The Great North Wood – a green and pleasant land

The Great North Wood is a new atmospheric, mythical history of South-East London’s long-lost ancient woodland stunningly brought to life by award-winning artist Tim Bird.

Tracing the history of The Great North Wood – which once stretched from what is now Croydon to Southwark, from Lambeth to Lewisham – Mr Bird breathes life into the myths and legends of this great forest. In a self-interview, he answers a few questions about himself – and his book.

Hi Tim, tell us about your new comic The Great North Wood.

Hello – it’s a comic, but it doesn’t have any superheroes in it. But it does have some magic. And a talking fox. It’s about the forest that used to cover the hills between Croydon and Deptford, which has now been reduced to a few trees scattered across South-east London.

What made you pick this subject? How did you do your research?

I’ve lived around South-east London for the past 15 years or so – from West Dulwich, to Herne Hill, and have now settled down (hopefully) in Sydenham. I’ve always been a few minutes’ walk from Sydenham Hill Woods, which is the largest surviving fragment of the Great North Wood, and have enjoyed walking there as a way of escaping the urban clatter and introducing my kids to nature.

I did my research for the comic by digging through local history articles and reading about the folklore of forests and old stories of how the places in South London got their names – Forest Hill, Gypsy Hill, Norwood, Penge. They all recall a time when South London was covered in trees.

For those of us who have no idea… how long does it take to create a comic of this scale?

I’d wanted to write about the area for a while. I’m interested in local history and a lot of it goes back to a time when there was this huge forest. So creating the comic took a few years from the point of having the initial idea. But I only really started drawing it last year, and I made time to do it around other commitments.

Your comic evokes a sense of ghosts of the past haunting the leftover bits of the forest – did this give you an increased sense of responsibility in telling their story?

Yes – particularly when writing about Margaret Finch – Queen of the Gypsies at Gipsy Hill. She was very well respected.

Wealthy Londoners, including Samuel Pepys’s wife, as he records in his diaries, would travel out from the city to the gypsy camp in the woods to have their fortunes told. The Norwood Gypsies became heavily romanticised by painters and play writers during the 17th and 18th centuries.

At the end of the comic, the forest begins to reclaim the city. Is that out of pessimism for humanity or optimism for nature?

I intended it to be positive – the idea is that nature will win despite humanity’s determination to cover everything in concrete. But I can see how that is quite a strange way of being positive.

What’s your take on foxes in London then? Cute or vermin?

I recently saw a group of fox cubs, and they were genuinely cute. Unfortunately, most of the time urban foxes are a pain. They make a dreadful noise at night, rummage through bins and have been known to attack toddlers. They’re generally harmless though – I certainly don’t think we need to introduce any kind of inner city fox hunting.

What made you decide to become a cartoonist? Why not do something that pays a bit better?

Ha! It’s a good question. I’m not really into drawing comics for the money. My main role is as a house husband or stay-at-home dad. I’m lucky that I can spend so much time with my kids, and when my daughter is at school and my son has his nap, I try and get on with some drawing. It’s something I’ve always done as a hobby really.

Wait a minute… aren’t you ‘Award-Winning’ cartoonist Tim Bird?

Oh that?! Yes – I won best Comic at the 2015 British Comic Awards for my comic Grey Area: From The City To The Sea, about the Thames Estuary. I don’t like to go on about it though.

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