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Wimbledon Common, London, UK

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Pigeons on a park bench.

This entry will try and describe a long walk that took place in one of London's biggest and best green open spaces – Wimbledon Common. The sheer size and lovely greenery of the locale cannot be stressed enough. It almost transforms the way one thinks of London, so used are we to thinking of the city as one gigantic grey metropolis, full of bricks, glass, concrete and bloody mobile phones.

Wimbledon Common is vast and beautiful, and in no way does this entry attempt to be comprehensive. Rather, it aims to offer a taster for the place in the hope that, if ever you get the chance, you'll make time for a bracing walk there.

The Common

Wimbledon Common and Putney Lower Common are located in an area covering three separate London boroughs: Wandsworth, Merton and Kingston. Already this should give you some indication of its size but, for a more accurate reckoning, the Wimbledon and Putney Commons website states that the area comprises 1140 acres (461 hectares). This countryside is made up of a combination of scrubland, woodland and heathland, and contains some lovely ponds with great names like 'Hookhamslade' and 'King's Mere'. There's even an area of land on the Common called 'Queen's Butt'1.

History

In many respects those who enjoy the wild, unenclosed Common owe a debt to one man, Sir Henry Peek. On 11 November, 1864, the dastardly Earl Spencer, Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon, called a meeting of local residents where he put forth a proposal (which would later evolve into a Bill presented to Parliament) that 700 acres of the common be enclosed (forming a park), that a couple of acres be set aside so that he could build himself a nice big house (near the site of the present day windmill) and that 300 or so acres be built upon. Citing the 'noxious mists and fogs' and nuisance 'gypsies' as the main reason for him wanting to create this bill, he presented it to a largely sympathetic Parliament. Fortunately for us, the bill met with some resistance coming mainly from a Select Committee whose interest it was to investigate green open spaces around urban London. With them was Sir Henry Peek, who established and chaired the Wimbledon Select Committee and went head to head with the Earl, eventually forcing him to come to a compromise. A new bill was eventually drafted that created a body of Conservators (still present today) whose raison d'être was (and still is) to maintain the common and to keep it open and public.

And it's great! Wimbledon Common is massive; it's quite easy to get lost, to lose your bearings completely (although you can use a map). But if you've got time on your hands, the best way to wander round the Common is to, well... wander. Getting lost in the woods is half the fun. But make sure you take a hot flask of tea (or a hip flask of whisky) and some nutritious nibbles to keep your sugar levels up. Despite the residual background traffic/city noises, you do feel like you're in the countryside, especially when you spy, hidden among trees, old wooden signs that read, 'Do not remove spawn and tadpoles from the ponds'.

Walking along the paths and horse trails, the woods offer up rich satisfying smells, quite unlike petrol fumes or the burning fat of fast food. The earthy, woody smell of mushrooms and fungus, the horse manure and the peaty mulch of rotting leaves underfoot is heady and pleasing. You really feel that you're out in the country, that a long walk like this one is doing your lungs and soul a whole bunch of good.

The London Scottish Golf Club

Interestingly, at certain points on the walk, you run the slight risk of being knocked on the head by errant golf balls. The London Scottish Golf Club is plumb in the middle of the Common. The Club House is next to the Windmill (see section further down) and it sports not one, but five Scottish Lion Rampant flags - well, two are actually flags; the other three are rampant designs in the shape of shields decorating the clubhouse frontage. This woodland/common land golf course costs £15 a round, Tuesday to Friday; £10 pounds on Mondays. What's amusing is that all the golfers wear bright red sweaters! They might not be known for their fashion sense, 'but can none of these folk think for themselves!', you may think to yourself, derisively. In actual fact, the wearing of 'red tops' is compulsory, presumably so that walkers can see the golfers clearly and so stay well clear of them.

The club has a resident professional with a nicely equipped shop, and the club house is licensed to serve alcohol and food.

