Described as London’s smallest nature reserve, this patch of woodland is hidden behind a triangle of Georgian houses in Islington, and only open to the public for 2 hours a week.
This part of London was developed as housing by Joseph Kay in 1810-49 on dairy farmland owned by the Thornhill family, whose name lives on in the street and area names.
The blocks of houses that surround the pocket park were laid out later in the development, around 1849, as two quarter-circle crescents. If you look at a period map, you’ll see that the western block had a conventional back garden layout as you might expect for the development. However, the eastern side seems very different, and that’s because the middle was given over to just one private garden, retained by the landlord, George Thornhill. He lived at 7 Huntingdon Street, in a house slightly larger than the others on the road (look for the one with three balconies), and had the whole back of the block as his private garden.
Initially solidly middle-class, as the 20th-century progressed, the area became run down. The nearby Thornhill Square, until then a private space for residents was donated to the council in 1947 as a public park, and in 1955 the family interest died out with Captain Noel Thornhill.
His death unexpectedly ended up being newsworthy, as just before he died, his long-serving butler was arrested on charges of stealing from his employer. He was later found guilty and sent to jail for 6 years. However, had the greedy butler been more noble, he would have inherited £11,000 from Thornhill’s will (equivalent to £300,000 in today’s money), along with £500 a year annuity (£13,000 today).
His greed cost him the whole lot.
The private garden was somewhat neglected after the death of the last Thornhill, and seemingly used by the surrounding houses on an ad-hoc basis. The Thornhill Estate trustees sold it to a developer, who was refused development permission, and in 1974, Islington Council bought the land, initially to develop it themselves, but nothing was done.
In 1977, the council consulted the locals on what to do with the wood, which provoked a bizarre rant in the Daily Mirror (7th Nov 1977) from the novelist and newspaper columnist, Keith Waterhouse about why councils need to get involved in caring for woodlands — presumably unaware that almost all woods in England are managed by someone to some degree.
The woods were finally declared a nature reserve in 1996, and while usually closed to the public, the gates are open once a week, for just two hours to let people in for a wander.
The entrance to Barnsbury Wood is a gap in the row of houses that look as if houses are missing, and indeed, numbers 1 and 2 Cresent Street are missing. There was a particularly shabby 3-story council-owned building on the site, but it was torn down in the 1970s after being squatted in for some years.
A chap sitting in the rain kept an eye on the solitary visitor as he entered, and it’s really more of an amble around a small woodland, which on a very wet day was delightfully quiet save the rain dripping through the canopy.
There’s a number of paths in the wood, some easy to walk through and others rather more overgrown, along with a central patch with wooden stumps to sit on, used by the local schools who are allowed in at other times.
It is as the council says, the smallest nature reserve in London, so you’re not going to spend a lot of time here – a wander around will take barely 10 minutes. However, as a hidden space that’s only open a few hours a week, it simply has to be visited at least once, just to say you’ve been there.
Barnsbury Wood is open to the public on Tuesdays between 2pm-4pm.