As part of our series of features for Love Parks Week, we asked Paul Wood, author of London is a Forest, to tell us about his favourite open space in Hounslow.
My book, ‘London is a Forest’ takes the form of seven urban forest trails which follow routes in or out from the centre of the city. One of them, Tower Bridge to Heathrow, passes right through the borough of Hounslow, and features one of my favourite open spaces in London: Hounslow Heath.
Hounslow Heath is a pretty wild place (for London), and may come as something of a surprise to those who have never visited. It’s a fascinating area both historically and environmentally, a remarkable swathe of an ancient landscape that would once have covered a huge area of west London. Although the Heath is now only 80 hectares, a fraction of its former extent, what you see today has remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. As a result it supports a rich diversity of plants and animals that have developed a complex, interconnected ecosystem that is now unusual in London.
The Heath was originally a Royal Hunting Forest, a landscape with fewer trees than the ‘forest’ name implies. It once stretched from Hounslow in the east to Staines in the west, and north, through Heathrow, to Harlington. By the thirteenth century it was common land used largely for grazing animals. This suggests it had become a patchwork of open grassland and heaths interspersed with small pockets of woodland, and it would have looked very much like it does today.
The current landscape reflects these historic uses: grazing cattle keep the scrub at bay and a large central area has returned to a heathland of gorse, broom and heather. This heathland area is the most interesting part, where if you are lucky, you might find an adder. The only venomous snake found in the UK, adders are very rare in London, and Hounslow Heath represents one of only four sites where they still cling on. Adders are wary of people, so the chances are they will hear you before you see them, and will have slithered off without you noticing, but if you are very quiet and careful, you may see one soaking up the rays from a secluded spot on a warm sunny day. If you do see an adder, you must not touch it or disturb it, and you should always make sure any dogs are kept firmly on their leads.
Paul Wood is the author of several books about London, including London’s Street Trees, London is Forest and London Tree Walks. He has had a lifelong passion for nature, especially trees and was formerly a trustee of the London Wildlife Trust. He is a director of Greentalk Ltd – a company working with Hounslow to connect residents with the environment in the borough.