One Tree Hill is a nature reserve in South London. It’s a site of great local wildlife, teeming with history. And well worth a visit to lose yourself from the city for an hour or so. In the Middle Ages, it was part of the Oak of Honor Wood, and the wider Great North Wood. There was an ‘Oak of Honor’ on the top of the hill, where Queen Elizabeth rested on May Day 1602 on her way to Lewisham. The original tree was struck by lightning, but a majestic oak planted in 1905 still stands at the spot.
In 1896, a section of the land was fenced off for a new golf course. This spurred a campaign by the Selbourne Society (Britain’s first nature conservation organisation) and the Society for the Protection of Birds (later to become the RSPB) to preserve it as common land. After direct action including a mass trespass of 2,000 people and a protest of some 10,000, they won. On 7 August 1905 it was opened as a public park.
There is an amazing view of London from the top, if you have the puff in you to make it that far! It was used as a site for anti-Zeppelin guns during the war. You can still see the site of those guns today at the viewpoint near the oak tree. Thanks to its elevation it has been used over hundreds of years for lots of fascinating purposes – as a semaphore station by the East India Company in the late 1800s; as a lookout point by famous highwayman Dick Turpin; and as a beacon point by the Admiralty in the Napoleonic Wars.
It’s now a haven for wildlife. Originally, the woodland was managed as a park and plane and ornamental trees were planted. This ended in the 1980s and it is now overgrown with 40 species of tree. There are also 50 species of birds that have been recorded – including great spotted woodpeckers and tawny owls. There is a stag beetle log, and plenty of rotting wood that provides a habitat for this rare beetle. The purple hairstreak butterfly can unusually be seen at ground level if you are lucky. And in a fun bit of wildlife trivia, the blotched emerald moth was once called the ‘maid of honor moth’, as it was originally discovered around the Oak of Honor. To read more about the wildlife of One Tree Hill have a look at this informative article by Daniel Greenwood.
Average rating: 3.3 (good)
Average cost: free!
Best time to visit: all year round, although if you want to see the stag beetles head there in May to July.
How to get there: One Tree Hill is part of the Green Chain Walk which links up to other green spaces in South London including Sydenham Hill Wood. You can take the overground to Honor Oak Park Station, or several local buses which stop by the station or at the other side near Brenchley Gardens. It’s also accessible by car, although there is no car park. It is a hilly place, but the main paths are on the whole very well maintained. If you can handle an incline they are generally suitable for those with mobility issues. For the adventurous, you can go off the main paths and get lost in the wood.
Typical activities: walking, hiking, picnicking
Number of reports: 27
WILDLIFE IN One Tree Hill
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
Stag Beetle – 0% OF VISITORS (0/27) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Although there are reportedly stag beetles in One Tree Hill no visitors have reported seeing one – and we have spent a lot of time looking! However, they are notoriously rare so we don’t think that should put you off. And do let us know whether or not you see one when you go! Look for them in rotting wood. There is a specific log left to rot as a habitat for stag beetles in the woodland. You can find it by looking at one of the many signs around the woodland. On humid, thundery evenings from May to July, males will fly out and try to find a female to mate with. And it’s the males you want to look out for – they’re the ones with the big stag like horns!
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 15% OF VISITORS (4/27) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The great spotted woodpecker is a large, beautiful, black and white bird with a shock of red on their lower belly. The males also have a red nape. They live in woodlands like One Tree Hill as they feed mostly on grubs in trees. They can be difficult to spot amongst the leaves. One way to find them is to stand still and listen out for their distinctive call which is like a loud click, or ‘tchick’ sound. You can also stand still and listen for their tree drumming as they peck the wood.
Tawny Owl – 4% OF VISITORS (1/27) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Tawny owls love woodlands and One Tree Hill is a perfect breeding place for them. A 2013 article from the Friends of One Tree Hill found that they were yet to breed at One Tree Hill. Although local residents had heard them calling and they had been known to breed nearby. On one of our visits in 2020, we saw them unexpectedly during the day. There was a pair, but we couldn’t confirm if they were breeding or not. They did look a bit sleepy though!
Photo credit: WildSide team member Lizzy Hyatt