The bits of London you won’t find in a guide book

The other day, I had a day off and didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I decided to go swimming but wanted something a little more exciting than my local pool. A few people had suggested the lido in Tooting, an area I’m unfamiliar with. So I took the plunge and decided to get myself acquainted with Balham and Tooting. 

Each part of London is kind of like a little world of it’s own. There’s a distinctly different feel to Brixton than there is to Kensington, or from Richmond (where the bus I was on starts) than there is to Tooting (where the bus route ends). As soon as I got off the bus, I was in the teeming, bustling crowds of Tooting High Street. As opposed to the gentle quietness of Highgate, this was the busy, noisy sounds of life being lived in a small space. The shops immediately in front of me were an Indian greengrocers, a South Asian restaurant and (strangely enough) a ‘Caribbean and Bagel takeaway’!
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Getting into the spirit of things, I grabbed some fruit at the greengrocers and was persuaded by the man at the till to buy some freshly baked naan breads. They were still warm so instead of waiting for a Naan Stop later, I got one out and munched as I walked. 

I got to Balham train station before long, where frightened locals hid on the platforms during the war. Some were killed and I was guessing that the big pictures outside were some kind of memorial to them, although I couldn’t find anything to confirm this. 

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I was on Tooting Common before long, a lovely open space where children played rounders and mums/nannies with buggies looked glamorous and bored. On one section of the path which leads across the Common to the lido, there is an old by-law which says that one must hop. Just this section, mind you. As the law has not been repealed, and I didn’t want to be arrested, I got hopping. I mistakenly thought it would be a funny thing to do for ten seconds or so, but the section of path was quite lengthy. I guess now is the time to admit that I still had slightly sore calves from my vigorous dance mat session in Bognor Regis so my leg was pretty upset with me after quite some time of hopping. I checked for policemen and, as there were none about, risked my luck and walked the final section. 

I crossed over a road and plunged into thick trees and bushes. There is an unkempt attractiveness to Tooting Common. Like once a year, someone comes and has a quick tidy-up, just makes sure the paths are still walkable, then leaves it alone again.
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It gives you the impression that you’re first discovering something unseen for centuries, just a small pathway to prove that people once walked here. It is mostly unpopulated too, so I spent the majority of my walk on the Common without seeing other people.

 All of a sudden, noises and splashes invaded my solitude. Through a fence I could see the blue of the lido. After finally working out the way in, I paid my £6 and picked one of the many colourful changing room doors to put my stuff in. This lido is pretty well renowned for being one of the largest open air pools in Europe. It is 100 yards long and 30 yards wide. There is a million gallons of (cold) water in it! When lots of outdoor pools were closed down, this one clung on, thanks in large part to the South London Swimming Club, who’s home is at the lido. They swim every morning of the year, even Christmas Day! 

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Despite there being a lot of people there, only about half were in the water and all at the shallow end. I had the deep end mostly to myself apart from a few who were doing lengths. Lots of people were sitting around the pool on the benches or playing on the grassy area by the shallow kids’ pool. I approached a set of stairs and gingerly put a foot in, inhaling sharply when the cold hit me. The other foot went in. Down a step, up to my knees. More inhaling and telling myself to breathe slowly. Down again, thighs in. Cold! I paused here. I realised that if I didn’t want to spent two hours getting in, there was only one thing for it. I got out, walked to the side of the pool, and jumped! And it wasn’t as bad as I thought. It was cold, of course, but did not induce the heart attack I had feared it would. I got moving straight away, to warm up. 

I’ll do ten lengths, just a quick one. Maybe twenty if I feel energetic after just ten. I had forgot…. ‘just ten’ in my local pool took about ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Ten lengths in this pool was going to take waaaaay longer. By the time I’d done one length, I was panting a bit. I had forgotten about the 100 yards thing. But I had paid £6 so was determined to get my money’s worth. I powered up and down, doing backstroke to go faster at the top end, and breaststroke at the bottom, to avoid knocking out any children. Ten lengths later, I was a lot more breathless than I’d expected to be and went off to the showers, congratulating myself on ‘getting my money’s worth’ but hoping the rest of my walk wouldn’t be too energetic. 

