Parks on London's Alpine Railway

John Goodier describes a train-based walking tour of parks in south-west London

THE ALPINE RAILWAY is a nickname for a part of the Thameslink train network, officially called the Sutton Loop: it is a journey which connects several historical landscapes. The Loop begins at Streatham. The first stop is Mitcham Eastfields, a new station sitting amongst ordinary houses. A short walk down Grove Road brings us to the edge of the great expanse of Mitcham Common. Walk across to Commonside East and then across the road to the Leisure Centre where the remains of an old running track can be seen. In this area is Canons House of 1680 and some formal gardens. The next bit of the Common is Cricket Green. Cross over to the Vestry Hall of 1765. Behind this is a small Industrial History Museum open on Wednesday afternoons, which is worth a visit. Go back to Cricket Green and head down to Cranmer Road, making for London Road. You can do this part of the walk on the edge of the Common or on the pavement. Just at the junction is Mitcham Garden Village (1928-32), a pretty group of houses. We can rejoin the train at Mitcham Junction. This walk covers the more formalised parts of the common. The main part of the common is wilder and has a complex history of gravel digging, golf clubs and landfill, rescue and restoration. The train takes us past Mitcham Golf Club and then through a fenced-off space. Some of this is still in use for waste management. However, much of the area is destined to become part of the planned Wandle Valley Regional Park. Some landscaping work has already taken place; it will be worth returning to the area in a few years' time. In future, a stop at Hackbridge could add the new park to our journey.

Our next stop is Carshalton. We are now in a formal landscape. Much of the landscape was designed by Charles Bridgeman, who was employed by Sir John Fellowes in the early eighteenth century. In the centre of the town are Carshalton Ponds, which drain into the River Wandle. These are natural ponds that have been formalised. Between them and the station are two parks. The Sutton Ecology Centre, around the old rectory, has a range of ecological habitats. These range from semi-formal gardens designed for wildlife to wilder ponds and woodlands. A small area taken from the original grounds of the Rectory now provides a memorial garden facing the War Memorial near the pond. Across North Street, adjacent to the lower pond is The Grove, through which the Wandle flows to Wilderness Island, where it then joins the main river from Croydon. There is a watermill on the river. There are many fine trees and sweeping lawns and, out of view from the formal landscape, there are playing fields and play equipment.

To the south of the village is Carshalton Park, part of the grounds of Carshalton House. Remains of the formal landscape are clearly visible, including remains of a grotto. To the west of the village is Carshalton House. The house is now a school and access to the grounds is occasionally available. The water tower, church and small museum are well worth a visit and so a return trip to see the architecture can be recommended. The next station is Sutton, where the train terminates, but we stay on the train until Sutton Common. This is the section called the Alpine Railway. It was one of the first sections of railway built for electric trains: gradients and curves were less of a problem than they were for steam. We are now in a 1930s landscape. Turn east from the station and through an alley into a quiet residential road and follow this round to Rosehill Road. Rosehill Recreation Ground can be entered by a small gate to a car park. The park is given over to sport with a wide range of facilities. A cycle trail through the park leads to a footbridge over Reigate Avenue. Back under the railway and into Reigate Avenue Rec. This is mainly laid to grass but has some trees along the edge. There is some new tree planting at the north of the park. Go back under the railway and we are now just on the edge of the St Helier Estate built by London County Council between 1928 and 1936. The landscape architect was Edward Mawson. We go north up Glastonbury Road, which has a variety of house designs with green shrubby spaces at street corners, passing Love Lane, which has a broad central swathe of grass and trees. As we come out onto Green Lane, there is a splendid row of shops. The flats above the shops jut out, providing a sheltered walkway. We re-join the train at St Helier Station.

