Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep
In the pre-dawn darkness on Saturday, little groups of people converged on the unobtrusive gate, slipped softly through it and disappeared into the trees. Down below, their guide waited, the light from the streetlamps, filtered through leaves, glinting off his glasses. He gave a sign, and the group fell in behind him and melted into the shadows.
There is something mysterious and magical about the annual dawn chorus walk in Sydenham Hill Woods (a remnant of the Great North Wood that once stretched from Selhurst to Deptford). A congregation of strangers gathers to take guidance from the priestly figure of The One Who Knows, listening as first one then another raucous or fluting voice joins the chorale. The guide recognises them all, can identify where they’re coming from – perhaps even which bush they’re in – and knows when they’re imitating another bird.
On any other occasion, tramping through the dark and the cold and the mud would be an ordeal, but not now. Our patience is rewarded with the songs of chiffchaff, mistlethrush, blackcaps and tree creepers, with the ‘too-woo’ of a distant male tawny owl (only the females say ‘too-wit’, apparently), and the rapid hammering of the greater spotted woodpecker – and also with a rare view of the lights of the City in the blue dawn, seen through the silhouettes of slender saplings. As the light grows, colour seeps into our surroundings, and we are engulfed in the vivid green haze of early spring foliage against a backdrop of dark ivy.
One of the most remarkable things about Sydenham Hill Wood is that parts of it were once far more developed than they are now. The railway ran through it (the same line as depicted in Camille Pissarro’s painting Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich) and several large Victorian villas occupied the eastern side of it. Now even their foundations have gone, their tennis courts are completely overgrown, and all that remains of their gardens is a decidedly non-native, 150-year-old cedar of Lebanon.
Our guide certainly lacked the earnestness I associate with bird enthusiasts. He talked of birds who don’t get out of bed till ten, claimed that he once heard a ‘jazz chiffchaff’ in Croydon, and when one of the group asked about the bluetits who come and peck at their reflections in his car windscreen and defecate on the bonnet – was it some sort of ritual? – he declared that these tits had clearly never got beyond the mirror stage and just didn’t care where they pooed.
As it became fully light and the chorus thinned out, the magic dispelled, and all of a sudden we were cold and hungry. Everyone headed for the gate and home for breakfast, and as we did so a magnificent peacock sauntered across the road and into a front garden.
To quote our guide again, London is about a lot more than banking, football clubs and Russian oligarchs.
PS For anyone interested, here is the full list of birds we saw or heard: blackbird, blackcap, bluetit, chiffchaff, coaltit, crow, great tit, greater spotted woodpecker, mistlethrush, parakeet, robin, song thrush, sparrowhawk, tawny owl, tree creeper and wood pigeon.