The long and distinguished history of Blackheath has been thoroughly researched, and is described in Neil Rhind's excellent book The Heath (1987). This has recently been summarised in the booklet Blackheath Guide & History (Blackheath Joint Working Party 1994), available free from Lewisham and Greenwich Borough Councils, local libraries and the Blackheath Society. Most of the historical information in this account was drawn from these two publications. In 1998 a Blackheath Nature Trail leaflet was produced by the working party (Archer & Wood 1998). Walk 1, at the back of this book, visits Hare and Billet Pond, Whitefield Pond and Mount, The Point and Eliot Pits.
Many other books describe Blackheath. One of the best summaries of what the Heath is about is given by the architect and broadcaster, Ian Nairn, writing in 1966 in Nairn’s London: "For a flat stretch of open space, Blackheath has remarkable personality. It is never quite flat, and there are queer enclaves such as Blackheath Vale crammed into what looks like an old quarry. ...the whole heath is slightly convex, tipping over into views down to the Thames or across to Shooter’s Hill. The edges, heavily built up, bounce the space back into the centre... It is the opposite of all the other dull areas of amenity inflicted on London."
The name "Blackheath" is popularly but erroneously held to derive from its reputed use as a mass burial ground for victims of the Black Death in the 1340s. Less grisly, but more plausible, suggestions for the origin of the name, which was recorded as early as the 11th century, are that it stems from Old English words meaning "dark soil" (although the soil is not particularly dark except when wet), or that it is a corruption of "bleak heath". The latter seems the most likely derivation.
As an area of open, high ground just outside the City of London, the strategic importance of Blackheath has been recognised since the Romans first built their London to Dover road, Watling Street (now the A2) across it. Since that time, the Heath has played host to more than its share of rebel gatherings, military encampments and exercises, royal meetings, religious festivals, sports, fairs, circuses and a host of other activities.
The Heath was perfectly situated for armies to gather before invading London. The Danes camped here in 1011, and during the Peasants’ Revolt, Wat Tyler's anti-poll tax rebels, 100,000 strong, amassed in 1381 before marching on London, where they were defeated. In 1450, Jack Cade led 20,000 Kent and Essex Yeoman on to the Heath, where they set up camp in opposition to higher taxes being imposed by Henry VI. After fleeing to Sussex, Cade was
eventually caught by the King’s forces and murdered. A later rebellion, of Cornishmen angry at being taxed for Scottish wars, was put down in the Battle of Blackheath Field in 1497; over 2000 of the slain are reputedly buried in and around Blackheath. Whitefield Mount is presumed to be their main place of burial. This was the only battle actually fought on Blackheath. The Heath has also been used as a marshalling area for British armies waiting to be shipped to fight abroad, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, for military training and for parades.
The Heath has also hosted numerous more peaceful gatherings. It was a favourite place for Lord Mayors of London to welcome their monarchs, from Richard II to Elizabeth I, and for royalty to meet distinguished guests (Henry IV met the Emperor of Constantinople here in 1400). Charles II met the welcoming citizens of London on Blackheath at the Restoration. John Wesley preached Methodism from Whitefield Mount, and Gladstone held election meetings there in the second half of the 19th century.
Less welcome visitors were the highwaymen who frequented Blackheath, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries. A newspaper report of October 1735 noted that, "We hear that for about six weeks past, Blackheath has been so infested by two highwaymen (supposed to be Rowden and Turpin) that 'tis dangerous for travellers to pass."
Habitat changes and ecological decline
That robbers were able to wait in ambush for unsuspecting travellers is a clear indication that the landscape of Blackheath at that time was very different from today. The Heath of the 1600s and 1700s, and even well into the 19th century, was indeed heathland, with abundant gorse and scattered trees providing ample cover for lurking footpads as well as a great variety of plants and animals. The gorse was particularly spectacular; in the 18th century Linnaeus, on first setting eyes on the display of gorse on the Heath, is reputed to have fallen to his knees in thanks to God (although the same story is also told of Putney Heath, casting doubt on its authenticity). Two centuries earlier, a passage had to be cut through the gorse to accommodate the procession when Henry VIII had the first, ill-fated meeting with his future fourth wife, Ann of Cleves, on Blackheath.
