8♥ Merton & Morden/Mitcham/Wimbledon Aha, here's another London borough that came to fruition in 1965 just as the Herbert Commission had proposed. Three former boroughs combined, under the oldest of their names, to create the conglomerate now known as Merton. In deciding what to do with my visit, I went to the council website and took their recommendation to track down the borough's most historic resident...
The Nelson Trail
Yes of course Admiral Lord Nelson lived in Merton. He bought a house on Merton High Street in 1801 and lived here for four years - when he wasn't off commanding ships - and it was from Merton that he set off on his final journey to Trafalgar. The council have therefore dragged together ten local locations with which he was associated to create the Nelson Trail, an entity which exists solely as an HTML list on their website. There are no signs, no leaflets, no physical manifestations, nor even a digital map to show you where all the sites are. It is, by a long chalk, the most lacklustre 'trail' I have ever followed. But I did some research, knocked up my own map, and gave it a try.
Let's start with Nelson's actual home (even though, inexplicably, it's number 7 on Merton's list). His mistress Emma Hamilton chose the house while he was at sea, preferring it to one in Turnham Green, and describing it as “an elegant and very commodious brick edifice”. Nelson paid £9000 for Merton Place, including 52 acres of land on either side of the main road, and arrived here for the very first time on 23 October 1801. The moat was duly stocked with fish, various shrubs and trees were planted, and pigs and poultry were brought in to give the place proper rural appeal. Emma spent large amounts of money on upgrades and entertainment, including adding an extension on the east side and filling the house with portraits and mirrors. Even Nelson's admiral's salary struggled to keep up.
In May 1803 war recommenced against France and Nelson returned to the fleet, eventually grabbing 25 days shore leave in August 1805 and returning to Merton. His domestic time was filled with family parties, visiting and receiving friends, and planning for the future. But on the evening of Friday 13 September 1805 he left by chaise to Portsmouth
for what would turn out to be his final voyage, and the couple's joint tenure at 'dear, dear Merton' came to an end. Emma's lavish lifestyle continued, however, and by 1808 she was forced to try to sell the house and its land to pay her debts. She ended her life penniless in Paris, and Merton Place stood empty until it was demolished in 1823.
All of which is a long way of saying, if you come hunting for Merton Place now there is nothing to see. Instead the site of Nelson's house is covered by the High Path estate, a local government housing initiative from the 1950s nudged up against South Wimbledon station. Though not entirely unattractive it's archetypally ordinary, a mix of bricky flats, towers and maisonettes, in sharp contrast to the estate-agent-friendly terraces across the road. The four-storey block of flats on the precise spot where the Admiral lived has been called Merton House, a woefully ambiguous name given the area, and faces nothing more interesting than the backs of some garages.
A blue and gold plaque affixed to the last flat in Doel Close confirms that Merton Place used to be 200 feet distant. But are there plans to provide a more fitting memorial to Lord Nelson on the actual site? Hell no. Instead Merton council have advanced plans to regenerate the entire High Path estate, replacing it with mixed-use flats in generic brick vernacular, and the vicinity of Merton House is due to become the centre of a fortified central courtyard with parking underneath. I've read through the consultation documents and can find no mention of Nelson, except as the name for a proposed run of retail units along an alleyway between two rows of flats. Historically it's no great loss, because the eradication of all things Nelson took place several decades ago, but this equally bland rebirth does feel like an opportunity lost.
No, Nelson never drank in this pub on Merton High Street, because it was built 105 years after his death. But the Nelson Arms does mark the site of the entrance gates to Merton Place, and the lodge alongside, so Nelson would have ridden through the lounge bar on many occasions. A brick-lined tunnel once nipped under the road close by, providing private access to the Wimbledon side of Nelson's estate, specifically the stables, gardens and acres of farmland. The exterior of the pub features a number of special glazed murals depicting the admiral and HMS Victory, and these are due to survive the upcoming regeneration, despite the interior being less cocktails/sparkle and more lager/Sky Sports.
Nelson's neighbour James Halfhide lived in a large house called Gatehouse, and owned a calico print works at the bottom of the garden. Nelson apparently bought a strip of land off James in 1801 for £23, which is the wilfully flimsy reason for including Gatehouse on the Nelson Trail. Don't bother coming to look because again no trace remains, and Merton's mapless website doesn't even make it clear where it used to be anyway (somewhere on Merton High Street, "approximately 1-2 minutes walk from Wandle Park, to the right of Savacentre, just past Mill Road", and "now covered by flats").
