Last summer Lonely Planet described Tooting as one of The World's 10 Coolest Neighbourhoods To Visit Right Now. Having been for a visit, I can confirm that their grasp of reality is weak. That said, all their trendy recommendations lie close to Tooting Broadway tube station, and I'd headed to the area around ordinary Tooting instead. This is a Thameslink station on the Sutton loop, a backwater service whose trains run twice an hour rather than the Northern line's regular torrent. Join me as I wander the local backstreets on a hunt for something slightly interesting.
Singleton Close Tooting station used to be Tooting Junction, back when a separate line (the Tooting, Merton and Wimbledon Railway) branched off here from here towards Wimbledon via Merton. The station was originally on the other side of the road, with four platforms, until nudged east past the junction, with two. The original station's skeletal footbridge sort-of survives, just beyond Lidl, connecting to a dour footpath following the line of the former railway. More comprehensive railway infill has been provided by Singleton Close, a twisted cul-de-sac of postwar housing sandwiched into what was once a trackside goods yard. Its flats are drab three-storey blocks with rows of garages underneath, and courtyards now fenced off with buzzered gates to restrict miscreants and ne'erdowells. Known today as the Abbey Orchard Estate, after a fruity farm corner long since felled, its lacklustre ambience destroys Lonely Planet's claim almost single-handed.
London Road Cemetery
As you might imagine, this is a cemetery on London Road. It's of 1929 vintage, so not especially characterful or topply, but smartly laid out around a small symmetrical chapel, and with an enclave of Commonwealth War Graves dead centre. It's also one of the most colourful cemeteries I've ever visited, which may be down to the fact that displays of artificial flowers are permitted, or is due to the presence of florist Caroline in her trailer outside the front gate, all major credit cards accepted. More graves than I expected were smothered with bouquets, tributes and family names spelt out in floral letters... or perhaps that's just London in the winter.
The long triangle of grass opposite the cemetery, stretching way down to Mitcham, is called Figges Marsh. It's no longer a marsh, but probably was in 1357 when farmer William Figge owned the land. Various tales are told of Figges Marsh in days of yore, few of them certifiably true. It'd be good for a kickabout - jumpers for goalposts required - but too muddy for anything resembling a picnic at present. Other locations on Lonely Planet's cool list include Lisbon, Seattle and Kuala Lumpur, which may just have the edge here.
The Links Estate
Running east from Tooting station, between the railway and the River Graveney, a ladder of terraced streets stretches down to the Streatham Road. It's unusual in that the 'rung' streets are labelled alphabetically, from Ascot to Jersey, with a 100-year-old primary school tucked in between Frinton and Gunton, and a Chinese takeaway on the corner of Eastbourne. But I wonder how many residents know that this used to be a private golf course, which thrived here briefly at the turn of the 20th century before relocating to Mitcham when the lease ran out. It had a fine reputation, attracting rich and famous players including soon-to-be Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (who once beat the Clerk to the House of Lords by two strokes). But by 1906 the putting greens had been stripped, gravel pits dug into the tees, and a street of small houses called Links Road cut straight down the third hole. Housing pressure on the London outskirts is nothing new.
Furzedown House Furzedown would be a better known London suburb if it had a station, or if people paid more attention to where the Mayor actually lives. It rises up the hillside towards Tooting Bec, engulfing the land belonging to what was once Furzedown House, an attractive Georgian mansion. Although none of its glasshouses or fishponds survive, the house itself lingered on as a Teacher Training College and now forms the nucleus of Graveney School, one of Wandsworth's premier secondaries. I couldn't see much of the old bit from the road, but my word, the concrete accommodation block alongside is proper ugly.
Tooting Bec Common
Admittedly Tooting Bec Common is mentioned in Lonely Planet's citation, but not the thin strip along the southern edge which is the only bit in Tooting station's sphere of influence. Here we find what used to be the Lodge of Furzedown House, at the top of a road still called Furzedown Drive, and a sign listing the byelaws on Tooting Commons, and a footpath so muddy that my trainers regretted it for the rest of the day. Don't come to these edgelands specially, go to the proper bit.
Taking a shortcut through an 80s estate off Rectory Road I was surprised to find a clocktower plonked in the central courtyard, and a lone portico dumped at the end of the lawn. Subsequent digging revealed that this used to be the site of St Joseph's Roman Catholic College, which in 1897 became the Tooting Home workhouse for Wandsworth's "deserving old and infirm", then during WW1 a military hospital, and later a hospital caring for the chronic sick. Massive it was, and all of it levelled in 1981 apart from that cupola brought down from the roof. The current residents of the St Benedict's Estate seem mostly intent on telling other people to go away (Residents Parking Only, No Dogs, Non-Residents Will Be Clamped), with the "This Is A No Cold Calling Zone" sign attached immediately in front of the clock a particularly parochial touch.
If anywhere round here was going to thrill Lonely Planet's lifestyle journalists, it would be the main road bending round from Tooting Broadway. Unaccountably they weren't thrilled by the Afghan Palace, or Chicken Circle, or Pizzeria Sette Bello, let alone the William Hill where Barclays Bank used to be. They did like the Little Bar, a little bar on Mitcham Road, but again that's fractionally inside the wrong hinterland. I worry sometimes that this Random Station project might not be all it's cut out to be.