Secret Southeast London: Severndroog Castle

I love castles—it’s part of the reason why I like spending time in Yorkshire and Wales so much, the fact that there are just so many hidden within the landscape. They speak of a history that we simply cannot imagine now: knights and Kings defending land, civil wars, foreign invasions. When I moved to London, this was one thing I knew I was going to miss—apart from the Tower of London (which I’ve never actually been to due to the hefty price), there just aren’t any visible or monumental castles in the capital.

Then, in 2015, I discovered Severndroog. Stressed with university work, tired of the sound of roads and trains, I sought out a place to visit for the day, somewhere relatively close by (that is, within south-east London), but a place that would feel much further afield. Severndroog was the result of this search, and though it wasn’t strictly a castle, but a folly, it whetted my appetite for countryside and history.

a view of severndroog castle in shooters hill against blue sky and clouds

Severndroog sits on Shooters Hill, near Woolwich. It was built by Lady James in 1784 to honour her husband, Sir William James; thus, Severndroog is technically a memorial, which is not necessarily less interesting than a real castle. Since being built, it has served as a surveying point for producing maps of England and as an air raid observation tower in the Second World War—more than can be said for many of England’s other castles, once important and full of life, but which now have simply been left to decay.

My journey to Severndroog in 2015 was about as far east in London as I’d ever been at the time, having just moved to London six months previously—but Shooters Hill almost doesn’t feel like London anymore, instead, a little community on its outskirts. On that crisp February day, I was just about the only visitor there, and wandered among the leafless trees that surround the folly, passing local dog walkers and elderly visitors. I remember chatting with a lady in the castle’s cafe, a tiny little room on the bottom floor of the folly. She seemed surprised that I’d made the effort to come all the way here just to see a fake castle, a first year literature student with little else to do except read. It was worth the trip just for the view from the top of the folly, three floors high, just touching the tips of the surrounding foliage. From here, it’s possible to see to the centre of London, and though I remember it being particularly misty that day, it was still impressive.

This year, almost three years to the day, I decided to revisit Severndroog, to see if it had changed, had become more touristy, or retained its charm and secrecy. From my home in Forest Hill, it was still an hour’s bus ride to Shooter’s Hill, a journey that seemed shorter the first time, though it was also possible that I’d just forgotten how big London is. From the bus, it’s a short walk up Shooter’s Hill to an unassuming path which leads straight to a small car park and, at last, the folly, situated at the peak of the hill. So accustomed to skyscrapers in the City of London, it’s difficult to be awed by the folly, presumably impressive by 18th century standards, but it’s refreshing to find something so quaint and old-fashioned in a city as modern as London.

I started with a wander through the surrounding area, the majority of which is taken up with Oxleas Wood, one of the few remaining areas of ancient forest in southeast London. I love imagining this whole area as it once was—entirely covered in woodland, Queen Elizabeth I roaming on horseback (she supposedly planted a tree in Honor Oak Park, giving the place its name). Parts of Oxleas are at least 8,000 years old, an unimaginable age. Now, the woods are home to a flock of green parakeets, which camouflage well in the early spring with the just-returning leaves of the trees. It’s a strange bird call that alerts you to their presence, and then once you’re accustomed to their presence it’s all you can hear and see—turn a corner in the wood and suddenly another flies into view above your head.

green parakeet in woodland
looking up at a parakeet shadowed in tree blue sky

Oxleas Wood hosts a number of pretty walks, which does make a trip to Severndroog worth it—and how often can you say you’ve walked in an 8,000 year old wood? After wandering for an hour or so I headed back up the hill towards the castle and paid the entrance fee (£3) to climb the three floors to the top of the tower. I didn’t remember quite how good the view was from the top, and was pleasantly surprised to see all the glass towers of central London gleaming in the sun, 11km away. The Shard sticks out like sore thumb, but from here you also get a good view of the O2 and the Emirates cable cars in North Greenwich, and the rest of the southeast, its many hills peeking out above the blocks of flats and rows of houses.

looking out to central london skyscrapers from severndroog castle on sunny day
An impressive view towards central London from the top of Severndroog Castle
misty day view of southeast london from severndroog castle over trees
You can also see much of southeast London from Severndroog

Unfortunately, you also get a nice view of the pollution haze that rings London almost constantly. I don’t always notice it—only if you’re walking along a very busy main road during rush hour is it very obvious that you’re enveloped in a cloud of smoke—but it is unsettling to see London like this. I wondered if Severndroog was also part of this cloudy ring of dust; it seemed so far away from the city to be safely hidden from that part of London life, but I couldn’t kid myself—I hadn’t travelled miles into the countryside, I was still in London.

But that’s Severndroog’s magic. When I first visited, it really felt like I was escaping the hum-drum of southeast London, the sirens constantly piercing the air, the cars, the sounds of trains from the tracks behind my flat. At Severndroog, and especially in Oxleas Wood, you’re removed from all that, and it almost feels like you’re in the middle of the English countryside, albeit with the sounds of foreign parakeets ringing around you. Ascend Severndroog’s tower, though, and it’s clear you’re still in the midst of one of the world’s busiest cities—sad, but also exciting.

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