Here’s a weird one for me to get my head around – taking one bus from near my house, going for a walk, and ending up across the other side of south London, on Wandsworth Common. That’s what happened to me on the mental map-bending third leg of my Capital Ring walk.
With my “proper” camera out for a month, my little compact came out to do its duty in Crystal Palace Park. A glance over towards the QE2 bridge at Dartford, and off. Past Crystal Palace rail station, and then on an annoying zig-zag walk inserted into the route so you can take in another fine view, this time from Belvedere Road, Anerley. Then it’s over into Westow Park, an attractive little hilly escape, and from there to the park with the worst name in the world – Upper Norwood Recreation Ground. Seriously, had Croydon Council run out of imagination by the time they got to that one? How about Paxton Meadow? Dougie Freedman Memorial Gardens? No, Upper Norwood Recreation Ground it was.
Despite the terrible name, it’s a lovely bit of green surrounded by quiet suburban streets – well, not so quiet for me, as the kids were coming out of school at the time. So far, so pleasant. Coming out onto Beulah Hill wasn’t so much fun, because walking alongside a traffic jam rarely is, but the surprise of seeing a great view over London from Convent Hill made up for it. Left into Biggin Hill, and below some allotments, the Croydon suburbs opened up in front of me, dominated by the twin towers of the old Croydon Power Station – now incorporated into Ikea on Purley Way. At the bottom of the hill, a real treat, Biggin Woods.
Another remnant of the Great North Wood, it’s a tiny wooded patch that, within just a few seconds, makes you feel you’ve travelled deep into a forest. Well, if you ignore the idiot R&B being blasted out from a nearby house, that is. But that seems to be the theme of this first stretch of the walk – it’s easy to imagine when it really was all fields and woods round here; the homes just seem to be a rude intrusion.
From here, a change of scene as SE19 gives way to SW16 and rows of neat semis – until I saw a St George’s flag billowing from a nearby house, I thought I’d entered another affluent corner. This once was, though – Norwood Grove contains attractively laid-out gardens and the old home of one of the founders of P&O. Nice life, until you consider that Arthur Anderson was also an early backer of Crystal Palace FC. Signs facing each other across a stream tell you you’re leaving Norwood Grove and entering Streatham Common. A set of gardens called The Rookery are a remnant of where people used to flock to SW16 to sample its reviving spa waters. No, seriously.
A pause at the cafe on the common’s south side – where the chit-chat from the yummy mummies is about house prices – and across to the foot of Streatham High Road. Years back, not far from here, I used to go to parties at my old college’s halls of residence at Furzedown, at the bottom end of Tooting. But there’s no reminiscences of drunken japes here – instead it’s pounding the pavement towards Streatham Common station, and on up Conyers Road which, with its ornate water works, once must have been a street of desirable villas, but years of neglect by Lambeth council and some of its residents make this a messy, cluttered avenue, with one house looking like it was being squatted. A bit like my own street in Charlton, although the squatting opportunities are more limited in SE7.
Past a street sign featuring the painted out motto “BOROUGH OF WANDSWORTH” – a reminder to Boris and pals that London’s boroughs haven’t always been set in stone (the original Wandsworth borough featured Streatham and Clapham, the current one focuses more on Battersea) – and onwards, into the “brighter borough” proper and Tooting Bec Common, where lads play football and young couples wallow in the evening sunshine. It’s not the quietest of corners, though – the path keeps returning to the Brighton main line, with Sussex-bound expresses charging past every few minutes.
After this, it’s into Balham, emerging onto the high road at Du Cane Court, one of London’s best-known apartment block developments. I decide to continue on for a while, to avoid the rush hour Tube, and it’s not far to Wandsworth Common, with boardwalks across its ponds and, er, the noise from the Brighton main line once again. But turning left across the common, it’s another nicely laid-out bit of Victorian suburbia, with squirrels darting across the paths.
From here, the walk continues past Wandsworth Prison – but the day I did this was the day of the shooting at the jail, and many streets were cordoned off. A Clapham Junction-bound bus was too tempting. The rest would have to wait for another day.