Blackheath was well known to botanists in the 18th and 19th centuries as a site where many typical plants of heathland and acidic grasslands could be found. Among these were autumn squill, now extremely rare in south-east England, and a particularly good assemblage of clovers, including clustered and suffocated clovers, both now nationally scarce. Sadly none of these three species can be found on the Heath today. The same is true of most of the impressive list of animals reported from the Heath by the Greenwich Natural History Society in 1859, such as natterjack toads, stoats, weasels, hares, common lizards, voles, bats and a range of unusual birds including quail, ring ouzel and nightingale. Of these, only the bats remain, although an occasional ring ouzel might still stop off briefly on spring migration.
The two factors most responsible for Blackheath's transformation from a heathland paradise for wildlife to its present day state are landfill following mineral extraction, and sports. Gravel, sand and the underlying chalk were extracted from large areas of Blackheath during the 18th and early 19th centuries, leaving large pits in many parts of the Heath. These were soon vegetated with grass and gorse, and contributed to the variety of wildlife habitat on the Heath. However, in 1945 some of the pits were filled in with bomb rubble from the Second World War, leaving only Vanbrugh Pits in the north-east and Eliot Pits in the south-west corner. The infilled areas were then covered with topsoil and seeded with perennial rye-grass. This more fertile soil, combined with the rapidly-growing, highly competitive rye-grass, made it impossible for the original heathland plants to recolonise these areas of landfill. Even today, the infilled areas can be recognised at a glance, especially in late spring and summer, when the deeper green of the rye-grass contrasts sharply with the reddish tones of sheep's sorrel and the flowers of the natural grasses of the Heath.
Blackheath has an honourable place in the histories of many sports, with the oldest golf, rugby and hockey clubs in England and perhaps the world founded here. According to legend, Blackheath Golf Club was established by James I in 1608, although the first evidence of what was then known as the Society of Goffers dates from the mid-18th century. The Royal Blackheath Golf Club played on Blackheath until 1923, when it moved to its present home in Eltham. Golf is now banned on the Heath, but the association with the game is commemorated in the name of Goffers Road.
The Blackheath Hockey Club was founded in 1861 and the Rugby Football Club a year later. Both clubs now have their own grounds elsewhere, but still occasionally play on the Heath, while both sports are still much played by schools and other groups, along with soccer, cricket, lacrosse, athletics, baseball and American football. The Heath is also well known as the starting point for the London Marathon.
Most of these sports require very short turf on which to play, and the heavy demand for sports pitches has taken its toll on Blackheath's wildlife. Indeed, throughout most of the present century, until the late 1980s, the grass over almost the whole of Blackheath was kept very close-mown for sports and amenity purposes. The exception to this was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Second World War saw parts of the Heath ploughed to produce food, and the rest occupied by army Nissen huts. After the War, neglect allowed a brief respite for the Heath’s beleaguered wildlife, when for a few years the grass grew long and skylarks were able to nest (Teagle 1997). This did not last long, however, and in 1953 the last of the Nissan huts were finally removed and the Heath was levelled and re-seeded. The only places where the vegetation was left for long enough to allow many wild flowers to produce seeds, or to provide any shelter for animals, were the pits, the fenced-off Whitefield Mount, and the steep banks around the edges of The Point.
Reversing the trends - the Heath today
In 1989, however, the outlook for wildlife on Blackheath began to improve. In that year Greenwich Council, which manages that part of the Heath lying within Greenwich Borough, began to relax the mowing regime over large areas of the Heath, allowing the grass to grow long and cutting just once a year in late summer. Although at first this change was unpopular with many local people, opinions rapidly altered as colourful wild flowers started to appear and people became accustomed to the long grass. Most users of the Heath became strong supporters of the new management for wildlife and, after the adoption by both Boroughs of a management plan for Blackheath, Lewisham Council began managing parts of the Lewisham side of the Heath in a similar way in 1993. At the time of writing, almost one quarter of the Heath, mostly around the edges, is managed for nature conservation; these areas were selected to avoid the parts of the Heath used for sports and events such as circuses and fairs, but to include as much of the relic acid grassland as possible.
