A surviving fragment of the much larger Great North Wood that once stretched from just south of Deptford to just north of Croydon, the name of London’s One Tree Hill park seems misleading at first, for there are hundreds of trees. However, they are all apparently inferior to one special tree in particular, found right at the summit.
That tree is the Oak of Honor, which gave its name to the surrounding area, Honor Oak. The tree once marked the southern boundary of the Norman Honour of Gloucester. It then passed into the possession of the Abbots of Bermondsey, before Henry VIII took it away from them during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The current tree, planted in 1905, is actually the third to bear the name. The fate of the original oak is unknown, and the second was struck by lightning in the 1880s, leaving just a stump.
Many legends surround the Oak of Honor and One Tree Hill. Legend has it that the tree really earned its name from the occasion when, on May 1, 1602, Queen Elizabeth I took a picnic under the oak while on her way to nearby Lewisham. Others tell how the hill was the site of the last, fateful battle between Queen Boudicca and the Romans in 61 CE. Rumor even suggests that highwayman Dick Turpin used to watch for potential targets or pursuers from the summit.
As far as recorded history, it is known that at the beginning of the 19th century, the high vantage point of the hill was used as a semaphore station, first by the East India Company for signaling the arrival of their ships, and then by the Admiralty during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1896 there were plans to build a golf course over the hill, which resulted in fences being erected to block paths used by locals. This lead to a series of “agitations,” which eventually caused Camberwell Council to compulsorily purchase the site in 1905 to keep it open to all.
The view from the top of the hill was described by John Betjeman as “better than that from Parliament Hill.” Indeed, on a clear day, many landmarks of central London are all easily visible.