Walking round London pt21: Streatham Common to Tooting Bec
Walking downhill is rarely a bad feeling, but it’s particularly pleasant on this sunny Saturday morning to walk down the hill of Streatham Common: London planes to the left, aeroplanes above, a searching view of the walk toward Wimbledon ahead. Kids play semi-organised football in popup goals, overlooked by the imposing tower of Immanuel and St Andrew’s church on the common’s west side; the tower is a remnant of a much older, uneconomically sizeable church.
Talking to a first-time walker who’s already gritting rather than grinning, I point out that as we’ve walked 7km of the 28km, she’s a quarter of the way to the finish; she seems initially pleased, then slightly daunted by the realisation that that means another three-quarters to come, then doubly determined to continue. She’s pushing herself and making friends, and for many people that’s part of the point.
As we chat we pass another old stagepost. We’re walking north alongside the A23, which heads from Westminster Bridge (opened 1750) to Brighton along the course of a Roman road; indeed, ‘Streatham’ simply means ‘homestead on the street’, with street in its Anglo-Saxon sense as a paved highway, almost inevitably a Roman road. Many such roads would have stagecoach pubs at strategic stopping points, and what is now the Rabbit Hole pub strikes me as an example.
Research reveals it was built in the early 1700s, rebuilt in the 1870s and again in the 1930s — that rejig, in the era of the roadhouse designed to capture car day-trippers, commemorated with a capstone. Nowadays nobody would take a ride to Streatham, but another market has prompted the most recent redesign: a family-friendly Alice in Wonderland theme, stripping the decor back to Victorian features and foregrounding the Carroll-inspired artwork of a local graffiti collective.
I knew it as the Greyhound when I spent a lot of time in Streatham, around a decade ago. I was in a band which rehearsed in dilapidated rooms below the Streatham Ice Arena, a faded Deco beauty opened in 1931 to the newspaper headline “Don’t go to Switzerland, come to Streatham!”. Its Moderne horizontality was expertly balanced against tall, narrow windows by architect Robert Cromie, usually to be found designing cinemas.
Streatham Ice Arena. (Pic: Tristan Forward, https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1759119)
The glamour didn’t last, and by the time I knew it the Arena was a little scuzzy around the edges, its takings supported by discos attracting teenagers of varying goodness. After one Saturday-night rehearsal in February 2007 we were loading the gear into cars by the side exit when a bunch of teenagers suddenly stormed the doors and ran into the arena. We quickly concluded business and drove away, thinking little of it until we later learned that a 17-year-old had been shot dead, a tragic loss of young life. We did the only thing we could: wrote a new wave disco song about life and death.
Inevitably the once-mighty Arena was sold to Tesco and demolished, a replacement rink offered as a sop. The Capital Trail turns off before passing the former Arena, but I managed to take a shot from afar of a disappeared icon… and the place where we used to rehearse.
Stretching from the Common to the train lines, Lewin Road is nothing unusual in and of itself: plenty of formerly grand houses, now converted to residential homes, nursing homes, nurseries or Houses of Multiple Occupation, better known by the slightly disappointing abbreviation HMOs. But it feels like a hinge in the walk: moving away from Streatham, crossing two train lines and turning to drive north toward Tooting. It’s also the end of Capital Ring section 4, which started back at Crystal Palace station, and the start of section 5, which ends at Wimbledon Park, well over halfway through today’s walk.
Streatham Baptist Church.
One notable building on Lewin Road is the redbrick Streatham Baptist Church, built gradually over a quarter of a century from 1877. That might seem slow but the Baptists were pleased to have foundations at all: they had been preaching in Streatham since 1792, but with nonconformist churches disbarred from buying land they’d been forced to use a mobile preaching hut made out of wood.
The path hauls right at Estreham Road — a variant spelling of Streatham — before ducking under the trainlines onto Potter’s Lane; the apostrophe is correct in that this wasn’t the haunt of ceramic operatives but a Mr Potter.