Our next stop is South Merton and the activities of John Innes. Opposite the station is Mostyn Gardens, a remnant of Merton Common. The park is lower than the surrounding land and this is because it was a brick pit used by John Innes to develop the area for housing in the late 19th Century. It was laid out as a park in 1935. The park is mostly grassed with play and sports facilities. It also has a sunken rose garden, which looks as though it was much more impressive in the past. Going up Mostyn Road you will notice a rather splendid entrance that leads to a fence by a school playing field. This was once the way into the John Innes Horticultural Institute, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. John Innes moved to Merton to develop a garden suburb, with H G Quatermain as architect. He set himself up as Lord of the Manor and was active in the local community. When he died, he left his house and gardens to the community and left money to set up a horticultural school. His house has had various uses, starting out as the Institute Director's house. When it was the Director's house there was a grotto in the garden made in part of decorated pieces of drainage pipe; it has gone. The horticultural school became the John Innes Institute, which moved out of London after the war. Over time, much of the land has been incorporated into Rutlish School. For a while they used the old lab buildings but new premises have been built in recent times. John Innes's garden now forms part of John Innes Park. This park has 15 species of holly, as holly is the sign of the Innes clan. There is also a sculpture by Kenny Wapshott, based on the holly sign of the John Innes Society, which is becoming obscured by rosemary bushes. The rockery, pond and much of the planting remains and has recently been restored. There is a bandstand and various sports areas amongst and around the formal gardens. There is a public toilet designed by John Sydney Brocklesby in an art déco style. Brocklesby was also the architect for many of the houses built after John Innes's death. A path in the park leads to the John Innes Recreation Ground, given over to playing fields.

The John Innes Institute is of great importance in the history of gardening. It was here the Mr Lawrence, who started as a gardening boy and who became the acting Director of the Institute, devised the standard composts called John Innes Composts. It was at the Institute that Mendel's work on genetics was brought to public attention and where the function of the Chromosomes was first investigated. This work laid the foundation of modern genetics and plant breeding. The Institute also gave us the Malling-Merton rootstock for apples, the best designs for glasshouses and many varieties of floral and edible garden crops. Moving on, we can rejoin the train at Wimbledon Chase. The station was opened in 1929 and is rather more impressive than most of the stations along the line. The walls have murals by the pupils of Rutlish School.

Haydons Road is the next alighting point for us. We are now back onto old railway lines. This station dates from 1868, although it was rebuilt in 1992. Leaving the station, we turn in to Caxton Road. This is lined with houses dating from the time of the arrival of the railway. Garfield Recreation Park is mainly for games. The young children's play area has recently been refurbished and has murals by Sarah Hubert. At the southeast corner there is a bridge over the Wandle. This leads to Wandle Meadow Nature Reserve. This was the site of the Wandle Valley Sewage Works which opened in 1877 and closed in 1970, when local pressure led to it being kept as open space. The site has been cleared of buildings but the filter beds remain to provide habitat. There are several paths through the meadow but ultimately we want to get into Chaucer Way and head north on a path that goes under the railway and then follows the river. A good path then leads up to Plough Lane. The area is well wooded and there is much to look at. Towards the end of the path alongside the industrial estate are some non- native pines, possibly the remains of some planting in the past.

Tooting is our last stop. To the south of the station is Figges Marsh, an area of common land named after William Figg, who was a local landowner in the 14th century. This space is one of several detached parts of Mitcham Common. It is a flat area of grass with some gym equipment. Over the road from it is the London Road Cemetery. This opened in 1928-9 and is laid out in a formal grid pattern. The chapel has recently been redecorated. A notable feature of the cemetery are the graves of traveller families. The Lodge is now a private house. This is not in itself the most interesting of our stops, but if you walk about half a mile south cast of the Marsh you get to Mitcham Eastfields station, which gives you some idea of how tight the loop is.

As the train runs half-hourly in either direction, it is an exercise in logistics to do this route in one go - without any long waits for trains. However buses and the tram provide alternative transport and it is possible to walk it all if you want. I first did the route in one go when my transport enthusiast friend drew my attention to its existence. I then realised how much open space was nearby on the journey and so I developed this exploration. Perhaps the best way to do the route is as I have, in bits.

Mitcham Cricket Green
The Cricket Green, Mitcham
The Grove
The Grove, Carshalton
Sutton Ecology Centre
Sutton Ecology Centre
Carshalton Park
Carshalton Park
Carshalton Water Tower
Carshalton Water Tower