South Norwood Country Park, a wild urban gem

by Ian Tokelove
The lake at South Norwood Country Park

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.

Fragrant cow parsley growing shoulder-high in fresh woodland
Fragrant cow parsley grows chest-high in fresh woodland

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.

Nature reclaiming the old sewage farm

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.

Clear signs of pollution in this stream, on the edge of the Park.

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.

Star of Bethlehem growing amid the undulating landfill
Star of Bethlehem growing amid the undulating landfill
Battered metal water tank surrounded by plants
The secret history of South Norwood Country Park reveals itself in places, away from the main paths

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.

These green, rolling hillocks are formed from the broken rubble of WW2 demolition
These green, rolling hillocks are formed from the broken rubble of WW2 demolition

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.

Looking up a rough track which leads to the top of a low, green hill.
The clay pits, dug for bricks and pottery, were backfilled and packed with the broken rubble of bombed homes. Now the rubble reaches skyward, forming gentle hills.

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!

Green footpath sign, unreadable.
Old signage on the edge of the Park
Hawthorn blossom, small, fragrant white flowers
Hawthorn blossom, a sure sign of spring.
A comma butterfly, soaking up the sunshine
A comma butterfly, soaking up the sunshine
Battered footpath sign, with graffitti
Footpath 666. You won't be lost for long.

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