Post-swim extreme hunger set in and I grabbed another naan bread, while sitting at the side of the pool, drying my feet and putting my shoes on. A man with a Spanish accent, pranced about on the edge of the pool, jumped (belly-flopped) in, looking to me for approval as soon as his head came back up. He then came over and attempted small talk. Given his unimpressive jumping style, I smiled politely but finished putting on my shoes and left. Back on to Tooting Common I went, and headed for a duck pond I knew was around here somewhere. 

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One winter day, about five years ago, my friend Joe and I came to Tooting to look round and explore the Common. We found this duck pond, frozen over. I was checking how thick the ice was by pressing my foot on the surface. Of course it took my weight so I pressed a little harder, leaned more heavily with my shoe. Of course it then cracked and in went the foot, right up to the ankle. I was wearing mid-calf length boots and this little ‘dip’ left me with a freezing cold, wet foot, for the rest of the day. One of my less clever moments in life…!

There was also a little cafe, where Joe and I had sat, taking in the view. I forget what we ate/drank then, but to commemorate being back after so long, I got an ice cream. It seemed like the right thing to do. My ice cream and I then left the Common and walked back toward Balham train station. On the way there, I passed a massive apartment building called Du Cane Court.
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According to legend, this was a landmark for German bombers during the war, leading to rumours about German spies living on the top floor and the building looking like the shape of the swastika from above. I walked around it to check the rumour and it seems to be a giant E shape. I’m not sure whether the rumour-spreaders ever went to the trouble of doing this because it honestly took me about ten minutes to figure out that it was not a swastika shape. Anyway, maybe they know something I don’t. 

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Inside the foyer, there is an old-school glamour to everything. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d learned that it had been used in films. 

 

Shortly after this apartment block, I wound my way around some side streets to Wandsworth Common, the far side of which was Oscar Wilde’s one-time residence, the ominous-looking prison behind the high walls. More bored, glamorous mums/nannies were gathered in a huge circle, chitchatting. An ice-cream van played tunes loudly and there was a bowling green hidden away in a far corner. Around the edge of the Common, where I stopped to wait for the bus, was a restaurant called Chez Bruce, where Marco Pierre White first made his name in London. This is Bellevue Road, a total step out of what the rest of my walk has been like. Bellevue Road is fashionable, trendy and littered with young professionals, supping their lattes outside high-end delis and expensive bistros. A flower shop had spilled some of its goodies out onto the pavement and, in the spirit of summer and my walk, I bought a potted sunflower, which is currently enjoying its new home in a bigger pot, on my patio.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. I love your walks through London and the way you look at places and objects. This is the second post where you went to a lido – I had no idea such things still existed!
    I Googled Du Cane Court and found a book in Amazon all about it’s history, the german bombers part is fantastic – the kind of thing you would never know in a million years (maybe its in the book as well?)

    Look forward to your next stroll through an arcane part of London.

    Reply

    • There will be a Radio 4 prog today at 10.30 on Lidos if you’re interested. If you miss it try the “Listen Again” player thingy later on.

      Reply

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you’re enjoying my walking posts. I really love doing them. And yes, there are still lidos in existence. Thank goodness, because they’re great places!

      Reply

      • I’ve been thinking of doing a ‘walk’ piece for Dubai but all we have is malls and searing heat outside, but I’ll think about what can be done.

      • I’m sure you’ll come up with something!

      • For Jumeirahjames. Any chance the old wind towers are still there in the Bastikiya area just up from the abra terminus on the Dubai side of the Creek. Been through that area a number of times back in the 1980s. (Maybe include abra trip from the Deira side. Btw do the rowers still operate as well as the motorised abras?). A walk round Bastikiya would be interesting. Also what about the Fort Museum & Gold Souk?

      • Good thinking Rambler5319! It’d be really interesting to read a walking post with all that in it.

  2. It’s very nice 😀

    Reply

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