Walking round London pt23: Wandsworth Common to Wimbledon Park
Gallows, Glitter, gravestones, Garrat(t), Vikings, Mughals and Mr Wendal
(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.)
Leaving Wandsworth Common behind, I cross Trinity Road and walk down Alma Terrace, a surprisingly popular name for pubs and places considering the somewhat chaotic Crimean War battle it commemorates. (The British forces were led by Lord Raglan, who also has quite a few pubs named after him considering the Charge of the Light Brigade was his fault.)
Alma Terrace leads away from the sudden sharp din of Trinity Road down an increasingly quiet cottage-lined lane alongside a scrap of common ground. All seems peaceful and good with the world until you realise the huge wall in front of you is part of the bulk of Wandsworth Prison, Britain’s largest jail.
Built in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction, it was designed on the panopticon principle: half a dozen wings fan out from a central tower, from which a warden could watch anyone at any time. It also followed the then-fashionable “separate” or solitary-confinement model, with individual toilet facilities. This was later abandoned, partly as the system tends to increase mental illness but logistically to cram more prisoners in: the sanitary facilities were ripped out and as late as 1996 inmates had to undergo the daily ritual known as slopping out.
Those inmates have included the famous and infamous: career criminals Ronnie Kray and Charles Bronson; arty types Oscar Wilde and Pete Doherty; political figures Chris Huhne, Julian Assange and MLK assassin James Earl Ray; and Max Clifford and Gary Glitter, to whom you can add your own description.
Wandsworth was also a killing prison, the regional gallows for London and the south-east. Among the 135 prisoners hanged here between 1878 and 1961 were acid-bath murderer John George Haigh (1949) and Nazi propagandist William ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce (1946).
It was where 19-year-old Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953 for telling his young gun-toting friend Chris Craig to “let him have it”. As Elvis Costello wrote, “Craig fired the pistol but was too young to swing / So the police took Bentley and the very next thing: ‘Let him dangle’.” But not all guests received their full dollop of justice or injustice: Ronnie Biggs lasted two years before taking a rope ladder over the wall and dropping into a laundry van.
I opt to leave the scene on foot, finding my way to the top of the long and splendid Magdalen Road. As I turn onto it there’s a couple of delicious 1930s Arts and Crafts houses, and the entire avenue smacks of gentility.
As I pass the Magdalen Tennis Club, the air rings with the unmistakable ponging thwock of tennis serves, presumably audible from the prison and easily as auditorily evocative as the more often-cited leather on willow. We’ve definitely moved up the tennis class scale from Biggin Hill — yummy mummies park 4x4s and quaff pinot while they wait for their dear offspring — but there’s still a way to go yet, both in finance and in the less buyable benchmark of ability.
Having detoured into Wandsworth Cemetery, which slides down the hill between Magdalen Road and the Waterloo line, I spy a husband-and-wife headstone upon which her name and memorial has been assiduously cleaned, whereas his hasn’t. There’s a story there.
Next door to the boneyard, Earlsfield Library is a pretty little thing typical of this country’s blessed interwar public services, and over the road Earlsfield Baptist Church is resplendent on some sort of open day. They’ve picked a good day for it. At half past noon it’s cracking the flags, and Garratt Lane is packed with excitable children and their barely-restrained parents: “Please! Just for 10 minutes can we please! Be! Sensible!”
I empathise because I remember those days spent not far from here — and as if summoned, my eminently sensible, never in any way annoying 16-year-old daughter Ella materialises. Having arranged to meet me at Wimbledon Park, she’s worked her way three kilometres back down the Capital Ring to collar me. If she sticks with the plan to accompany me to the end, I make that 16km she’ll be covering in ankle-socks and Doc Martens with her overnight bag on her back. Hmm.
Garratt Lane is badly named. Not the first part — preserving the name of a tenement called le Garret, from the old French for watchtower (from which we also get garrison) — but the second, if ‘Lane’ evokes a bucolic idyll of foliage and silence. It may have been that in its ancient days, connecting Wandsworth and Merton Abbey along the valley of the river Wandle, but now this is a noisy busy road funneling through a tight bridge under a trainline.
The line opened in 1838 between Nine Elms and Woking, extended to Southampton in 1840 and Waterloo in 1848. The station here was opened in 1884 and named Earlsfield after a local mansion, perhaps as a demand attached to the land bequeathed to the railway. Before that, the area was better known as Garrat (among other spellings) — but as we have seen at Anerley and elsewhere, railway stations have a habit of renaming places for future generations.
To be honest, the noise is something of a shock after the string of commons crossed. Thankfully we quickly dive off the main drag and onto Penwith Road, laid out in the 1860s. We cross the Wandle, the river which shares its etymology with Wandsworth — ‘Wendelsorde’ in the Domesday Book, meaning enclosure of a man named Waendel; it’s presumably also the root for the eponymous homeless hero of US rappers Arrested Development’s 1992 hit Mr Wendal.
The river itself doesn’t look like much as we cross it, but the presence of a concrete divider is a hint that this has been a working river. Dropping 200ft in just 10 miles from Croydon source to Thames outfall, it’s one of London’s fastest-flowing rivers and powered watermills producing flour, leather, metal, paper, tobacco, textiles and gunpowder. By the early 19th Century the river was hemmed in by mills, operating 68 water-wheels.
The Wandle also attracted earlier visitors from afar. Little Viking heads on the bridge commemorate the Nordics who fetched up here a few times for a bit of pillaging.
We take a left onto Ravensbury Terrace, parallel with the Wandle, and until 1965 we’d be leaving London: this is the boundary between Wandsworth and Wimbledon, the latter being part of the Merton borough which was only officially part of the capital upon the creation of the GLC.
As the road sweeps round there’s a curious first-floor double door; it turns out this was an Airfix factory, recently redeveloped as a photographic studio. Such delights abound for those who look around. On the corner of Haslemere Ave and Lucien Rd there’s a lovely Silver Bullet festival caravan; round the corner on Gordondale there’s an impressive first-floor extension of glass and tempered steel, taking in the gentle northern light.
Durnsford Road Recreation Ground, former farmland protected by the municipality as the surrounding streets mushroomed, is nicer than its workaday name suggests, and after a brief diversion up a ginnel — affording a peek through a locked gate into an overgrown wonderland of a back passage — we’re presented with the Wimbledon Mosque.
It’s an arresting sight, after a morning of redbrick and greensward: elegant cream tiling, domes and minarets, with brutal air conditioning units spoiling the line but adding to the otherness. The first purpose-built mosque in south London, it was built in 1977 on the site of a car garage, and local architect Jack Godfrey-Gilbert certainly threw his back into following a classic Islamic late-Mughal style.
This was strong, unusual stuff in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Architecture historian Shahed Saleem called it “the first time such ornate and literal translations of Islamic ornament had been seen in Britain since the Woking mosque of 1889.” However, whereas that came out of the Victorian grab-bag of architectural Orientalism, this was something different: not a patriarchal museum piece but an attempt to connect. Wittingly or not, it was influential or at least typical of what was to follow: Saleem calls it “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.”
Coming up next: Into Wimbledon
NORTHERN QUARTER, SAT 5 MAY
EASTERN QUARTER, SAT 26 MAY
SOUTHERN QUARTER, SAT 9 JUN
• Pt23: …to Wimbledon Park