The best impression of how the Heath must have looked in past centuries can be gained by looking at Vanbrugh Pits, particularly the deeper, northern pit. Photographs from the 1890s (Rhind 1987) show that the vegetation of Vanbrugh Pits has changed little over the last hundred years. Gorse and broom, typical heathland shrubs which once covered much of Blackheath, are still abundant here, along with occasional young trees of oak and silver birch. Some of the latter have been planted, but others are self-sown. Beneath the scrub and trees, wood sage can be found. This characteristic plant of woods and scrub on acid soils is distinctly uncommon so far into London.
Much of the flat floor of the pit is covered in acid grassland, characterised by an abundance of sheep's sorrel, a small member of the dock family with arrow-shaped leaves which turn red in summer. Common bent is the dominant grass, with red fescue also frequent. The tiny early hair-grass, rather scarce in London, occurs on barer patches, where mountain bikes have caused erosion. Other wild flowers of the acid grassland include cat's-ear and autumn hawkbit, two rather similar plants with yellow, dandelion-like flowers; they can be told apart by the bristly leaves and larger flowers of cat's-ear. A small population of harebells also survives in the acid grassland of Vanbrugh Pits, the only place on Blackheath where these beautiful flowers can be found. Also to be seen among the grasses, on a very close inspection, are Cladonia lichens, their fruiting bodies resembling tiny cups.
Elsewhere on the floor of Vanbrugh Pits, and also on the banks, the natural acid grassland vegetation grades into a coarser grassland of cock's-foot, false oat-grass and Yorkshire-fog, indicating some past enrichment of the soil. Common but colourful wild flowers growing on the banks include common mallow, creeping buttercup and thistles. Also on the banks, surely as a result of deliberate sowing, are a few plants of field scabious and greater knapweed, both very rare in this part of London and typical of chalky soils; it is unlikely if either will survive for long. Alexanders, a plant usually associated with coastal habitats, was found on the edge of the pits in 1999.
Acid grassland similar to that of Vanbrugh Pits can be found scattered in many places on the Heath. The best areas are between Hyde Vale and Cade Road, and around The Point (like Vanbrugh Pits, these two areas lie in Greenwich) and, on the Lewisham side, to the east of Granville Park, between South Row and Morden Road, and, somewhat surprisingly, on the cricket field to the east of Goffers Road. The latter is the only one of the sites listed above which is not currently under nature conservation management, due to the requirements of the cricketers. It would be ideal if, in the long term, an alternative location on one of the land-filled areas of the Heath could be found for cricket, so that this area of acid grassland, the most extensive on the Lewisham side of the Heath, could be managed for nature conservation.
All of the plants occurring in the acid grassland of Vanbrugh Pits, with the exception of the harebells, can be found in any of the areas mentioned above, and many of them occur in other parts of the Heath, where patches of acid grassland occur in a close mosaic with reseeded grassland. Three other plants typical of dry, sandy soils, all of which are scarce in London, grow in a few scattered localities on Blackheath; these are fiddle dock, spotted medick and common stork's-bill. Much rarer still, and each growing in just a single location on the Heath, are knotted clover and bird's-foot. The former, recalling times when Blackheath was famous for its clovers, occurs on the Greenwich side of the Heath, on a slope beside Point Hill, directly opposite The Point. The latter can be found at the opposite corner of the Heath, in a small triangle of grassland between South Row and Morden Road, which has recently been transferred from Greenwich to Lewisham; this is thus now the only known site in Lewisham for bird's-foot. It seems incredible that these plants have survived over a century of close-mowing; let us hope that the more sympathetic management will lead to the reappearance of more of the rare plants which once graced Blackheath.
The neutral grassland which occupies areas of Blackheath which have been landfilled is generally of little botanical interest. Perennial rye-grass dominates in most areas: a highly competitive grass which gives little opportunity for wild flowers to flourish. In the close-mown areas, buck's-horn plantain is often the only non-grass species which occurs in significant quantity, particularly where trampling has caused bare patches in the grass. Essentially a maritime plant, buck's-horn plantain is remarkably widespread in parks and amenity grassland in south-east London. Other wild flowers which can be found in some of these areas include sticky mouse-ear, lesser trefoil and typical "lawn weeds" such as daisy and white clover.