The Windmill

The Windmill is a nice surprise with two grand pine trees marking the entrance to the drive (The Windmill Car Park is also a good place to start your walk - see the end of this entry for more details). It's now a museum and seems to be, at least in part, a private residence at the back. A plaque on the wall proudly states that Robert Baden Powell, 'Chief Scout of the World', wrote Scouting for Boys there in 1908. Unfortunately, the Windmill Museum was closed when this Researcher was there but the Windmill is open during the months of April to October inclusive; 2-5pm Saturdays, 11-5pm on Sundays and public holidays.

The Windmill Tea rooms are open seven days a week, 9.30-5pm, serving 'home-cooked food, lunches and Sunday brunches'.

Near the entrance to the windmill is a very informative public notice board that gives one a good impression of the general management and structure of both Wimbledon Common and the adjacent Putney Heath. Together they are a 'designated site of special scientific interest' and 'a Candidate Special Area of Conservation'. An elected committee called the 'Wimbledon and Putney Commons Conservators' are custodians of the land and are responsible for its maintenance and for the protection of its rich and varied wildlife. The committee also organises Wildlife Events in Wandsworth. In the summer you can go on organised bat walks and go 'pond dipping' (this is very popular amongst teachers and school children), in the winter you can enrol on an organised winter tree tour or go on a 'fungi foray'. You can even have someone show you the grasshoppers and crickets in Morden Cemetery!

The one thing that big woods have is a lot of wood... well, they would, wouldn't they? And our handy little notice board informs us that wood for home fires is for sale to the general public. At the time of writing, the prices are as follows: prepared logs are £10 per car boot, £20 per hatchback estate; unprepared wood costs £7 per car boot and £14 per hatchback.

The War Memorial

In the school playing fields of Putney Vale lies the War Memorial - an imposing monument in the shape of a large cross, dedicated to the fallen of World War I. The epitaph inscribed on the cross has faded with the seasons and is barely readable, but what it says is poignant:

Nature provides the best monument. The perfecting of the works of nature must be left to the gentle hand of time but each returning spring will bring a fresh tribute to those whom it is desired to keep in everlasting remembrance.

It's easy, perhaps among those that know nothing of war, to be familiar with monuments like this, and yet remain unmoved. From the vantage point of the cross you can hear the shrieks and calls of schoolchildren, see them playing rugby and football, thoughts of war a million miles away. But the words written here are touching. And if you let them, the sudden gusts of wind that stir the piles of fallen leaves around the cross, take on deeper resonance. Dancing in the air, the leaves are like lonely spirits roused from troubled sleep.

The monument goes on to tell us that 'the land around – 42 acres – is dedicated to public use in memory of all those who having been resident or belonging to families resident in the adjoining district gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918'.

Getting There

As stated at the beginning of the entry, Wimbledon Common lies over three different London boroughs - Merton, Kingston and Wandsworth. The London postcodes for each are SW19, SW15 and SW15 respectively. You can start your walk at Wimbledon Parkside (A219) and pull in to a road called The Causeway. It's best to park somewhere near 'The Fox and Grapes' pub opposite Cannizaro Park. Another very good place to start your walk is from the Windmill Car Park. The Windmill and car park are at the end of Windmill Road, SW19, again off Wimbledon Parkside (A219) but a bit further up than The Causeway turn-off.

If you're travelling by train you can get to Wimbledon from Waterloo Station and from there it's not much of a walk (get an A-Z map to help you) or you can take a number 93 Bus from Hartfield Road which is just opposite the station.

And Finally...

Do you remember The Wombles? Have you ever heard of them, even? Well, it would be churlish not to mention them in this entry. The Wombles were dearly-loved fictional characters that became something of a British institution. The nine-inch-tall Wombles (invisible to humans) lived on Wimbledon Common and were renowned for collecting litter and generally keeping the Common clean and tidy. Created by Elisabeth Beresford, the first Wombles book appeared in 1968 and, in 1973, the BBC turned the Wombles into a long-running TV programme narrated by the legendary Bernard Cribbins.

1According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the word 'butt', as well as its more obvious meaning, can also mean 'a mound on or in front of which a target is set up for archery or shooting; a grouse-shooter's stand'.

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