Haringey's largest expanse of ancient woodland is Highgate Wood. Officially it belongs to the City of London, who bestow upon it the love and care that only a mercantile throwback with bottomless coffers can afford, with correspondingly magnificent results. Originally part of the Forest of Middlesex, Highgate Wood covers a hilltop to the north of Highgate station, and is bounded to the west by the curve of a disused railway. Its trees are mostly hornbeam or oak, the former often multi-stemmed (following years of coppicing), the latter left to grow tall (hence ideal for building Tudor battleships). Foresters still coppice small areas of the wood on a five year timetable, and seal off others to encourage flora and fauna to regenerate... although apparently it's fine to barge through the fences if you're an entitled mother in an orange headscarf following a flat-capped toddler you're too busy to talk to because you have a mobile phone pressed to your ear.
Access to Highgate Wood is through one of seven ornate iron gates decorated with foxes, hedgehogs and rabbits. Most summer visitors make for the sports field by the central cafe, and plonk down to watch the cricket or watch the kids run around. But step away from the picnic fringe and some of the peripheral pathways are a peaceful joy, weaving through shady glades and through the remains of ancient earthworks. To dig deeper into Highgate Wood's ancient and natural history I tried following Michael Hammerson's excellent self-guided walk, but it was originally printed as a 16 page booklet and the pdf proved unmanageable. Instead the information centre by the cafe came up trumps with maps and histories to take away, plus news of newly-fledged tawny owls, plus a display explaining North London's ice age geomorphology. Highgate Wood is beautiful intelligently-managed woodland, ideal for recreational exploration, and well worth a visit at any season of the year. I still didn't find any wild service trees, though.
Queen's Wood(51 acres)
On the opposite side of Muswell Hill Road, making for a really easy double visit, lies Queen's Wood. The monarch in question is Queen Victoria, although the forest is much older and was previously Churchyard Bottom Wood. Less intensively managed than Highgate Wood, and considerably less flat, it has a very different feel. Three tiny streams follow thin channels down the hillside, or at least they do after wetter weather, and meet in a broad valley bottom at the 'Dog Pond'... where canine visitors are encouraged to play. Another low level clearing has recently been repurposed from children's paddling zone to 'Frog Pond', although I saw no evidence of anything hopping through the algae cover. Meanwhile at the top of the hill is a chalet-style lodge containing a community cafe serving up food part-sourced from the organic garden at the rear, all highly Mumsnet-friendly.
It feels quite easy to get lost, or to end up panting up some unexpectedly steep path, and always a trifle surreal to stumble upon the road running across the southern ridge. Are those who park here out rambling in the woodland, or simply taking advantage of the lack of yellow lines so close to Highgate tube station? Ground cover and birdlife across Queen's Wood are particularly rich for London, including rare lady fern if you know where to look, plus carpets of wood anemones in the spring. Woodpeckers, spiders and jewel beetles are also abundant, the latter usually quite rare and to be found hiding out in decaying oak stumps. Most of the other trees are hornbeam, forming a mixed understorey beneath the taller oaks, with hazel, rowan and holly mixed in. I still didn't manage to spot any wild service trees, alas.
Coldfall Wood(35 acres)
A little further north, midway between Muswell Hill and East Finchley, is all that's left of Coldfall Wood. Until the early 20th century it was twice the size, until the southern half was felled and used for gravel extraction, then built over by residential avenues and two schools. Hornsey Council rescued the rest, which remains intact as an intriguing patch of prehistoric woodland. The western boundary is marked by an ancient ditch and wiggling woodbank, still visible, and a rather less attractive metal fence sealing off St Pancras & Islington Cemetery beyond. It was in Coldfall Wood in 1835 that local geologist Nathaniel Wetherell found unexpected rocks and fossils previously seen only in the north, and first came to the conclusion that glaciation must have affected southern England. Indeed Coldfall marks the farthest south the Anglian ice sheet advanced 450,000 years ago, with Highgate fractionally untouched beyond the snout.
Again Coldfall's dominant trees are oak and hornbeam, here forming a dense canopy which blocks out light in summer from most of the centre of the wood, resulting in an unusually plant-free ground layer. This means it's easy to ramble anywhere, rather than being restricted to paths, an opportunity especially popular with dogwalkers and their scampering charges. There's also a squidgy stream to follow, optimistically labelled the Everglades, crossed by mini-footbridges and a zigzag of wooden decking. I'd never visited before and was struck by how much I liked the place. What's more Coldfall has the best website of Haringey's four ancient woodlands, including an interactive map you can follow on the way round to spot glowworm habitats and, ooh, a wild service tree. I think I found it by the water tank at the entrance, with its characteristic chequered bark and propagating suckers, and will continue to believe this until proved otherwise.
Bluebell Wood(3 acres)
Bluebell Wood is by far the smallest of today's quartet, a thin remnant of the much larger Tottenham Wood. It's also really badly named given there are no bluebells here, so I'm told, not that it's easy to tell in July. But it is genuinely ancient, as you'll discover if you manage to find the entrance up the end of a cul-de-sac in Bounds Green. Most of the surrounding area has been swallowed by a golf course, several back gardens and some allotments, but this arboreal segment remains, and is just long enough to exercise a small dog on a walk to the bottom and back. Confirmation of age comes from a ditch and earthen bank along the northern edge, probably once dug to keep out livestock and other grazing animals.
Today a Haringey information board and a red dogmess bin stand guard at the entrance, and a laminated sign requests volunteers for holly clearance in a couple of Sundays time. Take your pick from a broad downhill track or narrower brambly paths to either side, and watch out for the sweet smell of cannabis smoke drifting in from the end of Winton Avenue. I wasn't here for more than ten minutes, and that was a push, but I did spot a squirrel, two pigeons, a trunkful of fungus... and perhaps a wild service tree. This minor sapling at the foot of the wood wasn't labelled but I think I recognised the shape of the leaves, or else it was just a hawthorn bursting forth instead. Whatever, it's amazing that built-up London still has patches of woodland lingering from prehistoric times, if you know where to look, and what to protect.