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 for an hour or so. In the Middle Ages, it was part of the Oak of Honor Wood and the wider Great North Wood. It got its name from the ‘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! The hill 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 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, green woodpeckers, jays, parakeets, redwings, 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’re 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.
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 from May to July. The woods are at their most magical early in the morning when there are fewer people and the trees are full of bird song. WildSide recommends getting out there to snatch a moment of zen before work!
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 and Peckham Rye. You can take the overground to Honor Oak Park Station and walk to the wood from there. There are also several local buses which stop by the station or near Brenchley Gardens on the other side of the wood. It’s also accessible by car, although there is no car park. It is a hilly place, but the main paths are well maintained. If you can handle an incline and steps 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: bird watching, hiking, picnicking, walking
Number of reports: 93
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 wildside users (0/93) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
While there are reportedly stag beetles in One Tree Hill, no WildSide users have reported seeing one – and we have spent a lot of time looking! They are notoriously rare so we don’t think that should put you off. And do let us know if you see one when you go! Look for them in rotting wood. There’s a specific log left to rot as habitat for stag beetles in the woodland. You can find it by looking at one of the many signs around the paths. On humid, thundery evenings from May to July, males fly out and try to find females to mate with. And it’s the males you want to look out for – they’re the ones with the big stag like horns!
Tawny Owl – 1% OF wildside users (1/93) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Tawny owls are known to breed in the nearby Sydenham Hill Woods, as well as at Nunhead Cemetery. A 2013 article from the Friends of One Tree Hill found that they were yet to breed at One Tree Hill. Although local residents regularly report hearing their calls. 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! Check out this great guide for tips on spotting them.
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 13% OF Wildside users (12/93) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Great spotted woodpeckers are beautiful black and white birds with a shock of red on their bellies. The males also have bright red necks. They can be seen on the trunks of large, old trees in the wood looking for grubs. Despite their striking colours, woodpeckers can be difficult to spot among the leaves. One way to find them is to stand still and listen out for their distinctive call – a loud ‘click’ or ‘tchick’ sound. You can also listen out for the incredible drumming sound which they make as they peck holes in trees.
ring necked Parakeet – 84% of wildside users (78/93) reported sightings
Another bird that you’re likely to hear before you see is the ring necked parakeet. These are noisy, raucous, squawking creatures. And they aren’t shy! Chances are you’ll see or hear these colourful characters as soon as you set foot in the woods. They are called ‘ring necks’ because the adults have a dark circle around the backs of their necks. They are perfectly at home in the wood as there are lots of old trees with holes to nest in. There are various stories about how parakeets ended up in England, but they seem to quite like it here, even though their native range is tropical!
Eurasian Jay – 19% of wildside users (18/93) reported sightings
Jays are beautifully coloured members of the crow family. They are easily recognised by the brilliant blue feathers on their wings. You can find them in One Tree Hill year-round, although for much of the year they can be hard to spot. Unlike crows and magpies, they are shy birds. So look out for a flash of white and blue and a screaming call as they fly between the trees. The best time to see them is Autumn when they move about the trees looking for food. During this time they are easy to spot hunting for acorns which they store in their favourite hiding places to provide a source of food for the winter.
GREEN WOODPECKER – 1% OF VISITORS (1/93) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The European green woodpecker is the largest of the three woodpeckers that breed in Britain. They have a loud call but, unlike other species of woodpecker, they don’t drum to communicate and spend much of their time on the ground feeding. They are occasional visitors to One Tree Hill and can be tricky to spot. While they roost in the woods they tend not to feed there, preferring grassy areas where they can feed on the ground – such as the nearby cemetery. Listen out for their distinctive call and you might spot one!
REDWING – 3% OF WILDSIDE USERS (3/93) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Redwings are winter migrants to the UK, although there are a handful of pairs that nest here. They arrive from September onwards, leaving again in March and April. Redwings look similar to song thrushes but have a creamy strip above their eyes and red-orange patches on their wings (hence the name!). You can usually see them feeding in fields and hedgerows in open countryside, and they can sometimes be found with flocks of fieldfares. They are occasional winter visitors to One Tree Hill – look out for them in the hedgerows and trees that line the paths.
Photo credit: WildSide team member Lizzy Hyatt