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Get Lost In London's Best Woods

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London is a forest. Yes, it’s true. With some 8.4 million trees -- about the same number as human inhabitants -- it qualifies as a forest under some definitions.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea as nonsense, but take a closer look around next time you’re out. Almost every road is lined with street trees, while innumerable parks, gardens and wild spaces add to the canopy. London was recently declared a National Park City to reflect this verdant nature.

London also contains occasional pockets of woodland, particularly in the outer boroughs. Here, then are 10 of the best woods to explore within the capital, ideal for a family weekend jaunt.

North: Epping Forest (Waltham Forest and Essex)

Iron-Age remains in Epping Forest. Image by author

This enormous swathe of ancient woodland is managed by the City of London Corporation. It’s so big, in fact, that it could swallow the City eight times over. Make sure you have some kind of map if you’re going for a family walk, for it’s easy to get lost among the beeches, birches, oaks and hornbeams. Besides woodland trails, you can also track down two iron-age forts or check out the genuine Tudor hunting lodge near Chingford. Several car parks are available throughout the forest.

North-East: Hainault Forest and Country Park (Redbridge/Havering)

Another ancient woodland, once part of the royal hunting forest of Essex. Today, it’s a haven for wildlife -- particularly birds, with 158 species recorded. It’s also a family-friendly green space, with wooden sculptures of monsters dotted around for the kids to spot. A small petting zoo, cafe and ample parking make this a safe bet for a good family day out.

North-Centre: Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood (Haringey)

The Forest of Middlesex once covered much of what is now north London. The forest is long gone (as is Middlesex), but these tiny fragments of ancient woodland cling on. Just a short walk from Highgate tube station in Zone 3, these are perhaps the easiest woodlands to reach from central London (pockets of wood on Hampstead Heath are a bit more of a slog from the tube). Highgate Wood has an excellent playground, cafe and many mature trees and is perhaps the better wood for a family visit. Queen’s Wood across the road is quieter, with steep hills and a strange, inescapable feeling that you’re somewhere ancient. Prehistoric and Roman remains have been found here.

North-west: Ruislip Woods (Hillingdon)

Image by author

Many parents in north London will already know Ruislip Woods for their family-friendly lake and beach areas, and the splendid miniature railway that chugs around it all. But the adjacent woods are perhaps the best in north-west London. Parts of it are truly ancient -- a wildwood since the end of the last Ice Age. Its 755 acres of mostly oak and hornbeam claim to be the largest single area of woodland in Greater London. You certainly won't dispute the fact after a family expedition along the never-ending trails. Parking is available at the lido and in the evocatively named Mad Bess Woods.

North: Scratchwood (Barnet)

Perhaps more famous for its service station on the M1, the actual Scratchwood is an under-explored wilderness, another surviving remnant of the lost Middlesex Forest. Part of the London LOOP walking route passes through the woods, but the more interesting, sloped sections can be found along the side paths. Its quietness makes Scratchwood a particularly valuable haven for wildlife, and it's well noted as a sanctuary for rare birds, plants and flowers. You can also cross the busy A1 via an underpass to explore the neighbouring Moat Mount Open Space. The two areas together form a Local Nature Reserve. Parking is available.

South: Selsdon Wood (Croydon)

Right on the southern edge of London, this nature reserve and bird sanctuary is a popular spot overseen by the National Trust. Its 200 acres are dominated by oak and hazel. For those who like a bit of order in their natural settings, Selsdon Wood is scrupulously signposted, with every track and trail carrying a name board. A car park is available.

South-East: Oxleas Wood and Shooters Hill (Royal Borough of Greenwich)

South of the river, on the slopes of the mighty Shooters Hill, lies a patch of woodland reckoned to be 8,000 years old. Oxleas Wood is a magical place of oak, hornbeam, birch and hazel. Its winding paths lead up to some impressive views of the surrounding countryside. Look out for the 18th century Severndroog Castle, a mighty folly that was open to the public before the pandemic. Nearby, the Oxleawood Cafe has reopened and attracts plenty of families to its picturesque setting.

South-East: Petts Wood and Hawkwood (Bromley)

Oxleas Wood is part of a chain of green spaces that stretches east into Bromley. Petts Wood is part of that, another ancient landscape of oak, beech and ash. It’s managed by the National Trust and, as such, is well signposted with marked walking routes. Look out for the memorial sundial to local resident William Willett. You might never have heard of him, but Willett was the chief instigator of daylight saving time, or British Summer Time. He’s the reason we change the clocks twice a year.

South: Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood (Southwark)

One of the smaller woods in this list, but no less important. Sydenham Hill Wood and the neighbouring Dulwich Wood form the largest surviving fragment of The Great North Wood -- a huge oakwood that once covered much of (confusingly) south London. It's a unique environment, which mixes in mature wild trees with surviving fragments of Victorian gardens and overgrown railway infrastructure. All of which makes this a magical place to explore with children. The nearby Crystal Palace Park is itself full of interest, and has plenty of toilet and cafe facilities.

Author
Written By
Matt Brown

Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.

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