Just metres from a busy road in London, hidden from view, lies tranquil woodland, silent except for the sound of birds and leaves rustling.   

The land behind the Ringway Community Centre in Grove Park is where children from four different local primary schools come to learn about nature  in the Adventure Applied learning program, followed sometimes by a spot of jam-making.   

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The Centre, council-owned but let to the Grove Park Community Group (GPCG), who own the majority of the buildings on the site, acts as a gate to a piece of countryside in an increasing developed city.   

Usually children can walk through the ‘horse meadow’, a privately-owned patch to which they have easement rights, to get to the Grove Park Nature Reserve.   

But recently the owner, Stuart Oldroyd, had the gates to it illegally padlocked.  

A sign was erected saying “private land, unauthorised access not permitted”.   

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The council responded by putting a Tree Protection Order (TPO) on the land, “made in response to the escalating actions of the landowner”, which prohibits anyone from carrying out works on trees.  

It also said its legal team is investigating.  

While the TPO is effective immediately, the council has six months to make it permanent.   

But it was only the latest in concerning moves made by landowners in the area. Just this week unknown men with clipboards were seen surveying the area, while damage to trees was reported. 

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Evidence of ring-barking, which can lead to the death of a tree, was found this week

Environmental and heritage group the Baring Trust said the community asked to buy the land in 2017 to protect it.    

But 3242 Investments, acting for the previous owner Taylor Wimpey, told them the cost was £500,000.    

The organisation says that 3242 Investments subsequently purchased the land for £7,500.  

The developer then applied to build a trailer park on the site, which is Metropolitan Open Land and a site of importance for nature, but the application was refused this August.   

A previous application from another developer nearby to build riding stables with a new road/track on the site formerly sublet by Willow Tree Riding School was also refused earlier this year.  

3242 Investments was previously investigated by The Forestry Commission after an area of ancient woodland it owned in Crawley “was wrecked by contractors, turning it into a muddy wasteland”.   

Crawley Borough Council said a “significant number” of trees were felled in Burleys Wood without permission before it was informed.   

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The Ringway Centre

To prevent destructive development on the land, which is a patchwork quilt of ownership, the Grove Park Neighbourhood Forum has plans to turn 4.5kms of land, from the South Circular to past Elmstead Woods Railway Station, into the ‘Railway Children Urban National Park’, a new district park for Lewisham.  

It has already put forward a neighbourhood plan, though it is yet to be accepted by Lewisham Council.   

The name is a nod to the novel by Edith Nesbit, who lived in the area and whose writing is thought to have been inspired by it.   

And just inside Grove Park station is a Network Rail approved mural which reads ‘Grove Park, home of the railway children’.   

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The plan reimagines the site, made up of 7.2 hectares, as an accessible nature trail with Grove Park Nature Reserve at its heart.  

The trail would bring visitors through wet woodland, chalk grassland, deciduous woodland, the River Quaggy, cemeteries, nature reserves, Chinbrook Meadows, Northbrook Park, and the ancient woodland of Elmstead Woods.   

A central aim of the plan is to protect biodiversity and to create a welcoming home for different species, some of which are at risk of becoming extinct.   

The land is thought to be the only remaining Urban site that offers the habitat needed for the five species of hairstreak butterflies.

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The plan itself started with a pub.  

Stephen Kenny, along with others, created the Baring Trust more than a decade ago with the hope of getting the Baring Hall Hotel listed after it was threatened with demolition.   

They successfully saved the building after a campaign that went to the High Court, and it was first in the borough to be listed as an asset of community value in January 2013.  

In 2018  its ACV status, including the surrounding land, was renewed, and it was Grade II listed after Mr Kenny made the case to Historic England that every other pub in the country was based on this “improved pub” model 

Also chair of the Grove Park Neighbourhood Forum, Mr Kenny is still concerned about the “managed decline” of the pub – the upper floors have had their floor boards removed causing structural damage and putting this listed building at risk, he said.  

The Baring Hall Hotel, owned by Antic, a company which runs about 50 pubs across London, also closed after the pandemic struck and has yet to reopen.  

Mr Kenny said: “That’s a very viable space that could make a lot of money. Their twitter feed suggested it won’t be opening because of Covid, but that’s just the latest excuse.  

“There is a huge garden space that could be used. 

“Since they bought it, they’ve always said this pub doesn’t make any money – it’s the only pub for half a mile and it’s opposite a train station, if you can’t make a pub with nearly two million people coming out of that train station in a year work, you’re in the wrong business.”  

It is hoped the pub will act as one of the four entrances to the trail.   

The Localism Act 2011 gave communities the power to develop a shared vision for and to shape development in their local area.  

Neighbourhood plans, if accepted by the council, go into planning law and allow the community to choose where new homes, shops and offices should be built and what they should look like.   

“We used the pub as the driver for a neighbourhood plan for heritage and natural heritage […] identifying sites for development – neighbourhood plans cannot stop or should not stop development but are designed to guide development. 

“That went through the formal process and took a long time, because there were lots of delays by Lewisham.   

“We formerly submitted in July 2019, and it’s still not gone to examination. 

“In the meantime, multiple planning applications are being submitted, which threaten our community spaces and impact our built and natural heritage assets and this is very frustrating,” Mr Kenny said.   

He said the concept of ‘urban’ national parks is more important than ever with most people living in cities, in flats without gardens.  

“That’s why I’m specifically looking at railways because the majority of these railway corridors are still largely publicly owned and lend themselves to linear parks, first and foremost to aid nature recovery and address the ecological crisis, and with our support halt the extinction of threatened wildlife,” he added.