In some places where the neutral grassland has been allowed to grow long, a few more interesting plants have started to appear, such as oxeye daisy and spotted medick in the triangle between General Wolfe Road and Cade Road, and hairy sedge in Eliot Pits. Probably the most interesting area of neutral grassland on the Heath is on Paragon Field, between Prince of Wales Road and St German's Place. Here meadow foxtail and creeping bent replace rye-grass as the dominant grasses. These are somewhat less competitive than rye-grass, allowing a greater range of wild flowers to flourish. Already WHICH SPECIES? have appeared since the mowing regime was relaxed in 1989. The northern half of Paragon Field, where the neutral grassland forms a mosaic with acidic grassland, is particularly attractive in summer, when the tall, purple-tinged flower spikes of meadow foxtail contrast with the low-growing, brick-red patches of sheep's sorrel.
The other features of potential value to wildlife on Blackheath are the four ponds. Three of these, Hare and Billet Pond, Mounts Pond and the Prince of Wales Pond, are on the Lewisham side of the Heath; these three ponds together constitute a substantial proportion of the Borough's still water habitat. The fourth pond, Folly Pond, is in Greenwich. These ponds, and at least two others which were filled in the mid-19th century, were probably the remnants of gravel workings which simply filled with water, although Princess of Wales pond may have been deliberately created. They were certainly valuable watering holes for animals, such as coach horses and cattle being driven along the Dover Road.
Hare and Billet Pond is the most natural-looking of the ponds, and probably the best for wildlife. Fringed with trees, it has gently sloping edges, with a good variety of marginal vegetation, much of which was planted after de-silting in early 1994. The pond is a lovely sight in early summer, with the pink flowers of flowering-rush and the deep yellow ones of greater spearwort forming a blaze of colour. With a little more searching, the blue of water forget-me-not and the mauve of water mint can also be seen, and less showy species include common spike-rush, soft-rush, hard rush and greater pond-sedge. Hare and Billet Pond had a tendency to dry out during summers with little rain, but the de-silting and the provision by the Council of a standpipe should ensure that it remains a permanent pond in the future. This should help to increase the populations of frogs and smooth newts which breed in the pond, as well as encouraging a greater diversity of aquatic invertebrates. The provision of some shelter, in the form of long grass and shrubs, around the pond would improve the terrestrial habitat for amphibians. The de-silting has also helped to improve the water quality in the pond, although runoff from the nearby mini-roundabout on Hare and Billet Road, and leaf fall from the surrounding trees, remain a problem.
Prince of Wales Pond is more or less square and has steep concrete sides, preventing the establishment of marginal vegetation. It is very popular with model boat enthusiasts, who would object to emergent plants which might get in the way of their boats. Nevertheless, the pond is not without nature conservation interest, with a variety of submerged plants including spiked water-milfoil, curled pondweed and Canadian waterweed, and a fauna which includes sticklebacks and a good diversity of invertebrates. A pair of mallards nests nearby, perhaps in an adjacent garden, and the female can often be seen on the pond with her ducklings in spring.
Mounts Pond is only seasonally wet, and has suffered badly from erosion through trampling by people and dogs, to the extent that the pond and its immediate surroundings consist of little but bare gravel, with two invasive non-native plants, New Zealand pigmyweed and buttonweed, the only species to thrive. The erosion problem is being addressed; the pond and surrounding area were fenced off in early 1994, to encourage vegetation to return. The tendency of the pond to dry out in summer can be viewed either as a problem or as an asset; seasonal ponds are an important habitat on heathlands, supporting a very distinctive range of animals and plants, including such rarities as the natterjack toad, which was found on Blackheath in past centuries. Whether it is feasible to restore Mounts Pond into a seasonal pond of ecological value is a matter of some debate; certainly, suggestions that the reintroduction of natterjack toads should be a medium-term aim are fanciful, unless the entire Heath is to be returned to heathland and the A2 diverted! It is also questionable how easy it would be to maintain the water level in the pond throughout the year. Further research is necessary before any final decision on the future of Mounts Pond is reached.
Folly Pond, once a sizeable boating lake with an island, is now also somewhat seasonal in nature, although a standpipe installed by Greenwich Council has prevented it from drying out totally in the last few summers. It is seriously infested with New Zealand pigmyweed, a highly invasive alien plant much used as an oxygenating plant in garden ponds and fish tanks. Though small, this antipodean scourge spreads very rapidly in suitable conditions, swamping native aquatic vegetation. As it is as happy growing on land as beneath the water, seasonal ponds are particularly prone to be taken over, and the growth of the pigmyweed in Folly Pond can be phenomenal; the pond is often so choked that from any distance it resembles a lawn. There is an urgent need to eliminate the plant from Folly Pond before any further management considerations are addressed.
