Tom Sutcliffe on open places


It is six months now since I was at a performance, a bit less since I was at a church service (which it would now be possible for me to attend – though not yet my 8am Mass – with our new vicar at St Peter’s, Streatham Fr Steffan Mathias trained at Mirfield proving quick off the mark). Nevertheless, not since I was a young Chichester chorister in the early 1950s have I done without theatre so completely. It was one very good reason I regretted my parents leaving the flat we rented in Southsea one street away from the King’s Theatre and moving to Emsworth, that I had to stop going to Miss Mary Tonkin’s ballet class which I had been doing since I was five – ballet being my first love, and the King’s being the theatre I saw so much at an early age.
Instead of travel by either of us, Meredith and I have been taking walks a lot. And South London has been showing off its variety of countryside right here in the capital – of which I have frankly spent far too much of my life completely innocent. Londoners of course know their famous parks – such as Battersea Park and Dulwich Park. The biggest of all is Richmond Park, a third the size of Windsor Great Park and like it in origin, meant for hunting. We also in the south have our commons, Clapham, Wandsworth, Tooting, Streatham, sometimes crowded with people not all walking their dogs, sometimes virtually empty – each of whose preservation had to be seriously and well fought for in the early 19th-century by William Cobbett when urbanisation everywhere was the threat. There are also many many smaller strips of land worth exploring, where nature has been left blessedly free of interference (parkification – which of course costs money in upkeep).
A short drive from where we live is Mitcham Common part of which has become a golf course, and much of which is crossed by various roads. But on its east side one can park easily in a side street, cross the busroute road, and enter a stretch of calm tall-growing woodland (which I had never done before) emerging quite quickly the other side on to a flat space covered in now appreciated and too rare acid grassland leading to a modest lake with a hill rising behind it and visiting geese and other birds, all well worth the short walk round the water. The hillside if you climb it which is no strain falls away towards Croydon covered with grazing grass and offers views of the surroundings. Nothing like as good as the views of Kent one gets descending from the Crystal Palace plateau, past Beaulieu Heights which is a small and engaging survival from the great north wood south of the Thames that offered good hunting in Tudor times. Hence, of course, Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace (demolished by a mistress of Charles II to sell off as builders’ merchandise and thereby pay her gambling debts). The greatest attack on our English oaks of course was by Henry VIII himself – creating the Royal Navy in its earliest manifestation, leaving many tracts of land naked for farming.
Walking distance from us and above Streatham Common are the Rookery (house demolished when its gardens were preserved as a park), and in Croydon borough a few yards further the White House with extensive grassland. The Rookery woods are further survival of the north wood, along with a short stretch at the top of Knight’s Hill, south from West Norwood. Biggin Wood is off Beulah Hill a street beyond the White House grassland, and beside some profitable allotments – where a few years back some East European enthusiasts were said to have dug out a cellarage for themselves under one of their well-run vegetable gardens. Blessed times.