Travel Report: Tooting Bec Common, London.
Tooting Bec Common.
May 2019. There’s always something comforting about turning the corner onto Elmbourne Road and catching those first green flushes of Tooting Bec Common. After all, this beautiful city park has become a symbol of my London home. Not that I stay on the common itself under a tree, I should hasten to add. But rather in a house across the road at my friend Henry’s place.
I first came to Tooting Bec to stay with Henry back in 2015. I was in between teaching contracts and in need of a home to recharge my batteries. It turned out to be the perfect place to rest, develop my blog and begin the search for a new teaching post.
Having Tooting Bec Common just across the road was a huge part of why I loved the neighbourhood so much. I could head out the front door and be on the common in under a minute. Usually, I’d put on a podcast, disappear into the greenery and escape the world.
This 152-acre public space once belonged to the moneyed Graveney family, who received the land in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Subsequently, the land served as the family’s private grounds, upon which they built a manor and a priory.
By 1440 the Graveneys were long gone and local authorities granted the land to Eton College. The perfect area, by all accounts, for the college to build a number of new sports fields. Eventually, in the 1870s, the grounds once again returned to the local council, who unveiled plans for transforming them into a public park.
Tooting Bec Common.
Any classic English park worth its salt has a pretty pond. And in this respect Tooting Bec Common certainly doesn’t disappoint. This is where locals come to sit, think and partake in the time honoured English tradition of feeding the ducks.
Moreover, the pond is home to a family of turtles. Well, red-eared terrapins if one wants to get technical. If you’re lucky, and believe me it doesn’t happen very often, you can catch them huddled together on the chunk of bark they use as a sunning rock.
I had been coming to that pond for years when, one evening at sundown, I made a surprising discovery. Indeed I had never heard of the Tooting Common Fossil Tree. The stumpy remains of this old tree apparently date back to the Jurassic Purbeck period! Yup, that’s roughly 145 million years ago when there were dinosaurs roaming the Earth.
A local property developer by the name of Alfred Heaver discovered the stump in 1897 at Bedford Hill House. It was then relocated to Tooting Bec Common the following year as a permanent display.
In my last few stays with Henry I would go jogging around the common in what I can only describe as mediocre attempts to get fit. Over time, I learned where the quietest trails were and which paths had the prettiest trees. In fact, the common has some stunning trees, including horse chestnuts, elms and a number of oaks planted by Elizabeth I during a visit to Tooting in 1600.
What to see and do in London.
Dating back to 1898, Tooting Bec Common Cafe is delightfully quaint, and a popular gathering spot for locals. This rustic, half-timbered refreshment house offers a full range of hot and cold drinks, in addition to cooked breakfasts, jacket potatoes, sandwiches and burgers.
It’s a particularly charming spot, especially when the local dog walking community gathers to sit and chit chat while their canines take a breather.
Inside, an historical board gives a brief overview of the place, detailing the cafe’s various owners. One incumbent was a certain Mrs. Claudina Ruby, a baker’s wife who ran the place from 1908 until her death in 1932.
There’s also a wonderful painting of the cafe made by a local artist. In many ways this could have been the perfect working spot for me. But alas they don’t have wifi, scuppering my plans to make it a regular hangout.
In any case I’m usually happy enough on a blanket under a tree. Just me and a modest picnic from Sainsbury’s to keep me company while I hotspot from my phone to my Mac. A nice way to work on my latest article or do some photo editing.
Tooting Bec Common.
The common’s claim to fame is the amazing Tooting Bec Lido, Britain’s largest freshwater swimming pool. That’s precisely 100 yards long, 33 yards wide in case you were wondering. From a distance you would hardly know what lies within, as it looks more like a run-down electric plant than a leisure complex. They have at least given the entrance a lick of paint.
I never actually made it inside. I did try once, but the queues were horrific. Furthermore, having seen just how crowded and noisy the pool gets, I was hardly inspired to come back and try again. One for my next visit perhaps, if I can catch the place at a quiet moment.
Having the park right on my doorstep meant that sometimes, the common quite literally came to me. It’s not unusual to see foxes darting between the trees. But I’ll never forget how startled I was one morning, when I opened the bedroom curtains to find a fox mooching around the garden.
He promptly scarpered of course, as soon as he saw me. Happily though, I saw him on half a dozen more occasions over the years. Or maybe it was a different fox each time, who knows. My most memorable sighting came in August 2019 when Mr. Fox was chilling on the garden chair. He seemed on the verge of napping, totally off guard. Hence I was able to grab a short video before he became aware of my presence.
In the final days of my most recent Tooting Bec stay, Sladja and I had starting dating, long distance. She in China, me in London, we began hatching our plans of a life together. First a scrapped project in Mongolia. Next, a scheme for me to join her in China that got brutally shot down at London’s Chinese Embassy.
Finally, we came up with the idea of Cambodia and… well… the rest is history. In the late afternoons I would head out to Tooting Bec Common for a long walk while we exchanged texts and audio messages. Sometimes a phone call if the line was good.
On one such evening I’d timed my walk for sunset and the colours were stunning. The sky a cracked grey-white. The bed of the common a juxtaposition of deep green and light brown, the orange disc of the sun melting behind distant trees.
Tooting Bec Common.
“It’s beautiful here this evening” I told Sladja. “I want you to see it one day”. Hopefully, we’ll do just that in early 2022, COVID-permitting of course. Until then, we’ll make do with this blog on one of my favourite corners of leafy London.
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