Trees and shrubs
The vast majority of Blackheath is totally devoid of trees and shrubs. The only stand of trees in the middle of the Heath is the small enclosure on Whitefield Mount, where a few silver birches form a partial canopy over gorse and broom. An area around Whitefield Mount, including Mount Pond, has been fenced off and mowing ceased to encourage these shrubs to spread; regeneration is currently very slow, and planting of gorse and broom is being considered. Further small groups of birches can be seen close to Hyde Vale, where regenerating elm also forms dense scrub in places, allowing a pair of whitethroats to nest in most years. The steep sides of The Point are largely cloaked in trees and scrub, a mixture of gorse and exotic plantings. Great spotted and green woodpeckers and spotted flycatchers can all be seen here. Further scrub, mostly of hawthorn, grows on the northern bank of Eliot Pits. Additionally, a few mature trees, mostly exotic species such as London plane and common lime, have been planted at some time in the past in several places around the periphery of the Heath. The Act of Parliament which brought Blackheath into local authority control in 1871 expressly forbids the planting of trees on the Heath except at the edges.
A more interesting selection of mature trees can be seen around the edges of Hare and Billet Pond. These include crack-willows, a very appropriate waterside species. Unfortunately, the trees cause excessive shading of the pond and their falling leaves in autumn increase the nutrient levels in the water; it is hoped to pollard some of the willows to reduce these problems, while prolonging the life of the trees through this traditional management technique. Two mature elms, which escaped the ravages of Dutch elm disease until the mid-1990s, have recently succumbed; their trunks have been left standing to provide dead wood habitat for invertebrates such as the stag beetle, a species of European-wide conservation concern.
Probably the easiest way to improve Blackheath, both as a wildlife habitat and aesthetically, would be to increase the cover of trees and shrubs, particularly heathland shrubs such as gorse and broom. To this end, an area around Whitefield Mount has been fenced off and mowing here stopped in an attempt to encourage the trees and shrubs on the mound to regenerate and spread. Gorse and broom have been planted to speed up this process. The management plan also includes provisions to plant hedges of gorse and broom to prevent vehicle encroachment onto the Heath, as a more attractive alternative to the existing posts and earth bunds.
The lack of almost any vestige of cover for a century or more has left Blackheath with a very impoverished fauna. The vast expanses of short grass attract flocks of gulls (including an American ring-billed gull in 1998-9), crows and starlings, but very few birds can find anywhere to nest on the Heath. Invertebrates are beginning to return to the areas where the grass is allowed to grow long; butterflies such as meadow browns can be seen, and some parts of the Heath reverberate in late summer to the chirruping of grasshoppers.
Ownership and management
Blackheath is owned by the Lord of the Manor of Lewisham (south of the A2) and the Crown as part of the Royal Manor of East Greenwich, north of the A2. However, since 1871 it has been held in trust for public benefit by successive local authorities through the Blackheath Supplement to the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866. Management of the Heath passed from the original Metropolitan Board of Works, via the London County Council to the Greater London Council. On the abolition of the GLC in 1986, management was split between the Boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham. To ease the problems caused by the lack of a single body with responsibility for managing Blackheath, the two Councils established the Blackheath Joint Working Party to provide some degree of co-ordination for the maintenance of the Heath. The Joint Working Party is attended by Councillors and officers from both Boroughs, along with representatives of amenity groups, notably the Blackheath Society and the Greenwich Society, and conservation organisations such as the London Ecology Unit and London Wildlife Trust. There is free public access at all times.
The considerable improvements to the ecology of the Heath in recent years are due largely to initiatives of the Joint Working Party. It is to be hoped that this trend will continue in the future. While the management of Blackheath must always seek a compromise between nature conservation, sports and recreation, there is still a lot which could be done to improve the Heath for wild plants and animals. While the natterjack may never again roam here, a Blackheath with swathes of gorse, heather and other wild flowers, with nesting warblers and an abundance of insect life, is surely something to aim for; it should be possible to restore at least parts of the Heath to its former glory, which, so legend has it, made Linnaeus thank God for the beauties of His creation!