South Norwood Country Park is a beautiful, semi-wild parkland in south London. Nature blooms across rolling hills of WW2 demolition rubble and a former sewage works.
This is recovered land, rewilding from previous use. In the late 19th century, the former fields in the southern part of the park were being pitted and scared, as open mines scraped out deposits of London Clay. These were the South Norwood Potteries and the Portland Road Brick Works, typical of the metropolitan edgelands of the time.
South Norwood Irrigation Farm
From 1865, the northern half of the park was being used as a sewage treatment works, the South Norwood Irrigation Farm. At first, sewage effluent was simply spread across large fields, fertilising the growth of grass (probably for sale as hay) and fodder beets for animal feed. Back then, sewage farms really were farms.
The underlying clay meant that the fields drained slowly, as they still do today. Concrete filter beds and channels followed, but sewage treatment ceased in 1967 and the works were dismantled to ground level. Today, traces of these works remain across the park. Meanwhile, the abandoned fields naturally rewilded, creating undisturbed wetland and grassland, a haven for nature.
South Norwood Country Park is beautiful, but the distinctive perfume of wastewater still lingers if you explore along the north western edge. The culverted stream which borders the tram line and Beckenham Cemetery is festooned in places with ‘rag’. These grey chains of ‘flushable’ wet wipes hang like ghostly bunting, a celebration of our thoughtless, disposable culture.
Rubble, landfill, and recovery
Following World War Two, the gaping pits of the potteries and brickworks were filled with the broken bricks of post-bombing demolition. Wildflowers growing from this landscape of rubble became a bleak testament to lost and damaged lives. In later years, landfill was also tipped across the south western end of the sewage farm, largely rubbish and waste from highways.
Nature, wildlife, and open space
Nature began to reclaim the abandoned sewage farm and landfill, creating a wild, green space. In 1982, the area was designated as Metropolitan Open Land. This recognition of the Park’s contribution to London’s green infrastructure gives it the same legal protection as Green Belt, making it difficult (but not impossible) to build on.
South Norwood Country Park
In 1988, Croydon Council began to develop the site as South Norwood Country Park. The rolling fields of hardcore were shaped into mounds and hillocks, and a secluded lake was created.
Today, the Park is a wonderful tangle of main paths and narrow, winding tracks. I visited in spring, the warm air perfumed with the aroma of hawthorn blossom and cow parsley. It is worth exploring the smaller paths, getting momentarily lost. Some tracks lead nowhere, curving paths which melt into the green, consumed by nature. It is fun to explore, and easy to retrace your steps.
South Norwood Country Park is a wild, urban gem and free to visit. If you live locally, it is well recommended.
If you would like further inspiration, check out London National Park City, celebrating the capital’s green side!