Walking round London pt22: Tooting Bec to Wandsworth Common
Swallows and Amazons, Tommy Trinder, Woodcraft Folk, shaved orphans and Duran Duran
(ICYMI: The writer is executing a 120km circumnavigation of the capital for charity. These blogs are to publicise the fundraising and consider the vernacular. There’s a full list of chapter/sections at the end of each blog.)
As I set off north from Tooting Common, I’m pleased to get a call from a daughter who’s interested in joining me for the final stages of the walk. It’s particularly fitting that she calls me at this point, as I’m about to walk through the streets along which I used to push her and her twin sister: we lived not far from here, of which more later.
That said, there’s always new ground to break. I’d been on Tooting Common many times but never realised it continued north of Bedford Hill (named for the Dukes thereof, whose land this once was). The Capital Ring path, which this Mencap challenge is mostly following, continues north onto this quieter slice of common before veering hard left into the gentle suburbia of Balham.
Somewhat like Penge, through which the walk passed earlier, Balham has a slightly comic undertone. Frank Muir and Denis Norden wrote a sketch called Balham, Gateway to the South for Peter Sellers as an American travelogue, which Sellers later recorded with George Martin of moptop fame. Not all references have been as pleasant.
Nikolaus Pevsner said Balham had only one building of architectural interest — the Odeon, later Liberty, cinema which is more or less in Clapham South and is now a wine warehouse. But that was nothing compared to Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome, who called it “the ugliest and most abominable of London’s unpleasing suburbs.”
To me, Balham is no Lake District idyll but it’s far from unpleasing, particularly the Heaver Estate. All red-brick squareness and terracotta detail, it was a prestige development from the off and is now largely a conservation area, typical of a certain attractive suburban gentility.
Built between 1888 and World War One, the Queen Anne-style housing incorporates thoughtful touches from the tiled porches to the attic dormers: lovely shallow arches above windows and doors, chequered cornices on gable ends, and oriel windows (the kind of bays which project but don’t reach the ground). Alfred Heaver himself didn’t live to see its completion. While walking to church with his wife near his Dorking home, the property developer was shot dead by his brother-in-law.
The path heads down Ritherdon Road, a grandly beautiful curving avenue with a couple of intriguing address. Until it was sold in 2009 at a £519,000 profit, №13 was the unassuming head office of the Woodcraft Folk, a well-meaning bunch of youth educationalists who pursue scouting-type activities except with avowed pacifism. And further up the hill at №67 is the Metamorphic Association, who espouse a gentle six-stage massage as a way to unlock the “factors that determine our consciousness in the nine-month period preceding birth — and even before this in the pre-conception time”.
Just before I hit №67 and the eternally trapped feelings of my prenatal subconscious, the path turns right up Cloudesdale Road, which follows the line of the subterranean Falcon stream. Here the stream heads north-south, which means all those Queen Anne details are bouncing back some serious sun-heat onto unwary walkers.
I’m in need of shade and food, and as we’re tramping ever closer to my manor I know of a cheeky caff with a nice line in sausage butties. (Please use as part of a calorie-controlled diet. Other snacks are available.) The caff is on the A24, known as the Noviomagus Reginorum to the Romans trooping between London and Chichester or Stane Street (stone highway) to the subsequent Saxons.
Across from the caff is a building long said to have been of interest to more recent, less successful invaders. Built between 1935 and 1938, Du Cane Court — named after the last lords of the Balham manor before it was split for piecemeal suburban development — benefited from all the grace and drama of art deco architecture’s swooping curves.
Europe’s biggest privately-owned apartment block, it has housed entertainers from Margaret Rutherford through Tommy Trinder to Arthur Smith, but figures of less fun had an eye on it. Clearly visible from the air, it was used as a visual aid for Luftwaffe pilots — who, it’s said, were under orders to leave it unscathed, because the Nazi high command intended to move in following the inevitable invasion. Spoiler alert: they didn’t, because the bad guys lost, but do keep an eye out for rabble-rousing demagogues elected on divisive populist mandates, won’t you?
Scooting down the side of Du Cane Court, I pass my children’s first-ever school and note how the former industrial laundry is now, unsurprisingly, 91 new homes. I’m now on Balham Park Road, which doesn’t live up to its promise of greenery — there’s enough round here with all the commons we’re tramping between — but does have an odd mix of houses.
Scottish-born builder William Kerr, of Ramsden Road just over the railway, bought several development plots in 1879 and surprised the vendors by refusing to sardine 20ft wide frontages, instead building resplendent double-fronters up to 39ft wide. He may have supposed the railway-boosted growth of middle-class suburbia would support prime housing stock, but he put his back into it: playfully polychromatic façades, multiple bands of brick offsets, decorative string-courses and porticoed entrance porches.
Perhaps he overstretched himself, as he didn’t build on all the land he bought and later sold it off to less diligent speculators; add in the odd doodlebug-inspired postwar stock and it’s an intriguing mix. I used to live just off here, in an even later addition to the brew: a 1990s social housing block on the site of an old hospital which had previously been an industrial school and a workhouse. So it goes: as humans’ needs change, so does their mark upon the land.
The path snickets right down an unpromising ginnel which suddenly becomes Wandsworth Common, or at least the very bottom corner of it. Hemmed in by houses and the railway (to Crystal Palace, cut in the 1850s, with Wandsworth Common station arriving in the subsequent decade), it gradually opens up to a verdant triangle ending in the Hope pub, built 1864 to take in the major Common, the new railway station and the thirsty newcomers.
Wandsworth Common is one of many London suburbs to have been nicknamed Nappy Valley and we certainly brought our mewling offspring here. Now, one of them is on the phone again, having turned up much further along the walk (am I dawdling in the old country?) and seeking rendez-vous instructions. I give them as I cross the Common, passing a surprisingly murky duck pond formed from an old gravel pit.
It’s a curious common, created somewhat piecemeal from successive parcels of land and split right down the middle by the Crystal Palace railway. The eastern half is mainly football pitches so the western half becomes a curiously elongated picnic area.
At the top is a cricket pitch overlooked by the Fitzhugh Estate tower blocks and behind them, all but hidden by full-leafed trees, the fantastically nightmare-Gothic Royal Victoria Patriotic Building (1858). This was for the orphaned daughters of dead servicemen, their hair shaved to deter lice, their quarters unheated: the patented air-heating system failed, so fireplaces were installed in the staff rooms only.
The RVPB. (Pic: Tristan Forward, geograph.org.uk)
Every morning they would be hosed down in cold water before being set to work hand-pumping water from an underground rain-collection system up to the lead-lined tanks in the towers. The orphanage was nearly (but not) closed down after the revelation of physical and sexual abuse and the death of one of the orphans, whose ghost is said to roam the cloisters.
It then became a hospital, and during World War One 1,800 wounded troops were treated in temporary marquees on what is now the cricket pitch. Then it became a girls’ school and a World War Two internment camp before falling into disrepair. Grade II-listed and thus undemolishable, it was eventually revivified for a mix of business and accommodation: one flat, formerly owned by Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, was recently available for £3m. Among the many other horrors this Gothic exclamation mark has seen, it quite probably hosted Duran Duran jam sessions.
Coming up next: The Big House
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