The Norwood Society

The Vicar’s Oak

I much enjoyed Ruth Fletcher’s article about the hidden oak tree in her Fox Hill garden which appeared in the November 1999 issue of ‘The Norwood Review’ and I subsequently went around to peer at the old oak from the road.

It is a magnificent specimen and there can be no wonder that it is covered by preservation orders, for trees of this age and stature are a most valuable contribution to the ecology and beauty of Upper Norwood.

Ruth mentioned the other outstanding oak trees in the area and Upper Norwood itself, the Vicar’s Oak.

According to Alan Warwick in his book ‘The Phoenix Suburb’ this tree stood at the high point in Norwood where four parishes met, Lambeth, Croydon, Camberwell and a detached part of Battersea. He identified this spot as the roundabout at the end of Crystal Palace Parade at its junction with Anerley Hill, Church Road, and Westow Hill, and where the London Boroughs of Croydon, Lambeth, Bromley and Southwark meet.

John Aubrey wrote in 1719 that there was in the great wood called Norwood:

“an antient, remarkable Tree call’d the Vicar’s Oak, where four Parishes meet at a point. This Wood wholly consists of Oaks”.

The tree had in fact been felled some time before, perhaps in 1678, but such was its fame that its memory survived well into the nineteenth century and in the 1860s older inhabitants sometimes spoke of Church Road as Vicar’s Oak Road

It seems that we then lost what was, and might still have been had it not been felled, a magnificent landmark, a tree which would have dominated the ‘entrance’ to the Upper Norwood Triangle, reminding us of the Great North Wood of which it was once part, and closing the vistas down each of the roads that approach the roundabout with a noble and remarkable specimen that would have given character and beauty to the centre of our community.

The London Borough of Bromley, whose property the roundabout is, is currently advertising for a firm to promote itself there, presumably by paying for the bedding plants which are annually planted at this junction, and in return being allowed to proclaim their generosity on a bill board. The plants themselves have never been a prominent display and advertising will certainly mar any beneficial effect they bestow.

How much better it would be if the Vicar’s Oak could be re-planted next winter, to mark this Millennium and to provide a thing of real beauty and dignity that would last until the next.

It would be nice to think that Bromley might support this idea and even pay for the planting of the tree and for its subsequent maintenance but since they are apparently trying to avoid the cost of the bedding plants, and will wantonly destroy dozens of trees a few hundred yards away on the Crystal Palace development site, their support is unlikely. It is a pity that a borough which has such a marginal interest in Upper Norwood is able to have such a detrimental effect upon its townscape.

The London Borough of Croydon might have been able to achieve what Bromley cannot, for they are currently undertaking a study of the Upper Norwood Triangle, but it seems proposals to improve traffic circulation will necessitate the removal of the roundabout completely and the chance to re-plant the Vicar’s Oak will go with it.

I am a landscape architect and I am currently working with the Traffic Director for London on vehicle circulation improvements in Catford where shortly many trees will be planted, both in the pavements and on the road islands. One of the things that I have remarked upon whilst engaged in this work, is that probably the most beautiful things in Catford (which, let’s face it, is otherwise a pretty dreary town centre) are the large Poplar trees that grown in the pavements there. They are actually a yellow-leafed variety of the Canadian Poplar (Populus Canadensis ‘Serotina Aurea’) and since they were planted there they have seen the flourishing and then the demise of horse-drawn buses and trams, electric trams, and then the rise of petrol and diesel driven buses and then the increase in the use of the motor car, and no doubt they will outlive the Red Routes which are now being introduced.

Surely planting a tree with a thousand-year life span is more important than speeding today’s traffic through Norwood? Instead, it seems likely that we will be blessed with the doubtful visual benefit of traffic lights and a yellow box. It’s called progress, I believe!

John Medhurst, MLL, MI of H, AA dipl. (2000).

The Norwood Review Edition #149.