A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Brighton Cross

Kip Fenn
A novel about
the 21st century


































19 - Mitcham Common, low-rise housing and the wisdom of neighbourhood wardens

Suitably refreshed I head for the Common and pass into the Borough of Merton. Almost immediately, I find an old white-painted metal signpost with just two pointers at right angles, both say the same thing 'Horse ride', and both support the cut-out shape of a horse. This could be a very useful sign if I was short-sighted, had forgotten my glasses, and had just ridden my horse onto the Common from Mitcham Road.

Mitcham Common today is 460 acres of former heathland. It used to cover a larger area (around 660 acres), stretching south and southeast towards Croydon and Beddington. In earlier times, it must have shared a boundary with the Carew estate and, in particular, the Carew deer land, which eventually became Beddington Sewage Farm. There have been some bitter disputes over the land, especially on the boundary between Mitcham and Beddington. In the 1870s a plan to extend the sewage farm was rejected due to public protest. Even in modern times, ownership of a small part of the Common has been fought over by local residents anxious to keep it in tact. Eric Montague has written a detailed book on 'The history of Mitcham Common' (along with many others on Mitcham). Although there have been a few archaeological finds showing evidence of Neolithic activity, there's not much; and the scant knowledge of Bronze Age use of the Common seems to depend on late historical records which refer to archaeological evidence (no longer extant) of two possible settlement areas, Maiden Hill and Sundridge Ground, the latter being in the southeast corner of the Common not far from my route. Both of these sites were on slightly raised ground, probably because the Wandle flooded regularly.

I cut across the easterly corner of the Common, marked as a cricket pitch in the 19th century, and across long grass (covered by a thin layer of snow today) in a northerly direction along the line of the 300 easting. I skirt round a hillock, which would be good for rolling down, or cycle tricks, or (in this weather) sledging. As I exit to a road called Commonside East, a sign erected by the 'Mitcham Common Wardens working in partnership with Merton Police' warns that, under the Road Traffic Act 1988, 'it is an offense to drive or ride a mechanically-propelled vehicle on common land on any pathway or bridleway'. Commonside East runs for almost a mile along the northern perimeter of the Common, but not continuously, since it is split into two or three sections. Along this one, there are plain two-story properties, some semi-detached or in blocks of flour - it seems a quiet area, and the houses have a calm view of the Common, unless of course mechanically-propelled vehicles are racing up and down hillocks.

I turn right into Chestnut Grove, which runs in a north-south direction very close to the 300 easting. The southern end of the road has modernish red and yellow brick houses, but further along the properties are older style with bays, in terraces of four. On the left (west side) are Dahlia Gardens and Elm Gardens, and a garishly painted brick church building. On the right are Hazel Close, a small building site where 'The Housing Corporation and London Quadrant Housing' are 'working together to provide three bed homes for rent for local people', and a three-story mansion block with a row of shops at street level (Cost Cut, Crispy and Crunchy Chicken and Top Clean Drycleaners among others).

This area is called Pollards Hill. A 100 years ago it was still Pollardshill Wood, but today it is home to a well-known council estate of white-panelled, flat-topped rectangular blocks of flats. Each one is three storeys with integral garages taking up the ground floor. The estate is generally considered a good example of the kind of low-rise housing that began in the 1960s as an alternative to the post-war high-rise schemes. Some observers have even called it 'strikingly humane'. A one-bedroom flat here can cost in the region of £100,000, according to local estate agents - £20-30,000 more would buy a maisonette half a mile south on Commonside East.

Recently, though, there have been problems which led to the Pollards Hill Estate being included in the government's neighbourhood renewal scheme and to the appointment of a 'neighbourhood warden'.

According to the government, crime rates have risen over the past 20 years and many social problems have become acute, particularly in deprived areas where the 'self regulation' of the community can break down. In the country's 88 poorest neighbourhoods there are more households with incomes of less than half the national average as well as more teenage pregnancy, youth underachievement, truancy and school exclusions, underemployment, drug misuse and ill health. Wardens, which are one element of the neighbourhood renewal scheme, provide 'a visible, semi-official presence on streets and estates'. They work at the grassroots with police and others 'to improve liveability, deter crime and tackle anti-social behaviour, creating a greater feeling of security and confidence among residents'. The wisdom of neighbourhood wardens goes something like this: where there's grime there's crime; if you don't keep on top of graffiti, it will grow; if you have a little pile of litter, someone will come along and add to it; and, when an abandoned car is set fire to, the ensuing costs amount to £5,000 or more.

A while ago, the Pollards Hill Estate was included in a borough-wide clean-up day. This involved the registered social landlord, who helped with staff and equipment, 40-50 children from the William Morris school, people from the environmental services, wardens, and residents. The local neighbourhood warden reported a big turnout, the removal of several vehicles and rubbish, as well as the clearance of graffiti. It was an excellent day, the warden told a BBC local reporter, 'it was like a social event with a purpose'.

South Lodge Avenue runs along the south edge of the estate close by youth and community centres and a library. Like the other libraries encountered on, or very close to, the 300 easting, this one too has a modest local history collection. However, it is difficult to concentrate on reading since one of the librarians has a loud and penetrating voice and enjoys long conversations with her colleagues and library users about the inadequate supply of Martina Cole novels. Yet, near where I am sitting, I see at least two on a display gathering dust.

I am forced away from the 300 easting by the grounds of two schools, so I turn eastward, along Recreation Way, past the estate on my right and William Morris Middle School on my left. The school has spawned a couple of professional football players, Glyn Hodges and Mark Dennis, and was rebuilt in the mid-1990s after a fire. Behind it stands Tamworth Manor High School, where at least one pupil used to make fake turds out of polyfilla and coffee. On the corner, by the William Morris School, stands a pathetic playground: one rusty slide, one framework for swings without any swings, and the smallest climbing frame I've ever seen (the equivalent of three three-rung metal ladders standing vertical but joined by one shared central upright support).

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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