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.
Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
One fun Tooting Bec Lido fact is that director Guy Ritchie shot Brad Pitt’s boxing ‘pool’ scene here during the making of his crime thriller Snatch in early 2000.
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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Are so you’re hoping to head to these shores next year….Loftus Road on the cards? Did I also read that you’re planning a trip to Montenegro soon? Is that still on, given the COVID situation there? We had a really great trip there a few years back – especially our time up in the Durmitor Mountains, fabulous.
Hey! We landed in Montenegro yesterday. Have a little apartment up in the hills of Tivat overlooking Kotor Bay. It’s rather nice. Hoping, touch wood, to arrive in The UK either December or January. A visit to Loftus Road definitely on the cards. We’ve had a great start to the season and I have a positive feeling that special things are happening.
Montenegro has just hit the UK’s red list, no doubt you know that. Kotor was our first base, but a few days in Zabljak in the mountains was the star part of the trip. Loved it there.
Yeah, the damn red list. We would be arriving in The UK via Belgrade, so I guess just need to hope that the amber situation there stays put. Or even better upgraded to green! What will be will be. Just reading your piece on Tilos….
Lovely spot and great report! Makes me want to go back to London …
Me too ha ha! Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy my articles from Tooting Bec, a neighbourhood very much off the radar for tourists.
Ah, what a lovely place … I wouldn’t mind just sitting on a blanket under one of those trees. Talking of trees, very interesting information about that Fossil Tree.
Well, hope you make it back with Sladja to show her that beautiful sunset.
Thanks for starting my Tooting Bec journey with me! This is an entirely non touristy part of London and indeed there is virtually no blog love for the place.
Looks like a peaceful place to sit and contemplate the mysteries of life. I may have missed it, but however did it come by its name? Glad you are still adventuring Leighton. Stay well. Stay safe. Allan
Hey Allan, thanks for dropping by. Tooting Bec is the name of the local neighbourhood in south London. The term “common” refers to an area of greenery that is left largely as an open field. Not too much landscaping in comparison to a park.
Never been to Tooting Bec but have heard of its lido, the park and its pretty cafe look very welcoming. It’s good to discover so many green spaces in the capital. Hope your move to Montenegro went to plan and you are now settling in.
Thanks Marion, some more articles from Tooting Bec coming out over the next week. We are safely installed in Montenegro and it is lovely! Hope your week is going well…
I’ve always loved the name Tooting Bec. It has such a cheery sound to me. Time was I would have spent days in a park like that – just me and my camera. It never ceases to amaze me how people keep track of dates – this building from 1897, this rock from 1898 – it makes a place seem like peoples’ homes. Which tree did the Queen plant, you never say. Neat fox, I suspect he was a bit put off with you in his garden, though.
I agree, Tooting Bec sounds positively jolly. Yes, I rather cunningly failed to show the actual tree because… (drum roll) … I don’t know which ones they are. Several websites mention the Queen’s tree planting, but I have never seen any plaque or sign relating to them. What a pity.
What a lovely place to have so close to where you were staying. Taking a walk down one of those tree lined paths and finding a shady spot to throw down a blanket sounds like the best way to work. Excited for you and Sladja in your new chapter in Montenegro 🙂
Cheers Meg! Really hoping to take Sladja to Tooting Bec at some point next year. All is well here in Montenegro, we are in a really beautiful spot on the bay of Kotor.
I can’t wait to read more and see your pictures of where you are! I’ve always wanted to see Montenegro 🙂
You were fortunate to live across the street from such a lovely park. I can see that it would be a great place for work and relaxation. The swimming pool looks very inviting but crowds would keep me away too.
Thanks for reading John. It’s been nearly two years since I was last in Tooting Bec, starting to miss the place.
It looks like a great park, recreating nature in the middle of the city as English parks do so well. The sunset photo is gorgeous.
Thanks for dropping by. For all its frustrations, London knows how to do beautiful parks.
Great post. I love the history of the park and that little fox is so sweet. I hope that you guys make it there next year. 🤞🏻
I’ve honestly never heard of Tooting Bec Common, but given that I only had a brief stay in London almost six years ago, I can imagine that this is more of a local spot than the touristy circuit that I did back then. Looks absolutely tranquil, and I can see that it’s a lovely respite from the bustle of city life itself! I hope you’re off to a good start in your new country of residence, and I can’t wait to hear more about it soon!
Tooting Bec is a green, vibrant and multicultural neighbourhood with a great market and food scene. But nevertheless of little consequence to tourists. All is well here in Montenegro, thanks. I shall have to try and show a bit of it via an Instagram story.
What a lovely park. This only shows that we need nature in our surroundings. We need trees in our streets, plants in our gardens and flowers on our balcony. We need nature as our neighbour all the time. Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva
Absolutely, Aiva, I can’t disagree with any of that. I think the lack of such a place near our place in Belgrade was a key factor in why life in the Serbian capital was such a struggle over the last ten months. Hope you’re having a great week!
A lovely natural spot to land now and then and catch your breath. A sweet moment catching the fox at rest, and a beautiful description of the sun setting. What is the derivation of the name Tooting Bec?
Glad you enjoyed my virtual tour of Tooting Bec Common, Ruth. The history behind the name is a little complicated but really interesting. Check it out here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tooting_Bec