Highgate Wood is a 70 acre (28 hectare) area of ancient woodland in North London, lying between East Finchley, Highgate Village, and Muswell Hill. It was originally part of the Ancient Forest of Middlesex which covered much of London, Hertfordshire and Essex and was mentioned in the Domesday Book.
The London Borough of Haringey contains no less than five distinct ancient woods. These are Highgate Wood, Queen’s Wood, Coldfall Wood, Bluebell Wood and North Wood. Highgate Wood is shown on the Ordnance Survey map of Middlesex in 1876 more or less in its present formation, but known by the less salubrious name “Gravelpit Wood”.
During the Medieval period, the wood was part of the Bishop of London’s hunting estate. Between the 16th and 18th centuries the wood, known then as “Brewer’s Fell”, was leased to various tenants who managed it by “coppicing with standards”. This involved regularly cutting down areas of Hornbeams to a stump (“coppicing”) to encourage new growth which could be used for fuel or fencing, whilst allowing oak and other tree species to grow to maturity (“standards”). Remnants of wood banks dividing these areas can still be seen. Many of these oaks were then used by the Crown to construct ships and by the Church to construct buildings.
In the 1880s the last tenant gave up his lease. In 1886 the Corporation of London acquired what was by then known as Gravelpit Wood (so named in 1863 on account of a gravel pit used to source gravel for roads in the district) from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners at no charge on condition that it was “maintained in perpetuity for the benefit of Londoners”. It was renamed Highgate Wood and has been owned and managed by the Corporation ever since.
The Corporation of London’s maintenance of the wood was not always sympathetic to its historical origins. On acquisition, asphalt paths were laid, ornamental trees were planted and dead wood was assiduously removed and burned. Highgate Wood was managed more as an urban park than ancient woodland. In 1968 the Conservation Committee of the London Natural History Society expressed its concern at the planting of exotic conifers as being inappropriate for ancient woodland. As a consequence of this protest the planting programme was halted and has not been continued.
More recently management practices have been much more sympathetic to the Wood’s indigenous flora and fauna. Certain areas have been fenced to allow the regeneration of the vegetation free of trampling, and dead wood is allowed to decay “in situ” – to the great benefit of saprotrophic fungi and a wide range of invertebrates.
The historical and ecological significance of Highgate Wood was recognised in October 1990 when it was designated as a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation.