|Biggin Wood, Norwood, one of the last surviving remnants of the Great North Wood.
This section of the Capital Ring begins by crossing the lofty heights of Norwood, once thickly cloaked in the greenery of the Great North Wood, patches of which endure. Reaching the splendid prospect of the Norwood Grove mansion, it threads through the fragmented remains of three Surrey commons: Streatham, Tooting Bec and Wandsworth. Crossing the river Wandle near Earlsfield, it ends on the edge of Wimbledon. The trail includes one of London’s loveliest public gardens, one of Inner London’s last remaining fields, a Victorian cemetery and prison, a mosque-like water pumping station and a genuine mosque.
I’ve again combined two shorter official sections of the Ring to create a day walk, with short links to a choice of two stations from the break point near Streatham Common. The first, hillier section has no other station links though numerous bus stops. The second, which is flatter, passes three additional stations, and bus stops too. There’s quite a bit of walking along streets overall, but none of these stretches is individually too long and the green spaces are frequent and attractive.
The Great North Wood
As already mentioned several times in London underfoot, without human intervention, most of the land the city occupies would be woodland (see London Countryway 18). Clearances began in the pre-Roman period, making way for agriculture and settlements. Nevertheless, some large woods survived into more recent times, including the Great North Wood. Covering the high ground that rose above the low-lying marshes south of the river Thames, it was the southern equivalent of the Forest of Middlesex on the north bank. The name sometimes puzzles modern readers because the wood was south of London and the Thames, but the point of reference was the Great South Wood covering the Weald of Kent and Surrey.
The former boundaries of the wood are uncertain and shifted over time. In the 13th century it likely stretched in a thick swathe of largely oak woodland from just south of Watling Street at New Cross and Deptford southwest to the edge of Croydon, encompassing Peckham Rye and Dulwich in the west and Forest Hill and Penge in the east – as mentioned in the previous section, Penge derives its name from a Celtic term meaning ‘edge of the wood’. The old Roman road from London to Portslade, today’s A23, marked the woodland edge in the Streatham area, and the valleys of the Ravensbourne and its tributaries performed the same function in the east. The spine of it all was a hilly ridge of London clay topped with a younger clay and sand layer known as the Claygate Member, which stretches north-south for 5 km between Forest Hill and Selhurst
Several ancient parish and manorial boundaries ran through the wood. Until the late 17th century, a prominent oak tree at the junction of what’s now Crystal Palace Parade, Anerley Hill, Church Road and Westow Hill marked the point where four woodland parishes met: Battersea (in the guise of its ‘detached part’ of Penge), Camberwell, Croydon and Lambeth. The tree was known as the Vicars’ Oak, as clergymen from the different parishes often bumped into each other there when beating their bounds. The boundary with Sydenham ran a little to the north. These boundaries largely persist in the modern divisions between the London Boroughs of, respectively, Bromley, Southwark, Croydon, Lambeth and Lewisham: the first four still meet at the site of the Vicars’ Oak. Historically both Croydon and Lambeth were attached to the Diocese of Canterbury, and the archbishops kept palaces in both parishes, linked by the Portslade road.
For much of its history, the wood was a wild and lonely place. The rugged terrain deterred agriculture and habitation and escaped being claimed as a royal hunting reserve like some other London woodlands. Some was allocated as common land attached to the surrounding settlements, but some was put to commercial use. The establishment of naval dockyards in Deptford and Woolwich (see Capital Ring 1) early in the 16th century increased local demand for oak timber, while tree bark was used by the Bermondsey leather tanners. The Croydon side of the woodland was best known for producing charcoal, an important fuel up until the 18th century. Charcoal burners were known as ‘colliers’, thus place names such as Colliers Wood.
These activities and the gradual improvement of road access reduced the tree cover and by the 16th century the wood was already patchy, though still with a substantial area of continuous woodland between Honor Oak and South Norwood. The wood became a refuge from London epidemics such as the Great Plague of 1665, and provided a hiding place for smugglers, robbers and escaped prisoners: the diarist John Evelyn recounted being mugged here in 1652.
Travellers regularly camped around what’s now Gipsy Hill: Samuel Pepys records his wife, her friend and a maid visited them in August 1668 to have their fortunes read. The area preserved its wild and dangerous reputation into the early 19th century, when a local householder still felt it necessary to fire a pistol from his house on a regular basis, so potential miscreants were forewarned he was armed. One intriguing local resident in 1802 was a hermit known as Matthews the Hairyman, who lived in a cave, or possibly a pit, in the woods.
By then, though, the Great North Wood was well on its way to being tamed. Edward Thurlow, a well-off lawyer and Tory politician twice appointed Lord Chancellor, built up a large estate on the Lambeth side which was sold off largely for housing development after he died in 1806. Most of the commons and woods on the Croydon side were inclosed by Act of Parliament in 1797 and used for building, initially as grand houses for wealthy residents who didn’t need to go into London every day. The spa on Beulah Hill, of which more later, and the Crystal Palace spurred further development.
Today around 20 fragments of the wood remain, largely as small parks and nature reserves. In 2017, the London Wildlife Trust launched the four-year Great North Wood Project to improve 13 of these sites and increase awareness of them and of the woodland heritage in general. The aspiration stops short of attempting to increase the wooded areas, though that could still follow. Whether future hairymen will make their homes in the wood remains to be seen.
|Beautiful views from Belvedere Road, Norwood.
The place name ‘Norwood’ derives from the Great North Wood, though its scope is loosely defined. It’s mainly applied to the previously wooded areas of north Croydon and south Lambeth, though parts of the other three boroughs are also sometimes called Norwood. The neighbourhood is usually subdivided: the Capital Ring passes largely through Upper Norwood and Norwood Grove, while elsewhere are West Norwood, Norwood New Town and South Norwood. This section begins in what was historically Penge: it’s now part of Bromley borough and usually referred to as in Anerley (see the last section) but no-one would blame you for counting it as part of Norwood. In fact, the site of Crystal Palace Park itself was once right in the heart of the wood.
Emerging from Crystal Palace station onto Anerley Hill, you’re a little southeast of the site of the Vicars’ Oak mentioned above, and not far from the Crystal Palace Museum mentioned previously. The streets opposite were laid out in the second half of the 19th century to take advantage of the proximity of the Palace, thus names like Palace Road and Palace Square, though you may notice numerous more recent buildings. In July 1944, two German V1 flying bombs fell here within the space of 24 hours, the first on Palace Square, the second on Anerley Hill near the station, destroying several Victorian houses and claiming around 25 lives. Some of the houses weren’t rebuilt but instead became what’s now a pleasant little hillside park, Palace Square Open Space, opened as a recreation ground in 1951. The Ring winds through this, the steep change of level marking the transition between the plots of houses that faced onto the square and those that faced onto Belvedere Road above.
Several big Victorian villas still stand on Belvedere Road, including the ones that give the street its name, topped with lofty belvederes or lookouts. You can see them stepping down the hill against the backdrop of the North Downs if you detour a little left from the park, with a Victorian postbox opposite contributing to the ambience that merits this part of Anerley’s Conservation Area status. Even at ground level you get a sense of elevation in these streets, with distant views surprising you around corners. The area may even seem more spacious than in its woodland days, when foliage would have blocked such sightlines.
The Ring follows the street in the opposite direction west (right) before turning down Tudor Road: a slight detour a little further ahead along Belvedere Road towards the T-junction reveals two terraces of cottages built in the 1850s as almshouses for London dockers, though never used as such. But instead the Ring continues to Fox Hill, with an appropriately named house on the corner: Penybryn, or ‘hilltop’ in Welsh. The division between Bromley and Croydon boroughs still follows its old course along the lane that runs diagonally from here, Lansdowne Place, before turning southeast along Fox Hill, so as the Ring turns left at the corner it finally leaves Penge in Bromley and enters both the old parish and modern London borough of Croydon.
|Camille Pissarro's view of Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, 1870.
National Gallery, Creative Commons
The French Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), who lived in Norwood over the winter and spring of 1870-71 after fleeing the Prussian attack on Paris, depicted a snowbound scene here in his painting Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, now in the National Gallery. Pissarro described Norwood as a “charming suburb”, and spent much time here painting from life, studying “the effects of fog, snow and springtime” on numerous local landscapes including the Crystal Palace. From the angle of the hill and the bend in the road in the painting, the artist likely set up his easel a little further downhill to the left, in the opposite direction from the Ring, but the scene is rather different today.
At the top of Fox Hill is Church Road, a busy modern road on the course of an ancient track running right along the crest of the ridge. It was once one of the few direct routes through the woods, linking Dulwich and Croydon, variously known as Dulwich Road and Vicars Oak Road, since it too leads to the parish meeting point, northeast of our trail. It got its current name when All Saints Church, at its southern end, was built to serve the growing population in 1829. Much of the length of the road, and adjacent streets and green spaces, are also a designated conservation area and there are several buildings of interest, including the grand Queens Hotel to the left, but the Ring doesn’t linger here, instead crossing the road into Westow Park.
|Westow Park: a sensory experience.
The low wall with fence separating park and road, with its distinctive entrance arch, now disused, provides a clue that a house once stood here. This was Walmer House, a large villa which, with its neighbour Windermere House and several other adjacent properties, was converted in the 1870s into the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind. This was the brainchild of an English philanthropist, Thomas Rhodes Armitage, and a US-based anti-slavery campaigner, Francis Joseph Campbell, who was himself blind. The curriculum was considered progressive and innovative for the time: both men were keen to increase the independence of blind people, and train them for careers in music, as music teachers, organists and piano tuners. Queen Victoria was their first patron.
The college was evacuated at the beginning of World War II and the buildings used as a hospital. They were demolished in the 1950s following extensive bomb damage during the Blitz, so the college never returned to London and is now based in Hereford. In 1970, Croydon council incorporated the site into the present park. Among the college’s innovative methods was an emphasis on physical activity and sport, and the grounds were carefully landscaped so that students could enjoy outdoor activities unaided. Features like the garden terraces with their accessible walkways are still visible today. A pond that was used for swimming and skating has been filled in, although the park still tends to dampness: the springs that periodically break the surface here drain into the river Effra, of which more later.
At the first junction in the park, a right turn will take you up steps beside Sainsbury’s supermarket to the Norwood Heights Shopping Centre at the southernmost angle of the ‘Crystal Palace Triangle’ shopping area formed by Church Road, Westow Hill and Westow Street. The street scene here is dominated by the spire of the Greek Orthodox Church of Saints Constantine and Helen, which has changed denominations: it was built in 1878 as an Anglican church dedicated to St Andrew and is now Grade II listed. This, the Portland stone war memorial, and the 1985 shopping centre, which won an award for its architecture, are worth a closer look if you detour for toilets and shops, but the church can also be seen from the trail. The Ring now leads across the lower, flatter section of the park, which is also its oldest part, created as a recreation ground in the 1890s. The final stretch beyond the play area is another 1970s addition, reclaimed from a post-World War II estate of prefabricated housing.
Just around the corner, Upper Norwood Recreation Ground was created by the council in 1890 on land bought from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners following extensive public pressure for such a facility in what was becoming a densely-populated area. Its formal opening in May of that year began with a 1,400-strong procession “the like of which had never been seen in Upper Norwood before”. The Royal Normal College choir sang ‘All Creatures Now are Merry’ and the ceremony climaxed in a firework display provided by Brocks of Nunhead. The ground was noted for its views of the Crystal Palace water towers and for its bandstand, which stood not far to the left as you walk along Chevening Road beside the ground. This and several other Victorian features have been lost and large parts of the park are featureless sports fields.
The southeastern end of the recreation ground, along Harold Road, contains further headsprings of the river Effra, and somewhere along the path where you first enter, you cross its now-buried course. The stream heads north under Chevening Road and Orleans Road then northwest through the grounds of the Virgo Fidelis convent and West Norwood cemetery. Originally it ran on through the marshes of Lambeth and Southwark to feed Earls Sluice, another ‘lost’ river that joins the Thames on the boundary of Deptford and Rotherhithe. It was diverted in the 13th century to run via Herne Hill, Brixton and Kennington Oval to a confluence at Vauxhall under what’s now the St George Wharf development. The river was progressively covered in the 19th century, in part to prevent local flooding, and incorporated into Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system in the 1860s, but sections were still visible on the surface into the early 20th century.
|One of the much derided 'Stones of Croydon', Upper Norwood Recreation Ground
The 1891 drinking fountain still stands beside the trail, though in a deteriorated condition. Just on the right as you return to the park from Chevening Road, opposite the school, is a more recent curiosity: one of the ‘Stones of Croydon’, part of a much-derided 2015 project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Croydon becoming a London borough. The boulder is one of 20 originally installed in New Addington in 2012 as part of an experimental scheme to deter pavement parking. Following an exceptionally hostile local response, they were removed in 2014 and put to renewed use as commemorative markers, distributed to 20 sites in the 20 council wards as they existed in 1965. I suspect that as time goes on they’ll be regarded with rather more affection as a quirky local feature.
The trail reaches Beulah Hill, the site of Beulah Spa, one of the early attractions that spurred local development. The spa is slightly off the route, left along the hill rather than right, where the Harvester pub-restaurant stands on the site of the once-grand Beulah Spa Hotel; Tivoli House, nearby, is the only remaining spa building. This was a chalybeate spring, with water rich in iron salts, attracting more and more visitors from the late 18th century as ‘taking the waters’ became fashionable. In 1830 it was expanded by Decimus Burton into a leisure complex with pleasure gardens and numerous entertainments, including appearances by the circus run by black equestrian performer Pablo Fanque, immortalised in John Lennon’s song ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’. The opening of the reconstructed Crystal Palace and its surrounding park nearby overshadowed the spa, which closed in 1859.
There are views left and right along Convent Hill towards the City of London and the appropriately named Downsview Road before the trail reaches the corner of Biggin Hill, just short of Beulah Hill Pond, another spring-fed water feature once used for refreshing horses and livestock. A plaque at no 75 commemorates Joan and Alan Warwick, who helped found the Norwood Society – I’ve drawn heavily on some of the articles on the society’s website in writing up this account. The trail then descends steeply on Biggin Hill, with impressive views opening ahead.
The author Charles Dickens (1812-70) had numerous connections with Norwood and it’s mentioned several times in his novels. Publisher William Hall, one of the early supporters of Dickens’ writing, lived here, as did an uncle, the journalist John Henry Barrow. The names of the side streets off Biggin Hill are not just idle Dickensian tributes. Dickens Wood Close on the left is on the site of Springfield, home in the 1840s and 1850s of a Mr Townsend who regularly invited the author as a guest: it may have been the inspiration for the house of Mr Spenlow, the title character’s boss in David Copperfield. Havisham Place, on the right, is the site of Woodbury, occupied in the 1870s by William Emerson-Tennent, son of Dickens’ friend James Emerson-Tennent. White Lodge further along was another big house, though apparently with no Dickensian connections.
The Ring’s traverse of Upper Norwood ends with Biggin Wood, a genuine remnant of the Great North Wood some 5.5 ha in extent. This somehow survived the various clearances and enclosures of the late 18th century to become a patch of woodland attached to a farm. By the 1830s it was included in the grounds of Biggin Wood House on Beulah Hill, home of chocolate and cocoa entrepreneur James Epps, who refused to stay there in May as the nightingales in the wood kept him awake. By 1928 the house was derelict and local campaigners were pressing for the wood to be taken into public ownership. The house burnt down in 1934 and five years later the council bought the site from Epps’ granddaughter, installing tennis courts on part of it but keeping the rest as a nature reserve.
Today the woodland is a pleasant surprise, an oasis tucked behind an unassuming terrace of houses, as if the layers of development have suddenly been peeled back to reveal a much older landscape peeping through. It’s also biologically valuable, with bluebells growing in season between the oaks and hornbeams, and 40 species of birds recorded, including woodpeckers. Quite rightly, it’s one of the priority sites for the Great North Wood Project. The trail joins Covington Way, an old woodland track that now runs as a street both east and west of the wood but pleasingly remains as a path within it. Biggin Wood is also where the Ring crosses the postcode boundary between South East (SE) and South West (SW) London.
|Norwood Grove mansion: as graceful as a P&O steamer?
Even with houses all around, there’s a still a sense of openness and airiness as Covington Way continues across a series of crossroads with steep slopes and views on both sides. This is surely one of the most attractive of the Ring’s forays through residential streets, particularly on a fine day with a light breeze. One of the crossings is Norbury Hill, leading down on the left towards Norbury, once the northernmost sub-manor, or ‘north borough’, of Croydon. Just past Gibson’s Hill, you dodge into the green space of Norwood Grove to begin one of the most attractive stretches of the whole trail.
The land here, rising to the prominence of Copgate Hill on your right, was common land which, although in Croydon, was attached to Streatham Common. In 1635 some of it was carved out as a private shooting estate, perhaps as a royal gift. By the 1760s it was a more conventional country estate with an identity crisis, variously known as Norbury Grove, Streatham Grove and Norwood Grove. A house stood on top of the hill since at least 1718, and in the early 19th century this was either rebuilt into or replaced by the current handsome mansion. It had a variety of owners, some of whom rented it to various well-heeled tenants, including William Henry Scott-Cavendish-Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland, a Tory politician, who held the lease from 1839.
More indicative of the way wealth was shifting in 19th century London, however, are the backgrounds of the two best-known former residents, both associated with businesses that still exist today. Arthur Anderson (1792-1868), who took over the lease in 1847, was born into a poor fishing family in Lerwick on the Shetland Islands and was pressed into the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. He rose from City shipping clerk to founder and chairman of the Pacific & Orient (P&O) shipping line, one of the first to specialise in steam rather than sail, providing vital international links to Britain’s growing empire. He was later MP for Shetland and a keen philanthropist who endowed several charities supporting working people. In 1878 the property was bought outright by Frederick Nettlefold (1833-1913), another philanthropist, who transformed his father’s brass fixings company into the biggest screw makers in the world, Guest Keen & Nettlefold (GKN).
Norwood Grove was put up for sale in 1924 and would undoubtedly have been covered in housing without the efforts of a local conservation activist and prominent National Trust member, who lived nearby. Stenton Covington had already led the campaign which saved the Rookery (of which more later) for public enjoyment, and now revived his campaign network, involving various worthies including the Archbishop of Canterbury and raising almost £20,000 towards the purchase of most of the site by Croydon council. Although a farm that lay to the west was sold off for housing, the rest was opened in 1927 as a park by Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII. The royal spade used to plant a commemorative tree is still kept in Croydon library. Covington, meanwhile, is commemorated in the name of Covington Way.
The trail climbs the hillside and meanders past cypresses, soon with a view across the lawns towards the mansion on the right: in between is a pretty fountain decorated by four figures representing the seasons. Further on are terrace gardens, a bird bath that is another memorial to Covington, a rose arbour and a walled kitchen garden which once contained extensive greenhouses. The trail then rounds three sides of the house, passing the blue plaque to the Nettlefolds, the front terrace and orangery with their southeast-facing views, and some fenced gardens.
The timeline of the ‘White House’, as it’s known locally, is unclear: it may have been partly rebuilt from a smaller mid-18th century house, but a drawing from 1804 shows it in something like its current form. By 1868 it had been expanded significantly, then shrunk again when part was demolished following bomb damage in World War II.
Arthur Anderson was largely responsible for the outlines of the landscaping and gardens visible today: it’s tempting to imagine that this graceful building in clean white stucco with its distinctive bowed wall on one side reminded him of a serene ocean liner. The house, now Grade II listed, was used as offices by Croydon Council for many years but in the late 1990s the upper floors were converted to luxury flats and sold off. Much of the ground floor is now a pre-school.
The trail follows the main drive, known as the Copgate Path, past a lodge, also Grade II listed and privately occupied following the 1990s sell-off. Just past the gateposts, you cross an ancient ditch carrying the old parish boundary between Croydon and Streatham. The Ring leaves Croydon here, entering the London Borough of Lambeth and the extensive open space of Streatham Common. From 1889 to 1965, this was also the boundary of London, as the London County Council’s jurisdiction began on the Lambeth side. Croydon wasn’t yet in London, though it was by now a largely autonomous ‘county borough’ within Surrey.
|On the Copgate Path, looking from Norwood Grove, in Croydon, across the Lambeth boundary to Streatham Common.
The Copgate Path is one of the most surprisingly delightful stretches of pedestrian infrastructure in London. Here we are in Transport for London’s Zone 3, in Lambeth, an inner London borough which stretches all the way to the Southbank Centre, but once again it feels as though a patch of 21st century overlay has been peeled back and we might briefly imagine ourselves on a country lane through rural Surrey. To the right is the main area of woodland on the common, likely secondary woodland that grew up after grazing ceased in the 19th century. To the left, meadows divided by old hedgerows slope down the hill, according to some sources the closest fields to central London.
Streatham was an ancient parish in the Brixton hundred of Surrey. By the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, it was subdivided into several manors, most of which later merged. One that stayed separate was South Streatham, which in 1362 was given by Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, to Christ Church Monastery in Canterbury as a detached part of the manor of Vauxhall in Lambeth. The manor, which included extensive common lands on the edge of the Great North Wood known at one point as Limes Common, passed to Canterbury Cathedral after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and then to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The common provided an essential amenity over a wide and sparsely populated area, with people living as far away as Penge exercising commoners’ rights, as mentioned in the last section.
Perhaps because of a combination of institutional ownership and keen local use, the common was largely unaffected by the inclosures that changed the face of the rest of the Great North Wood in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By the 1820s, it was mainly used as hay meadows, with some open grazing. But as development pressures on its surroundings grew, traditional rural activities declined. In 1866 a local commoners’ committee took on the management, and in 1884 the church was persuaded to sell most of the open land – about 27 ha – to the Metropolitan Board of Works for the nominal sum of £5, for preservation as a public space. The MBW was soon succeeded by the London County Council and the common eventually passed through the Greater London Council to the current owners, the London Borough of Lambeth, in 1971.
The common is one of the largest open spaces in Lambeth and includes the borough’s largest area of woodland. It’s of major significance both for recreation and wildlife: the last red squirrel in Lambeth was spotted here in 1946, and in 2013 around 14 ha was designated as Local Nature Reserve. Once much of the common would have been heath, and gorse still grows in patches within the trees. Among the specialities of the rougher grassland is the delightfully named early hair grass (Aira praecox), while soft shield-fern (Polystichum setiferum), a rarity in London, grows along the ditch.
Further along the trail is a fenced area on the left around an old barn known as the Rookery Barn. Since 2017 this has been occupied by the Inkspot Brewery, one of the hundred-plus small businesses that have helped restore some of London’s historic brewing tradition over the past decade. Brewing requires a lot of water, and in the past London brewers had to have their own supplies, usually from artesian wells, as they were banned from using public water conduits. Today most brewers use mains water but Inkspot plans on being an exception, as it happens to be located right over a water source that helped put Streatham on the map.
The Streatham Wells were discovered in 1659, allegedly when the ground collapsed beneath a farmer’s cart. As in Norwood, this was a chalybeate spring, with water rich in minerals including magnesium sulphate, calcium carbonate and iron. By the beginning of the next century, the area around the well had been inclosed and houses and gardens built to service visitors keen to enjoy the water’s alleged health-promoting properties. A flyer from 1878 claims Streatham water was beneficial for “all obstinate Diseases of the Skin and Lymphatic Glands, especially in that afflicting disease called Scrofula…liver complaints, indigestion, especially in jaundice and bilious attacks…evacuating irritating matter from the intestines [and] a most valuable remedy for persons labouring under Nervous Debility.”
By then the original well had become contaminated and a new one dug on what’s now Well Close, off the common to the north. The original site became a private house known as the Rookery. It was the threat to redevelop this in 1911 that first spurred into action the formidable Stenton Covington, whom we’ve already encountered at Norwood Grove. Covington organised a public subscription to buy the site for £3,075, and it was then passed to the LCC. The house was demolished in 1912 but the grounds were remodelled and opened as public gardens the following year. The local tradition of community campaigning around public space is preserved by the Friends of Streatham Common, which plays an active role in improving the amenities today.
|The Rookery, Streatham Common, the original site of Streatham Wells.
Officially the Ring goes right past the Rookery fence without peeking in, but I highly recommend a detour. Like many council-owned amenities, this one has struggled with funding in recent years, and both the gardens and the wider common are now managed by a social enterprise, Streatham Common Cooperative (SCCoop), with volunteers taking on many of the previous duties of paid keepers. Nonetheless it remains one of the loveliest public gardens in London.
Built as a series of terraces on a slope, it includes a variety of plantings, numerous mature trees, a pergola and an old kitchen garden with geometric paths and the site of the former well. Then there’s the ‘white garden’ where only white flowers are permitted, a policy that has persisted since 1913 when it was unique among the LCC’s gardens. A rockery with a cascade had become rather neglected, but following a Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2018, this is to be restored. The site forms a natural amphitheatre and is sometimes used for music and other performance events: your author once sang here at a summer festival in the pouring rain to a scattering of brave listeners huddled under umbrellas.
A little further along is a decent park café, and nearby one of the surviving cattle troughs provided by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, originally set up in 1859 to provide clean free drinking water via public fountains in response to the discovery by John Snow that poor water supplies helped spread cholera. In 1867 it added animal welfare to its aims and began providing cattle and horse troughs too. It’s still around today as the Drinking Fountain Association. The gift of a Mr W Ward of Brixton Hill, this trough was first installed in 1880 on Streatham Hill and was moved here in 1895.
The trail now begins a slow descent along the perimeter of the green space. This western section has been managed since public ownership began largely as mowed grass and sports grounds, and the LNR designation officially ends at the next crosspaths. The line of trees along the edge was planted by the MBW in the 1880s. Back in the mid-19th century, a cattle pond would have been visible ahead in the southwest corner of the common. This was lost partly through the widening of the busy road that now lies ahead of you, itself a major feature in the story of Streatham and the explanation for the settlement’s name.
|Streatham Common Pumping Station
The road’s importance increased still further with the development of Brighton, a fishing village just east of Portslade, into a fashionable seaside resort within easy travelling distance from London, boosted hugely by the patronage of the Prince Regent, later George IV, in the 1780s. When the Brighton road was first designated a trunk route in the 1920s, it was numbered A22 from Westminster Bridge to Purley, and A23 on to Brighton, but in 1935 the numbers were swapped, with the A23 extended into central London and the A22 branching off at Purley.
The A23 has long been notorious as one of the most congested major roads out of the capital, running along a succession of narrow and busy high streets. Plans to widen or bypass it have foundered on the resistance of communities determined to preserve their local streets. 1960s transport planners envisaged motorways all the way from Battersea via Balham and Streatham to Brighton, but the M23 as it was built in the mid-1970s only got as far as Hooley, south of the Greater London boundary, before its northern extension to Streatham was first delayed then finally cancelled in the 1990s. Streatham High Road, as this section is now known, still carries traffic for Brighton and the busy intermediate destination of London Gatwick Airport. It also forms part of the iconic route of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, the longest-running event of its kind, inaugurated in 1896, and various corresponding charity events for cyclists.
Where the trail bends to parallel the road, staying within the common, you can see a large Sainsbury’s supermarket ahead on the opposite side. It’s on the site of a large silk mill built in 1820 in an early attempt to bring mass production to the industry. The business failed, and by 1840 the site had been taken over by a Mr P B Cow for an India rubber works, the birthplace of the adhesive Cow Gum. Much of the mill was later demolished but the main façade, complete with cupola and clock, is still visible within the supermarket complex.
Further on the same side is the prominent tower of Immanuel and St Andrew’s Church, built in 1865 as an extension to a new church that was then a decade old. In 1988, with congregations shrinking, this large church had become uneconomic and most of the building was demolished and replaced with a smaller one, retaining the tower which now looks oddly isolated.
Joining the pavement, you finally leave the area of the common at its northwest corner and cross Streatham Common North, with Streatham Memorial Gardens in front of you. This is a neat and tidy little space created by the local war memorials committee in 1922, though it’s since been modified as part was lost to road widening and compensated for when the housing estate behind it was built. There are two memorials: the original one with a bronze sculpture of a soldier by Albert T Toft, and a more recent simple obelisk commemorating “people of all races, faiths and nationalities living or who have lived in Streatham and have been affected by violent conflicts or wars”. They’re surrounded by a raised grass bank with benches.
This site has a longer history. From around 1309 a large manor house and its surroundings occupied not just this corner but a portion of the housing estate. This was the ‘head office’ of the main manor of Streatham, separate from the common in South Streatham. By the end of the 11th century, the manor was effectively merged with the neighbouring manor of Tooting Bec, held by the abbey of Le Bec-Hellouin in Normandy. It passed through numerous owners before falling into the hands of the Howland family in 1599.
The house, which was rebuilt in 1577 and 1787, was later known as Howland House. In the 1690s it passed through marriage to the Russell family, Dukes of Bedford, in an exchange of land that also included the patch of Rotherhithe used for digging London’s first large off-river dock, Howland Great Wet Dock, now Greenland Dock at Surrey Quays. Howland House was replaced in the early 19th century by another house, Coventry Hall, which was demolished in 1982 to make way for more social housing.
The Ring now crosses the A23, leaving the area of the Great North Wood. One of the official station links at the end of section 4 heads right (north) here along the main road to Streatham station, which stands just south of the junction with Tooting Bec Road. The latter was also a Roman road and it’s highly likely that a Roman military station stood here. Later the junction became the nucleus of the scattered Saxon settlement. A fragment of village green and St Leonard’s church are the main reminders of the mediaeval past: the church has Saxon foundations and a 14th century tower but is now largely Victorian.
The station was opened in 1868 by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR), on a new line from Peckham Rye towards Mitcham, Sutton and Epsom Downs, with a branch to Tooting and Wimbledon. The original entrance was off the High Road along Station Approach: access from the main road was first provided in 1898 but the current entrance is a 1991 rebuild. The building on Station Approach and the canopy on the southbound platform survive from the 1860s.
The station is the newest of three serving the area: the earliest was Streatham Hill to the north, opened in 1856, followed by Streatham Common, discussed later. A cable car tram line from Brixton reached along the High Road to central Streatham by 1895, electrified in 1905 and extended to Croydon in 1909, though this disappeared along with the rest of the first generation of London trams in 1951.
Thanks to its growing population and increasing accessibility, the High Road north and south of the road junction had by the end of the 19th century become one of London’s most vibrant shopping streets outside the West End. By the 1930s, it was lined with department stores, other prestigious shops, desirable apartment blocks, cinemas, big pubs and a fine Tate library. In 1951 the Express Dairies Premier Supermarket, the UK’s first supermarket, opened here, but from the 1970s the retail sector went into decline, battered by economic conditions and blighted by the unpleasant levels of through traffic on the A23. In 2002, the street was named ‘Worst Street in Britain’ in a BBC poll.
Investment and gentrification have brought considerable recovery, but the High Road is no longer a competitor to Oxford Street. Many of the lavish late Victorian and Edwardian buildings still stand, often obscured at street level by modern shop windows, but look up and you’ll soon see why the lengthy stretch from Streatham Hill to just south of the station is a designated Conservation Area.
Meanwhile, the main Ring route continues southwest along Lewin Road. The long streets round here were developed piecemeal from the 1860s and 1870s, rather than as large uniform estates, as is evident in the mix of building styles. The red brick Streatham Baptist Church on the right, known locally as the Lewin, was built in stages between 1877 and 1902, though the Baptist presence in the area dates from 1792, when a mobile wooden preaching hut was stationed in nearby Greyhound Lane at a time nonconformist churches were restricted in buying building land.
The street ends facing a railway line, opened by the LB&SCR in 1862 as a short-cut on the main Brighton line, enabling trains to take a more direct route between Croydon and London Victoria, avoiding Crystal Palace. Just north of here is the junction between this line and the later line through Streatham Common, mentioned above: you can view the tangle of tracks from the footbridge ahead.
A little to the left is Streatham Common station, the other official end-point of section 4, one of the original stations on the Brighton short-cut. On opening it was called Greyhound Lane but was commonly referred to by its current name soon afterwards and was officially renamed in 1870. The current buildings in Arts and Crafts style date from a 1903 rebuild which included an additional entrance onto Streatham Vale; this had fallen derelict but was restored in 2007 following a lengthy local campaign.
The Ring continues north, soon alongside the Streatham Common line, before ducking under it through an atmospheric subway and emerging into the equally atmospheric Potters Lane with its cluster of Victorian light industrial buildings. Despite the name, there was no pottery here: instead and perhaps more surprisingly, there were lavender fields nearby, owned by a Mr Potter.
Along Conyer’s Road, the Ring parallels the railway to Victoria which runs behind houses on the left. Here stands the first of three remarkable and attractive buildings on the Ring created to handle water and sewage. Streatham Common Pumping Station was built in 1888 for the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company, whose name is still visible above the main door. Refusing to make a practical building look simply practical, the architect devised a fanciful Moorish design faintly resembling a mosque, with tall stained glass windows and a series of domes and half-domes atop a tower and two attached circular buildings. This charming Grade II* building is still used for its original purpose and is off-limits to the public but can be admired from the road. Some of the houses further along boast impressive stained glass, and at the junction with Riggindale Road is another listed building, Streatham Methodist Church, built in 1900 in a neo-Gothic style with Arts and Crafts touches.
On the other side of the railway bridge and just before crossing Tooting Bec Road, look left at the housing estate set behind a green strip. It’s the site of Streatham Park, sometimes known as Streatham Place, a 1730s mansion built for Ralph Thrale, owner of the Anchor porter brewery at Bankside. His son and heir, Henry, lived there in the 1760s and 1780s with his wife Hester (born Hester Lynch Salusbury, 1741-1821), author, diarist, proto-feminist, close friend and possibly lover of the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84), who had his own apartments in the house. Besides Johnson, Henry and Hester entertained numerous cultural and intellectual figures of the day including David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke and Frances Burney, sometimes known as Streathamites or Streatham Worthies, the title of a series of portraits of them by Reynolds.
When Henry died in 1781, Hester sold the brewery with Johnson’s help. It became Barclay Perkins, at one point the biggest and most technologically advanced brewery in the world, though it’s since been closed and demolished. Hester then shocked London society by marrying a social inferior and foreigner, her children’s Italian-born music teacher Gabriele Piozzi. Johnson implored her not to go ahead with the marriage and, when she did, broke off all contact, dying two years later. The Piozzis retired to North Wales, and Hester died in Clifton, Bristol. The mansion was later home to William Petty, the 2nd Earl of Shelburne, an Irish-born Whig politician who was briefly prime minister in 1782 and 1783. It was demolished to make way for a residential development in 1863.
Tooting Bec Common
|Tooting Bec Common
Tooting’s slightly comical name has an Anglo-Saxon origin, though its meaning is disputed. It could be from a personal name, meaning ‘Tota’s people’, or it could refer to a lookout tower. Almost certainly, though, it was settled before Saxon times: Tooting village itself, off our route, is at a junction on Roman Stane Street. There are two adjacent Tootings, historically part of two different parishes, each with its own common lands, fragments of which survive. Tooting Bec was part of Streatham parish and, as mentioned above, shared its owner with Streatham manor: the ‘Bec’ derives from its mediaeval link to the abbey of Le Bec-Hallouin, and like the adjacent lands to the east, it ended up mainly in the hands of the Russell family. Tooting Graveney was a smaller parish and manor historically belonging to Chertsey Abbey.
In the 1850s, all of Streatham parish as well as Tooting Graveney were grouped with Wandsworth for some administrative purposes, but when the Metropolitan Boroughs were created in 1900, Streatham parish was split, with Streatham included in the newly created Lambeth borough while both Tootings remained with Wandsworth. Today, where the Ring turns down the drive to the lido on the other north side of Tooting Bec Road, it leaves the London Borough of Lambeth and enters the London Borough of Wandsworth and what remains of Tooting Bec Common.
Though the common is now managed jointly with the adjoining Tooting Graveney common to the southwest, and the two are often referred to together as ‘Tooting Common’ with a shared Friends Group, both have distinct histories. As the Graveney section is off our route, I’ll concentrate on the Bec side here. The common was once much bigger, suffering various incursions by the lords of the manor over the centuries, particularly as rural areas this close to London became desirable sites for country houses. Streatham Park itself was built on one such inclosure: it’s said that the price paid to the Russells by Thrale included ten year’s supply of beer for their ancestral seat at Woburn Abbey. By 1746, a tranche to the north had been inclosed as arable land, though the rest remained largely as pasture. The common also suffered from gravel extraction, and the construction of the railways damaged the coherence of the space, slicing it up arbitrarily and making traditional management more difficult.
In 1861, William Russell, the 8th Duke of Bedford, became lord of the manor on the death of his father and immediately put both manor and common up for sale. According to an account in Fraser’s Magazine quoted by Bob Gilbert, the commoners decided not to oppose a bid for the common from a local stockbroker, W J Thompson, who was known to be opposed to further inclosures. But as soon as Thompson took ownership he set about dividing the land up for building plots. The commoners resisted by pulling down all the fences Thompson erected, and finally obtained an injunction stopping further inclosure. Thompson eventually sold the common to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1875 for £17,771 -- £14,000 more than he’d paid for it 13 years earlier.
Since then the common has been managed as a public open space, though as late as 1884 a local resident was permitted to graze sheep on it. There were some wartime exceptions: it housed a troop camp during the Boer War, and in World War II hosted air raid shelters, allotments, anti-aircraft defences and prefab housing. Like Streatham Common it passed from the MWB through the LCC and GLC to the local authority, in this case Wandsworth, though until the boundaries were tweaked in 1996, a significant area of the common was in Lambeth.
The line of trees you cross when entering the common was originally an avenue of elms planted in the late 16th century by one of the Dukes of Bedford. Most were lost to Dutch Elm Disease in the later 20th century and have been replaced by other trees. Tooting Bec Lido, just ahead, was built by the LCC in 1906, making it one of the oldest open air public swimming pools in the UK and the largest by surface area (91.5 x 30.2 m). It was deliberately shielded from the rest of the common by a wooded earth bank. It’s particularly known for its distinctive row of changing cubicles with brightly coloured doors alongside the pool, seen in several films.
The trail leads past the tree-ringed Tooting Common Lake, a former gravel pit converted for leisure and wildlife in the 1890s. Exotic waterbirds here include Appleyard ducks, black East Indian runners and shoveller ducks. The lake is now artificially filled but the presence of such water features is a reminder that the common is the source of another lost stream, the Falcon Brook: covered in the 1860s, it flows north from here via Wandsworth Common to join the Thames as Battersea Creek. The path continues through scattered woodland to cross one of the dividing roads, Bedford Hill, right by the park café, in a rather pretty Arts and Crafts building from 1906. Here you briefly join Chestnut Avenue, one of the main walking and cycling routes across the common, lined with horse chestnut trees planted by the MWB soon after it took over the space.
Set back from the road just to the left on the other side of Bedford Hill is the Priory, a Grade II-listed 1820s red brick neo-Gothic battlemented mansion, never a real priory but with a rather notorious history. In December 1875, owner Charles Bravo, a prominent barrister, became the second husband of the wealthy Florence Ricardo. Four months later, he was dead from antimony poisoning. Various people were suspected of foul play, including Florence – it emerged that Charles was abusive and bullying towards his wife, whose testimony at the inquest was considered so scandalous that women and children were asked to leave the room. The first inquest returned an open verdict, the second a verdict of wilful murder, though no-one was ever charged, and the case remains unsolved. The Ring stays on the cycle track along the northwest edge of the common, with the main area of woodland, Bedford Woods, over to your right, before ducking out into the residential streets of Balham.
Balham, gateway to the South
The handsome Victorian streets the Ring follows after leaving the common were built on the former Charringtons Farm, part of the Tooting Bec and Streatham estate of the Russells, the Dukes of Bedford: thus the street name Bedford Hill, which originally ran through their land. The trail runs along Ritherdon Road, which very roughly follows the former main drive to Bedfordhill House, a mansion built in about 1815 on land sold by the Russells. This was once home to William Cubitt, the engineering contractor and Conservative MP, who with his brother Thomas Cubitt was responsible for numerous developments in London including Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs.
The house, which was demolished in 1897, stood to the left of what’s now Ritherdon Road, on the site of nos 12-18 Veronica Road, the next road south, though its outline has been completely obliterated by the housing estate that now stands here. Known as the Bedfordhill or Heaver Estate, this was built between 1888 and the early 20th century, loosely in a Queen Anne style, by Alfred Heaver, a local property developer. Heaver met a violent end in 1901, before the estate was completed, as the result of a family quarrel: his brother-in-law shot him dead while he was walking to church with his wife near his home in Westcott, near Dorking.
Always intended as a prestige development, Heaver’s estate is now regarded as one of the most handsome of its kind and is a designated Conservation Area. The red brick houses have various intriguing features: projecting oriel windows with finials on their roofs, graceful shallow arches above windows and doors, tiled porches, attic dormer windows, gable ends with chequered cornices and occasional terracotta details. Cloudesdale Road follows the line of the York Ditch, a tributary of the Falcon Brook, which once ran through farmland here. It now runs on under Balham Leisure Centre, built in the 1950s with an unusual partly glazed vaulted roof high above the swimming pool.
The Ring emerges on Balham High Road, the Roman road between London and Chichester, or Noviomagus Reginorum as it was known in Latin. Constructed some time before the year 70, the road lived up to its Roman reputation in following an almost dead-straight course between London Bridge and Ewell, and then only deflecting by minimal amounts to achieve the most comfortable crossings of the North and South Downs. The road is usually referred to by its Saxon name of Stane Street, which simply means ‘stone highway’. Modern roads still follow much of it: the A3 uses it from London Bridge to Clapham, the section on through Balham and Ewell to Beare Green in Surrey is numbered A24, and then it becomes the A29.
Right opposite, the last manorial lords are commemorated in the name of the art deco Du Cane Court, built in 1937 and still the biggest privately-owned block of flats in Europe, with 676 separate addresses. Once a fashionable residence for entertainers, it’s clearly visible from the air, and there’s an enduring legend that German bomber pilots were instructed to avoid damaging it during World War II as the Nazi high command had it earmarked as a billet for senior officers following a successful invasion. St Mary’s Church, a little further to the left, began as a ‘proprietary chapel’ in 1808 and became a parish church in 1855 in response to continuing population growth. It was originally a much more modest building but was gradually expanded, taking on its current appearance in 1903 when the west tower and belfry were added.
A short, signed Ring link runs right from here along Stane Street, under the railway bridge to the de facto centre of modern Balham. The historic hamlet was a little further towards London, near the junction of today’s Balham Grange, but the presence of two stations overlooking the junction with Chestnut Grove has decisively shifted the centre of gravity south.
The railway across the bridge was opened in 1856 as the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway, originally a branch from Crystal Palace via Streatham Hill to Wandsworth Common. The original station here, known as Balham Hill, was on the left (west) side of the High Road, with access from under the bridge. The line was soon extended via Battersea to Victoria, becoming the West End branch of the Brighton main line, and in 1863, as part of widening and improvement works, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) built the current National Rail station with its entrance on Station Road.
|Bomb damage in Balham, 1940.
In October 1940, a 1,400 kg fragmentation bomb fell on the road above the Tube lines, breaking water mains which subsequently flooded the tunnels. An 88 bus, operating in blackout conditions, then drove straight into the bomb crater, increasing the damage: a photo of this became an emblematic image of the Blitz. Different sources give different casualty figures, but perhaps 66 people died, many of them already sheltering from the air raid in the station. A memorial plaque in the ticket hall commemorates the incident.
Back on the main trail, on the other side of Stane Street, you pass more big Victorian houses and cross Boundaries Road by a more recent large apartment block, Kenmore House. As its name suggests, part of Boundaries Road ran along the boundary between Streatham and Battersea parishes, but not this part. The Ring follows the old boundary when it turns off Balham Park Road along the footpath, and very soon crosses it when it emerges on Wandsworth Common.
I can’t leave Balham without mentioning perhaps its greatest moment in popular culture, at least if you’re a fan of vintage British comedy. ‘Balham, Gateway to the South’, written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden for the brilliant but troubled comic actor Peter Sellers, was first heard as a radio show sketch in 1949, and re-recorded by Sellers for a novelty record in 1958, produced by George Martin, best-known for his later association with the Beatles. It’s a parody of a cheesy travelogue, delivered by Sellers in a declamatory American accent which pronounces the place name as ‘BAL-ham’ rather than ‘Ballem’. Back then, Balham was a dowdy middle-class suburb, so there was considerable comic bathos in describing it in the same terms as an exotic jet-set destination.
Standing by either of the station entrances, at least one of Muir and Norden’s observations still rings true: “The town is spread below us in a fairyland of glittering lights, changing all the time: green…amber…red…red and amber…and back to green.” And as you leave Balham, you may want to recall the sketch’s closing couplet:
Broad-bosomed, bold, becalmed, benign
Lies Balham, four-square on the Northern Line.
|Wandsworth Common lakes.
The parishes of Battersea and Wandsworth are closely linked. Both were centred on adjacent Thames-side settlements of some economic importance, with extensive rural hinterlands stretching south from the river, and some of the local manors spilled into both parishes. Following the Norman conquest, Battersea was largely owned by Westminster Abbey, and Wandsworth was essentially a subsidiary manor, “then so integral a part of Battersea that the Domesday survey contains no reference to Wandsworth…beyond the mention of its toll among the revenues of the abbey”, as the Victoria County History puts it. Ownership was fragmented after the Dissolution, but by the early 19th century had been consolidated in the hands of aristocratic family the Spencers, with the Earls of Spencer as lords of the manor. This was the family that later produced Winston Churchill and Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales.
Wandsworth Common was once a much larger area of gorse-covered heath straddling both parishes between the main Portsmouth Road in the north and at least as far south as Burntwood Road. The current name only applied to the Wandsworth side, with the eastern side, where the Ring enters, known as Battersea West Heath. But as the whole common was under the same management, it’s not surprising that the distinction was being ignored as early as John Rocque’s 1741 map. The common had the usual history of encroachments from the end of the 18th century when the local land became desirable for upmarket homes. There were 53 inclosures between 1794 and 1866, but in 1820 it still covered 162 ha, more than twice its extent today.
Two other activities significantly damaged the integrity of the common. One was the extraction of gravel to supply the growth of London, which turned parts of the heath into a bleak, treeless and dangerous landscape, readily becoming a sea of mud after even light rain. Another was the construction first of roads, then of railways, carving the space into the scattered fragments which remain today. When members of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Open Spaces in the Metropolis inspected the common in the mid-1860s, its poor condition helped prompt the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act 1866 which gave additional protection to such areas.
By then, the locals had mobilised to defend the common from further encroachment, and in 1867 a protest against a proposed housing development on the east side attracted 5,000 people. After failing to persuade the Metropolitan Board of Works to buy the land, the community exercised its right under the new law to appoint a board of conservators to manage most of what remained, with Earl Spencer paid an annuity of £250 raised from a levy on the local rates. But not everyone was happy with the additional rates, nor with the performance of the conservators, particularly when they failed to reclaim an inclosure which had become disused. In 1887, the MBW finally agreed to take on the space, which almost immediately passed to the London County Council and later to the Greater London Council and the London Borough of Wandsworth.
The Ring enters the common by following the former West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway along a pleasantly tree-lined triangle. When the line was opened in 1856, the station, then known simply as Wandsworth, was a little to the north of the present site. Today’s Wandsworth Common station dates from the widening and improvements of 1869, and rather unusually the trail passes straight under its porte-cochère. Further on, you cross two of the early 19th century roads that carved up the common to enable development: St James’s Road, opened in 1825, and Bellevue Road, opened two years later. The triangle between them, known as McKellar’s Triangle, was rapidly filled in with housing, though the imposing Hope pub at its apex and the elegant Bellevue Parade date from rather later in the 19th century.
St James’s Road once continued straight ahead across the common but the railway interrupted its course, and you’re now deflected to parallel the tracks again. Soon on the left the trail runs alongside the two lakes, a legacy of gravel workings that now provide one of the prettiest parts of the site (the other, the Scope, a nature area that in the 1850s housed a giant telescope, is off the trail to the southwest). A network of boardwalks provides close-up views of some of the wildlife.
The Cat’s Back Bridge, installed when the railway line was built though rebuilt several times since, is the only footbridge linking parts of the common severed by the line. The Ring doesn’t cross it but bends away from the railway to a crosspaths with the park café off to the right, and it’s at this point you cross the old boundary between the Battersea and Wandsworth sides. The streets on the left, known as the ‘toast rack’ for reasons that will be obvious from a glance at a map, were developed in the 1890s on land that had been claimed from the common by the small manor of Allfarthing in 1642 and later belonged to Magdalen College, Oxford.
|The Royal Victoria Patriotic Building with its horror film skyline.
Pic: Herry Lawford, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Unsurprisingly there are numerous colourful tales associated with the place: it’s allegedly haunted by the ghost of a girl who died in a fire while locked in solitary confinement. During World War I it was a military hospital, the Third London General Hospital, and in World War II the security services used it as an interrogation centre, with Rudolf Hess among its prisoners. In the 1980s it was converted to flats and small business accommodation and is used as a venue for weddings and events like a Hallowe’en beer festival.
The grass area and cricket ground between the Royal Victoria building and the path was one of the bones of contention in the 1880s disputes with the conservators. It had been included in the original inclosure as a farm attached to the orphanage. When the governors decided it was no longer required, there would have been a good case for returning it to the common, but instead it was leased as a commercial farm to George Neal, who also owned a nursery opposite. In 1913 it was put up for sale and finally reintegrated with the common after being bought by the LCC. Neal’s nursery survives as Neal’s Garden Centre, visible just to the right along the main road, Trinity Road.
The path junction where you first reach the corner of the cricket ground is, incidentally, the closest point on the southern section of the Capital Ring to Charing Cross, just under 7 km to the northeast. Trinity Road follows the course of an old track across the common linking Wandsworth with Tooting, though it’s been much extended. On the other side, the tiny strip of green to the right of Alma Terrace is one of the smallest remaining fragments of this once-great open space.
Wandsworth Prison and Cemetery
|The forbidding gates of Wandsworth Prison.
One person who overcame the difficulties of escape was Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, who in 1965 climbed over the wall with a rope ladder and dropped into a waiting laundry van. Other inmates have included James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, remanded in 1968; notorious East End gangster Ronnie Kray, who spent some of his sentence here in the 1970s before being moved to Broadmoor; and Julian Assange, remanded during his extradition case in 2010.
More grimly, Wandsworth was for a long time the main place of execution for south London and southern England. 135 people were hanged here between 1878 and 1961, including the so-called ‘acid bath murderer’ John George Haigh (1949), the spy and Nazi propogandist William Joyce aka Lord Haw-Haw (1946), and Derek Bentley, a 19-year old with learning difficulties who was convicted in 1953 for the murder of a policeman during a failed burglary, despite not firing the fatal shot.
More grimly, Wandsworth was for a long time the main place of execution for south London and southern England. 135 people were hanged here between 1878 and 1961, including the so-called ‘acid bath murderer’ John George Haigh (1949), the spy and Nazi propogandist William Joyce aka Lord Haw-Haw (1946), and Derek Bentley, a 19-year old with learning difficulties who was convicted in 1953 for the murder of a policeman during a failed burglary, despite not firing the fatal shot.
The prosecution alleged that Bentley shouted “Let him have it” to his armed 16-year-old accomplice Christopher Craig, demonstrating common purpose, and unfortunately for the defendant the jury agreed, though entered a plea for mercy. Craig was also found guilty of murder but was too young to be hanged. In an atmosphere of intense public interest, and under pressure from the police, the home secretary of the day refused a reprieve. Subsequently the case came to be regarded as a miscarriage of justice: Bentley has been posthumously pardoned and his sentence quashed. The case contributed to the argument for the suspension of capital punishment in the UK in 1964, though the death penalty remained legal for certain crimes such as treason until 1998, and Wandsworth retained a working gallows until 1994.
To the north (right) of Alma Terrace and opposite the prison gates is Dobbins Field, a patch of ground that’s officially part of the prison, though it’s managed by a local charity, the Paradise Cooperative, as a community smallholding growing food and maintaining a pond and other nature areas. It’s occasionally open for special events. Just past the prison visitor centre, off Heathfield Road, Wilde Place on the right commemorates another celebrated inmate whose case is now regarded in a very different light, the Anglo-Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), incarcerated here for five months in 1895 before being transferred to Reading prison.
Against the advice of his friends, Wilde himself set the legal process in motion in 1895 by suing John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury, father to Wilde’s partner Alfred Douglas, who had written a famously misspelt note calling the writer a “posing somdomite”. Wilde’s libel case collapsed when the Marquess’s lawyers identified several rent boys prepared to testify they’d had sex with the plaintiff, and soon afterwards Wilde himself was arrested on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. The Establishment, whose hypocrisy Wilde had made a career out of lampooning, took the opportunity to turn on him: he was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.
In Wandsworth, wrote Wilde, he “longed to die” but was moved and encouraged when a fellow prisoner whispered “in the hoarse prison-voice men get from long and compulsory silence” during exercise in the prison yard: “I am sorry for you: it is harder for the likes of you than it is for the likes of us.” “No, my friend,” replied Wilde. “We all suffer alike.” As the writer was unused to speaking discreetly enough not to be noticed, both men were reported to the governor, and Wilde shielded his fellow prisoner by claiming he had begun the conversation. He was punished by solitary confinement in a dark cell on bread and water for three days. Prison life broke Wilde, who died of meningitis while in exile in Paris in 1900. Wilde delighted in irony, but I’m not sure if he’d manage a hollow laugh at being commemorated so close to such a place of misery, nor at his 2017 pardon alongside that of 50,000 other men convicted for sexual activities that are thankfully no longer offences.
Magdalen Road earns its name from Magdalen College which, as mentioned above, formerly owned the land: the streets on the south (left) side were developed before 1914 as part of a never-completed garden suburb planned by the brother of the college president. Soon on the other side is another sombre site, Wandsworth Cemetery, opened in 1878 by the local Burial Board. The official Ring sticks to the road alongside it, but Bob Gilbert, whose alternative Green London Way also passes by here, suggests a diversion through the cemetery itself which I’d also recommend. First, though, check the displayed opening times to ensure there’s no risk of getting locked in, as the site closes early, particularly in the winter.
Past the Grade II-listed main gates and before the chapel, find your way through the grid pattern of the main part of the cemetery to locate some of the Commonwealth War Graves. Most of the casualties buried here died while being treated at the military hospital in the Royal Victoria building. The headstones indicate the far-flung corners of the world from which young men came to fight and die on the fields of France and Flanders. Several of them, recognisable by depictions of caribou, are for members of the Newfoundland Regiment, from a British dominion then not yet officially part of Canada. Despite its low population, Newfoundland mustered a full regiment of 1,000 to send to Europe, but 80% of it was wiped out within 30 minutes on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Adjacent are the graves of South African, Australian and New Zealand soldiers, and not far away a large monument records the names of those buried in unmarked graves elsewhere in the cemetery.
The Green London Way continues on an embankment on the northwest boundary of the cemetery, alongside the railway line. It looks like the graves here were dug in a disused railway siding, but this isn’t the case: the earth was banked up by the cemetery authorities as part of an 1898 extension. The feature has the pleasant effect of breaking up the regimented grid of plots, helped by poplars and areas of grass that have been allowed to grow wild. Near the end of this path is a monument to the Wandsworth civilians who died during World War II: only four names are recorded, as the remains of 24 others buried in the cemetery are unidentified.
Garrat and the river Wandle
|The river Wandle from Penwith Road Bridge, Earlsfield -- or Garrat if you prefer.
In the 18th century, Garrat enjoyed a fame disproportionate to its size and economic importance thanks to a bizarre folk-cultural practice that took place here known as the Garrat Election. This event, which at its peak attracted perhaps 100,000 people, satirised in practice the political processes of an England in which only a handful of people were enfranchised, most of them already rich and powerful men. The tradition began as an election for the governance of a small local common, Garrat Green, outside the Leather Bottle. It evolved into the mock-election of ‘Mayor of the Borough of Garrat’, though neither office nor authority had any official recognition, and candidates enjoyed a greater chance of success the more they exhibited qualities normally thought the least desirable in holders of public office, at least officially.
The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, edited by Francis Grose, describes the event as:
A ludicrous ceremony, practised every new parliament: it consists of a mock election of two members to represent the borough of Garret (a few straggling cottages near Wandsworth in Surrey); the qualification of a voter is, having enjoyed a woman in the open air within that district: the candidates are commonly fellows of low humour, who dress themselves up in a ridiculous manner. As this brings a prodigious concourse of people to Wandsworth, the publicans of that place jointly contribute to the expense, which is sometimes considerable.
According to a 2006 pamphlet by radical historians Past Tense, “the candidates were always poor tradesmen, usually with a drink problem and sometimes with a physical deformity. The main qualification was a quick wit. They assumed such titles as Lord Twankum (a cobbler and gravedigger), Squire Blowmedown (a Wandsworth waterman) and Sir Trincalo Boreas (a fishmonger).” Having formally processed from Southwark through Wandsworth, they reached the hustings at Garrat Green where “each candidate had to swear an oath (their right hand resting on the sign of the mob - a brickbat!), ‘handed down to us by the grand Volgee, by order of the great Chin Kaw Chipo, first Emperor of the Moon’. This oath was too rude to be repeated by Victorian folk historians.”
The event’s fame spread further when it was used as a setting for a popular farce by Samuel Foote, The Mayor of Garret (1763), attracting the involvement of more serious political campaigners, such as the radical MP and orator John Wilkes (1725-97) who with his supporters wrote some of the candidates’ speeches. Wilkes was a close friend of one of the best-known Mayors, Jeffrey Dunstan, who “was brought up in the workhouse, had knock-knees and a disproportionately large head, and only grew to a height of 4 feet” (1.2 m). But as the event became more self-consciously seditious and fear of the mob grew, particularly after the French Revolution of 1789, sentiments turned against it. The last annual Garrat elections were held in 1804, and an attempt to revive the tradition in 1826 failed.
By then, the railway had arrived in Garrat, albeit in a primitive form. I’ve already mentioned the Surrey Iron Railway, London’s first, in connection with the Croydon Canal at Penge in the previous section. Opened between 1802 and 1803, it was a plateway mainly intended for goods and operated by horse-drawn vehicles, running for 14.5 km from wharves off the Thames at Wandsworth along the Wandle Valley to Reeves Corner in Croydon, with a branch from Mitcham to Carshalton. For part of the way it ran along the east side of Garratt Lane, roughly on the current pavement, so in crossing the lane you’ll be crossing its course. The railway proved too lightweight for the new steam locomotives of the 1820s and quickly became obsolete, though didn’t close formally until 1846. Part of it became the trackbed of a later railway which is now part of the London Trams routes at Waddon and Mitcham. A section of an extension to Merstham, opened in 1805, can still be followed and is mentioned under London Countryway 5.
The ‘proper’ railway arrived in 1838 with the opening of the first phase of the London and Southampton Railway from Nine Elms to Woking: you will have followed it for a little way already in the cemetery. Renamed the London & South Western Railway (L&SWR), the line extended to Southampton in 1840 and to its new London terminal at Waterloo in 1848, creating the core of today’s South Western Main Line. Originally there was no station at Garrat, just two adjacent bridges over the lane and the ailing Iron Railway.
In 1884, in response to suburbanisation creeping relentlessly across Wandsworth Common, the L&SWR opened a station here, at the same time widening the lines and rebuilding the bridges as the current single span. But rather than Garrat, it was named Earlsfield, after an 1860s mansion, now demolished, some distance north at the junction of Allfarthing Lane. According to some sources, this was a requirement of the family who owned both the mansion and the extra land required for the station, but perhaps the more historic place name still had too many disreputable associations. The station stimulated further development, and the name Garrat was gradually forgotten as the lane became the bustling high street of a suburb most now know as Earlsfield.
With the riverside strip already industrialised, unlike its grander neighbours Earlsfield became a working-class neighbourhood, with streets of modest terraced houses. By the second half of the 20th century it was a neglected and obscure southern appendage to Wandsworth. More recently, it’s become one of the patches of southwest London most thoroughly colonised by gentrifying young professional families attracted by the transport links and relatively affordable good-quality houses, with specialist independent shops and cafés flourishing along Garratt Lane. Fans of smashed avocado on sourdough toast brunches will have plenty of choice round here.
On the other side of Garratt Lane, the Ring follows Penwith Road across the Wandle, one of the Thames’ major London tributaries. The river rises from a variety of springs and streams south of Croydon, some of which run underground as bournes. These have since been managed and culverted, and today most people regard the river as having two sources: one in Carshalton Park and the other in Waddon Park, Croydon. The Wandle flows for around 14 km northwest and north via Hackbridge, Morden Hall Park, Colliers Wood and Earlsfield, joining the Thames as a tidal creek at Wandsworth. Most likely the river was named after the town rather than the other way around, with a derivation from an Anglo-Saxon personal name, ‘Wendle’s Settlement’.
The river’s power has been put to industrial use since at least Roman times. By the early 19th century this was one of the most polluted watercourses in the country, thanks to a succession of mills, many of them part of the textile and tobacco industries, which between them operated 68 water wheels. To the north (right) of the bridge here was a calico printing mill, to the south the Garrat Mill, which was variously used for gunpowder, lead, oil and paper. In the second half of the 20th century much of this industry had gone, opening up much of the riverside as green space, and subsequent clean-up campaigns have seen the return of fish such as brown trout, chub, roach and perch. In 2012, a partnership of local authorities and other agencies declared the whole strip from Wandsworth to Croydon as the Wandle Valley Regional Park, London’s third such area after the Lea and Colne Valley Parks, setting up a charity to coordinate its conservation and improvement.
The Regional Park followed on from local efforts to create the Wandle Trail as a walking route along the valley in the late 1980s, a campaign that’s since evolved into the Wandle Valley Forum. In the 1990s the riverside trail became a multi-user route, part of Sustrans’ National Cycle Network (NCN) route 20, which officially continues south from Carshalton via Coulsdon to connect with NCN21 near Merstham, linking to the south coast. Much of it is off-road and I’ll be covering it in a later post. Unusually, though, the Ring encounters it at a point where there’s currently no riverside access.
Passing the end of Ravensbury Road along Ravensbury Terrace, the Ring crosses the old parish boundary between Wandsworth and Wimbledon and enters the London Borough of Merton. As the latter only became an official part of the metropolis on the creation of the GLC, this is another point where, prior to 1965, you’d be leaving London.
To Wimbledon Park
|Wimbledon Mosque with its disfiguring ventilation.
Durnsford Road itself is another old north-south route: it linked Wandsworth with Dunsford manor, Wimbledon Park and Merton. By the 18th century the land on the far (west) side of the road was part of the extensive estate of Wimbledon Park, one of the seats of the Earls Spencer. This estate was split into building plots after 1846 when the Spencers sold it to a property developer, but initially many of these went unsold. An 1875 Ordnance Survey map still shows plenty of farmland, with the buildings of Wimbledonpark Farm opposite and a little to the right (north) of where the Ring reaches Durnsford Road.
Today, one of the most prominent landmarks is Wimbledon Mosque, with its rather incongruous domes and minarets, built in 1977 on the site of a car garage as the first purpose-built mosque in south London. Despite following a classic Islamic style inspired by the late Mughal period in India, it was designed by a local architect, Jack Godfrey-Gilbert.
Architecture historian Shahed Saleem, writing in the Architects' Journal, says this was “the first time such ornate and literal translations of Islamic ornament had been seen in Britain since the Woking mosque of 1889.” But unlike Woking mosque (mentioned in passing in my post on London Countryway 9), designed in an atmosphere of Victorian Orientalism, this one is “a forerunner of a pastiche style, the indiscriminate lifting and applying of traditional Islamic motifs that would become the conventional approach of almost all mosques built in Britain for the next 40 years.” Today its elegant cream tiling is rather spoiled by the ugly air conditioning units sprouting at first floor level along the street.
|Wimbledon Park Station.
This section ends at Wimbledon Park station, today a Tube station but built in cottagey, semi-Tudor style, with odd baroque flourishes, by the L&SWR on its 1889 extension. As part of the deal, the Metropolitan District Railway, despite its name a different company and bitter competitor of the Metropolitan Railway, was given running rights along the line from its station at Putney Bridge. Regular main line trains were withdrawn in 1941, but even though they were now only served by District Line trains, the stations remained branded as British Rail until 1994 when the branch was formally transferred to the London Underground. Get here at the right time and you’ll still see South Western Railway and other National Rail trains passing through: the line is used for empty stock movements, and by non-stopping early morning services from Wimbledon to Waterloo via a junction at East Putney.