Around the back of suburban houses in Belsize Park is a small but richly planted woodland on a very steep slope.
Unlike many more central pocket parks which often emerged from land clearance, this woodland has never been built on – its primaeval. The whole area was once fields, but as London expanded, housing started being developed around the area, and a large hospital to the northern side of the woods.
But the patch of land was bought by the Midland Railway Company in the 1860s as they dug a tunnel underneath for their railway, and put a single ventilation shaft in the middle of the fields. Some of the land was later used by British Railways for tennis courts, which still exist, and nursery gardens, which are now flats.
A bit of land to the south was developed as the famous Isokon Flats.
While the unused land was shrinking, in 1971 the land was transferred to Camden Council, who turned the old nursery gardens into flats in the 1980s. Fortunately, such late development of the land meant a more vigorous conservation lobby existed by then, so it was unthinkable to develop the rest of the plot – and it remains a woodland today.
It’s also a woodland of two halves, the northern side is open all the time, but the southern, more interesting half is only open at weekends, as it’s a nature reserve.
There are two entrances, but the easiest to find is right next to the Isokon Gallery, and up a public footpath to the woodland entrance on the left.
It’s very much a massively crowded wood, with paths winding around the area, and as it’s on a steep slope, plenty of wooden steps in places to get around. The site is deeply shaded and has a rich variety of species, especially of insects. The understorey is dominated by hawthorn and elder, and the most common canopy trees are ash, sycamore and Swedish whitebeam. Ground-level plants include butcher’s-broom, enchanter’s-nightshade and nettles.
Near the upper ends of the wood is a round brick structure looking not a bit unlike a secret fortification in the woods, but actually, it’s the ventilation shaft and if you hang around a while you can hear the Thameslink and Midland Main Line trains deep below rushing past.
The path follows roughly a loop around the woods, with a small very overgrown pond, and some very damp seating around the paths. Several signs around the woods point out what plants and insects can be found around you.
On my visit on a Saturday lunchtime, just one other person was in the woods, although the footpath next to it was modestly busy. Personally, I’d take a detour into the wood on the way to the shops to relax and soak up a bit of nature.
Belsize Wood is open Sat & Sun 8am-4pm.