Dear Readers, Coppett’s Wood is a tiny nature reserve tucked away between the North Circular Road, a coach garage and a Tesco Superstore. I have lived in this area for over ten years and it’s the first time that I’ve visited, although it’s only a 20 minute bus ride away. Once upon a time, the wood was part of the extensive Finchley Common, which was the haunt of so many highwaymen that Sir Gilbert Elliot, Earl of Minto, said in a letter to his wife that he would not “trust my throat on Finchley Common after dark”. In 1725 two highwaymen went as far as to draw up a contract in which they agreed to split the proceeds of their ‘highway robbery’ between them, although one of the highwaymen later contested this in court. There was a gibbet at the corner of Lincoln Road, just a few roads up from where I live, until the 1780s.
As we walked through Coppett’s Wood earlier this week, it struck me that a current day highwayman could probably do rather well here today: the understorey is much better developed than in my local Coldfall and Cherry Tree Woods, and the path meanders so that you can’t see who is around the next corner, causing us to give quite a shock to a poor young woman out running with her husky. I note that one of the criteria for a Green Flag Award, given to parks and other green spaces, is that there should be clear sightlines so that people can feel safe. However, I suspect that Coppett’s Wood is probably richer in biodiversity than our wood, and that would be because of the greater variety of habitats. There’s always a balance to be trod between safety and conservation, and while this place may look like a place where bad things could happen, I have never read anything in the newspapers to indicate that this is a serious concern. Plus, once you’re away from the scrubland and into the wood, it becomes a bit more open.
Before anyone thinks I’m being a bit of a wimp by talking about how safe a wild area feels, I’d like to mention that, as a young woman of nineteen years old, I was attacked by a man in the woods above Winchester. Fortunately, I was able to get away before anything too serious happened, but for a time it made me hypervigilant and absolutely terrified of being outside on my own. I know that I’m not the only person that this has happened to, and my heart goes out to those whose experiences had more serious consequences. Not everyone can stride through green spaces without a care in the world, and not everyone that you meet is harmless. In the end, my absolute passion for the natural world and my instinctive sense that, for me, healing was only possible by getting out there and paying attention to plants and animals was what walked me out of the door when I was afraid and didn’t want to go.
The gleam of sunlight on leaves, the sound of bees, the glimpse of a bird flitting through the branches has saved my sanity and calmed my grief and fear more times than I can say.
But, back to Coppett’s Wood. While the wooded area is the usual hornbeam and oak, there are lots of apple trees in the less shaded areas, and I wonder if this could have anything to do with the fact that in a previous incarnation, the scrubland abutting the wood was a sewage farm.
Near the Colney Hatch Lane entrance, there is supposed to be a pond, and I spent twenty minutes scrambling through the undergrowth looking for it. Alas, I couldn’t find it, and I wonder if it’s seasonal. There was a splendid Emperor Dragonfly hawking above the path though, and although these creatures are often spotted some distance from water, it made me wonder if there had been something there previously.
There is a fabulous crop of teasel, which likes damp soil, so maybe the pond is normally around here. I know the goldfinches will be delighted.
I am always very taken with how magical the heads of the umbellifers look at this time of year too.
And what a bumper crop of hips and haws there have been this year too! There is lots of Midland hawthorn in the wooded areas, and dog rose everywhere.
During WW2, Coppett’s Wood was used for tank and gas mask testing, and there are lots of miscellaneous concrete items left in the wood. I have no idea if these are actually WW2-related, or pipes from the sewage works, or indeed some other manifestation of the area’s history. Spiders seem to have made themselves at home in many of them, so they certainly have their uses.
I enjoyed our expedition to Coppett’s Wood – it’s always a delight to find a little patch of wildness so close to home, and I was even more impressed when I got home and found out that it’s the only London site for Lesser Water Plantain (Baldellia ranunculoides), so it’s even more of a shame that I couldn’t find the pond. Maybe next time I’ll go in winter, when the leaves will be down and any landscape features will be a bit more obvious. And here’s to exploring our local areas, which are often full of fragmentary green spaces that go unvisited because, pre-pandemic, we were visiting bigger, flashier sites elsewhere. I see from the London Borough of Barnet website that there are over 60 local nature reserves listed for this borough alone. Who knows what else I might find?