly visit the space, alongside the many other woods and parks in Croydon. Their most recent visit involved them cleaning and repairing the footpaths after the damage of winter.

If you’d like to help out with the care of Littleheath Woods, there are several ways in which you can do so. If you’re visiting the woods then simply being responsible during your outing is the best type of help. Take any litter you produce home with you, and if you’re walking a dog, then clean up any dog waste and place it in the provided bins. Ensure you stay on the paths to avoid damaging the plants or disturbing the wildlife. Don’t use the woods for dumping out any garden or household waste, and don’t take any fallen branches or stacked logs home with you–these are habitats for woodland creatures, after all. Another way which you could help is by joining the Friends of Littleheath Woods. This only costs £5 a year per household. Alternately, you could make a donation. All money raised goes into the maintenance of the woods. The final way you could help is by joining a work party. The Friends of Littleheath Woods meet every Tuesday to undertake practical management tasks.

For directions if you wish to visit the woodland, or simply for more information, visit the Friends of Littleheath Woods website.