Conyers Road, which arrows hard north toward Tooting Common, features one of London’s hidden delights: the Streatham Common Pumping Station. We’re back to the Streatham spa again, this time exploited on an industrial scale by the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company, but oh what a way to do it. In 1888, architects had the confidence and style to make a humble pumphouse into a curious Moorish design with tall stained-glass windows, domes, half-domes and two circular outbuildings. Now Grade II*-listed but still used for its intended purpose (and thus not open to the public), its architecture is partly unnecessary, partly inauthentic and wholly wonderful.
Stained glass is a bit of a theme on Conyers Road, or Riggindale Road as it becomes after crossing Mitcham Lane — a junction lounged upon by the Streatham Methodist Church. Built in 1900 and now listed, this double-fronted affair is an affecting attempt to cross a neo-Gothic style with gentle touches of Arts and Crafts, imbuing it with the strength of character to survive the half-arsed newer brick-build that fumblingly bridges the gap between the church and its hall, like a photobombing by a drunken uncle.
Speaking of which, as I walk up Riggindale Road I pass opposite three thirtysomething blokes on a street corner, enthusiastically imbibing cheap Polish lager and having the sort of triangular play-fight that could at any moment lose its humour.
I keep walking toward Tooting Common and visibly concentrate on admiring the mix of housing stock. It’s not a difficult act as I’ve just noticed how the OS map shows housing of much less density to the west of the parallel trainline, in what was once Streatham Park. A country pile built in 1730, frequented by Dr Samuel Johnson, later home to a Prime Minister and in 1783 host to Anglo-French peace negotiations with global ramifications, it lasted little more than a century before reinvention as suburban development for a burgeoning capital; Georgian avenues and Victorian planting still exist among the postwar municipal housing.
Back at the time of the tax-assessment orgy we now call the Domesday Book, there were two manors in Tooting. William the Conqueror summarily granted it among a total of 176 lordships and grants to his former guardian Richard fitz Gilbert, who promptly parcelled it onwards to the Norman abbey of Notre Dame du Bec — hence Tooting Bec. (The word Tooting has a more disputed background: it could come from an Anglo-Saxon chief called Tota and his tribe the Totinges, or be a reference to the dwelling of Roman slaves, or the old verb ‘tout’ meaning to look out.)
For all the history I’m glad to be on Tooting Common for a more imminent reason: it contains the day’s first checkpoint. Of wider interest is the Tooting Bec Lido, one of Europe’s largest swimming pools, opened in 1906 as a conventional (if outdoor) pool, but rebuilt as a lido — Italian for beach — in 1936 and much used since by public and film crews alike.
As the path starts to cross Tooting Common in an excitingly diagonal northwesterly fashion, I pass a lad of about nine years old being taken off the park by his dad. There’s no tears, but his face is a youthful version of the Mask Of Tragedy: the corners of his lips are so downturned that he might trip over them.
As ever, there’s history here. The common was once much bigger but had been impinged upon by development and enclosure. When the land was put up for sale in 1861 by the eighth Duke of Bedford, local stockbroker WJ Thompson established himself as an anti-enclosure People’s Champion and was popularly allowed to buy it. Obviously he immediately divided the land for building plots, whereupon the locals objected physically (tearing down his fences) and legally (obtaining an injunction). After a decade of squabbling Thompson sold the land at vast profit to the Metropolitan Board of Works, becoming one of that well-intended body’s first major common-land preservations.
So it is that I’m allowed to cross the common and reach the first checkpoint. It’s relatively late — 10km into the 27km total — but I’m earlier than expected at 11.15am; I’m possibly walking faster than usual, which is slightly odd as I’ve been taking my time taking pictures, making notes and conversation with some folks walking slower than I’d tend to. Mind, I haven’t climbed a proper hill since that first hour, retracing steps to the top of Norwood...
Coming up next: Hitler’s pied-à-terre
The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) will take place on Sat 7 July.
NORTHERN QUARTER, SAT 5 MAY
EASTERN QUARTER, SAT 26 MAY
SOUTHERN QUARTER, SAT 9 JUN
WESTERN QUARTER, SAT 7 JUL