Tucked away in leafy Honor Oak Park, One Tree Hill is one of London’s hidden gems. Come here for some of the best views of the city and some rather curious tales about that tree.
I have a confession to make.
Until recently, I’d been labouring under the misunderstanding that any reference to One Tree Hill was to that shoddy TV programme you couldn’t escape from a few years ago…it was only when I was researching my piece on the best views in London that I came across this, far more interesting One Tree Hill.
Intrigued, I started to read more, and finally went to visit a couple of days ago.
It’s a beautiful spot – the panorama of London’s contemporary skyline framed by leafy trees really does make it one of the best views of the city.
Did I also mention there are a number of other historical sites within the park, each with their story to tell?
Planning a visit or just curious about One Tree Hill? Here’s what you need to know.
Editor’s Note: London, like much of the rest of the world is currently subject to changing lockdown measures. I am still publishing guides to help you discover the best of my hometown but please follow current advice and guidelines. Stay safe and stay alert.
Read my guide to London in lockdown
Highlights of Your Visit to One Tree Hill
Is this the best viewing point in London? It’s a close contender, that’s for sure.
Not that many people know about One Tree Hill.
That, combined with the current lockdown, meant that there were only a smattering of people when we visited a couple of days ago – most of them more concerned with walking their dog or recovering from the arduous run to the top of the hill than soaking in the view.
And what a view…
I’m sorry to diss spots like Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill in the North but this is way better, it just is.
Framed by the canopy of the trees below and to the sides, it feels like a real-life trompe l’oeil – as if someone’s painted the scenery, thinking as much about the presentation and the composition, then hung it up for all of us to appreciate.
You can see pretty much all of the highlights of the London skyline – The Shard, of course, and the cluster of The Walkie Talkie, Cheese Grater and Heron Tower etc etc in The City.
St Paul’s, for centuries the tallest building in London is there, and you can peep The London Eye, BT Tower and a lot more besides.
Move position and Canary Wharf reveals itself, providing yet more eye candy for your viewing delectation.
The Oak of Honour
Despite the name, One Tree Hill is filled with many trees (it’s a wood after all)… but there’s only one that counts. The Oak of Honour.
The Oak of Honour marks the boundary of the ancient Honor of Gloucester in the Norman times. This Oak, important because of its positioning at the top of the summit, was deemed so consequential that it gave the area, Honor Oak Park, its name.
Elizabeth I was said to have rested and picnicked under the oak in 1602 – the tree you see today is the third successive one from that oak and was planted in 1905.
The Bandstand & Beacon
At the summit of the hill, you’ll find an octagonal viewing platform. Handy as it is for making the most of the view, it was built in WWI to mount a gun for countering Zeppelin attacks.
That gun was replaced by a Seat of Peace after the war – now also gone – after which it became known as The Bandstand.
Today, it’s just the concrete base left, well situated for you to clamber up onto and take in the views.
There’s also a tall beacon next to The Bandstand. Used to celebrate George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, it was last lit during the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
A Brief History of One Tree Hill
Much of One Tree Hill’s history is unknown (or rather, unproven) but we do know that it once formed a part of the Great North Wood, which stretched from Deptford to South Norwood. What we call One Tree Hill today was owned by the Abbots of Bermondsey until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and it became the property of the Crown.
Other parts of the park’s history are less clear.
There’s the tale of how the Roman troops watched Boudicca’s army from the summit, their early warning enabling them to defeat the attack.
Another one riddles that highwaymen used the hill as a lookout for potential victims, among them Dick Turpin.
Then there’s the Elizabeth I story I referred to in the Oak of Honour section. The story comes up in several sources, although most were written over a century after the supposed event.
The original tree was replaced by another, which was struck by lightning. It’s now the third tree you’ll find, surrounded by a hexagonal railing and with a small plaque retelling the Elizabeth story, today.
Later, by the 18th Century, One Tree Hill was used as a beacon point in the Napoleonic Wars. During the same century, the East India Company built a semaphore station atop the hill in order to signal the arrival of their ships in the Channel.
People had been used to accessing the hill, using it as a shortcut at their leisure. There was considerable discontent when the hill was enclosed by a fence at the behest of the Honor Oak and Forest Hill Golf Club rented the land in 1896.
The disgruntlement fulminated in mass protests in 1897 and the creation of the Enclosure of Honor HIll Protest Committee who negotiated with the local councils until Camberwell Borough Council purchased the land for public use and reopened the park in 1905.
That was largely it for a century. The 20th century was largely uneventful for One Tree Hill, with the exception that the site was used as a gun base for shooting down zeppelins in WWI. In the year 2000 a Millennium Grant enabled the tree canopy to be lowered so visitors could see the views once more.
Practical Information for Visiting One Tree Hill
69 Honor Oak Rise, London SE23 3RA
The nearest station is Honor Oak Park, you can also access it by local bus.
Looking for more of London’s secret spots? Check these out…