Here's where things start getting really tenuous. Wandle Park, opposite Colliers Wood station, was once the site of Wandlebank House. This edifice was built by James Perry, editor of the 'Morning Chronicle', the most successful newspaper in Georgian London. As a near neighbour Nelson is known to have visited on a number of occasions, but the house was demolished in 1962 and again there is nothing specific to see. It's a nice park, but you might as well visit the Kiss Me Hardy Hungry Horse restaurant across the road for all the historical insight it's going to give you.
I was looking forward to seeing this Gothic church on High Path, built within Nelson's former estate to mark the centenary of his death. Inside there's supposed to be stained glass designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones and an altarpiece made from timber taken from Nelson’s flagship, but the building's not overly impressive from outside when the door is locked. More immediately evocative are two 12-pounder cannons pointing towards the entrance of Nelson Gardens, a scrappy patch of recreational space alongside Merton Road, again created for the centenary. According to the memorial stone the land was donated by a great nephew of the late Rear Admiral in memory of "splendid services rendered", but these days they look rather less than shipshape.
For an actual Nelson-related artefact, head to this delightful medieval parish church half a mile to the southwest. Nelson and his family did precisely that every Sunday morning when they were in Merton, back when St Mary's was surrounded by fields, in order to attend a local act of worship. These days those fields have been swallowed up by the Merton Park estate, but that's very desirably Victorian and remarkably peaceful, as I discovered when I wandered in from the tramstop. Even better the door to the church was open to visitors, which it isn't scheduled to be in the afternoon, so this time I was able to slip inside and admire.
St Marys' roof is splendid and includes 12th century cross beams. Memorials can be found to Queen Elizabeth I's treasurer and the first European to set foot on Australian soil. Edward Burne-Jones designed a set, another set, of eight glowing stained glass windows. A dozen hatchments line the aisle, including one to mark Nelson's funeral. And at the front of the aisle is the plain oak pew on which Nelson and his family once sat, marked with a small plaque, and attached to various electronic gubbins which alert the vicar whenever a motion sensor is triggered. Of all the sights on the Nelson Trail St Mary's is the one to see, for reasons far broader than the admiral's life alone.
Hidden in the southwest corner of Morden Hall Park, here's an even better example of "seriously, what's the point?" At the turn of the 19th century Morden Lodge was the home of Abraham Goldsmid, an eminent financier, whose friends included the Prince Regent and the Prime Minister, William Pitt. Lord Nelson visited several times and, after his death, Abraham was one of the trustees who tried to secure Merton Place for Emma. However a risky deal wiped out his fortune, Abraham took his own life and his home was demolished in 1820. The current Morden Lodge is a replacement, you can barely see this mansion from the road through the hedge, and the gate at the end of the drive screams Private Property Beware Of The Dog. The adjacent park may be a delight, but don't come visiting merely to hunt for a house that isn't there.
Similarly, you might want to question the need to need to travel an additional mile to visit a cricket ground Nelson may, or may not, have watched a match at. A plaque by the clubhouse door says he definitely did, but the Merton Historical Society casts considerable doubt on the claim. The one true connection to the past is Mitcham Cricket Club, reputedly the oldest cricket club in existence, who've been playing on Cricket Green since 1685. Their kidney-shaped pitch is also one of the most public in London, overlooking a major road junction and adding a proper rural touch to the area. The home side were at 43 for 1 when I arrived, and either fully engrossed in batting or nipping through the traffic into the clubhouse for refreshment. Non-members are warned that both pubs overlooking Cricket Green are now boarded up, awaiting whatever fate decrees, so potential spectators take heed.
And finally, you what? The Nelson Trail now expects us to head to Wimbledon Village, a couple of miles from anywhere else on the itinerary, to see a school the admiral once visited to be "entertained with readings in the front parlour". Admittedly that visit was in September 1805 just before he headed off to be shot, and admittedly the school promptly renamed itself the Nelson Academy after he left, and admittedly Eagle House is a splendid 400-year-old building - possibly the finest in the village - but really, why? Also the long-empty house is currently concealed behind giant hoardings as it undergoes transformation into 8 luxury apartments, price on application, so you won't see much unless you squint past the padlock on the front gate.
In summary, there are far more relevant places to follow in this seadog's footsteps than Merton. And while his time here was fascinating, but brief, the Nelson Trail feels far too much like a good idea spread too far too thinly.