After we published the first part of my South Circular ramble, from West Dulwich to Woolwich, we received a message from a reader in China (we have a reader in China!). He said he’d forwarded the link to a friend who had lived in Dulwich for forty years and the friend’s response was “should have turned left out of the station”.

 

This time I did head west. The colour of the day was a nondescript grey, which suits the South Circular. The first part of the walk is too familiar, more like wandering round the neighbourhood. It wasn’t until I got to the other side of Clapham that it felt the walk was underway.

On Thurlow Park Road, the traffic was moderate rather than heavy but it occurred to me that I’d set the bar for heavy too low. Rosemead Prep School sits right by the road and nitrogen dioxide emissions there are over the EU legal limit. I start to pay attention to the cars, counting those with single occupants. There are lots and lots.

Since InDulwich arranged a climate change talk at Rosendale School (a little under the limit), pollution and waste of various types have been on my mind. It is of course a disgrace that emissions have reached these levels. If we can’t even tackle localised emissions from cars, what chance to do we have of dealing with global problems?

I shop locally, I don’t have a car, I’ve cut down on meat and I’ve never felt the need to upgrade a phone or telly. I care about the environment. I’m one of the good guys. And my carbon footprint is shockingly large. I pass Roupell Road and a boy in the back of a car furrows his brow at me, as well he might.

clapham common gate

I cross the top of Brixton Hill. This is an area in which I lived for nearly two decades. Approaching Clapham, I pass a man pushing a Union Jack-canopied push chair. Another man, every inch an estate agent, stands outside a house. Clapham Common comes into site, where a pair of geese crops the grass and birds sing with verve. I cross one of the roads that slice the common into chunks and birdsong is replaced by the insistent, one note cheeping of an exercise machine.

Long ago, a cousin moved from Brixton Hill to one of the streets behind Battersea Rise. A few friends lived in the area too. I never understood the attraction. Battersea Rise is as full of on-trend eateries as ever (The Breakfast Club, a pho place, a Korean restaurant). I’m not in my walking groove yet and seem to have come out with my anti-Clapham prejudices tucked in my backpack. I’m a little happier when the South Circular slopes up towards Wandsworth, despite the stink of three lorries that stop between St Marks church and St Mary’s Cemetery. Emissions, emissions.

Emanuel School reminds me of being thrashed at rugby, sixty something nil. I’d ask “what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” but I went to a grammar school, so that’s not really appropriate. The thought of grammar schools and May’s plans push sour my mood again. My brother and sister, each at least as bright as me failed their eleven plus exams and went to comprehensives. There were about five grammars close to where I lived and they ensured a two tier education system. I’m not looking for England today, but Paul Weller & co. would have made damn good guides.

spread eagle wandsworth

Wandsworth feels more relaxed than Clapham. A friend worked in a wine shop there in, again decades ago, and a few of us used to go to a little Caribbean place and order a huge bowl of prawn soup and loads of bread for dunking . The centre of Wandsworth is Youngs pubs and big municipal buildings, a man shouts into his phone, over and over, “that’s why you’re going to die alone!” That doesn’t help me lift my mood. I need another mile or two under my belt.

The South Circular has shared space with the A3 since Clapham Common but the roads divide and Portsmouth drops off the street signs. Instead it’s East Putney I aim for. After the Beer Boutique and a hipster barber, I see two smartly suited men smoking outside a pub. One is middle aged, the other older. They wear sombre ties and look like Londoners whose families go back generations. I guess they are attending a funeral reception.

I’m making good time and finally relaxing, so take a detour and wander up the attractive Putney Park Lane. I follow it as far as the equally attractive The Pleasance, a park of trees, glades and dog walkers. Wandsworth Council says it was once the site of a hunting lodge, used by Archbishops of Canterbury and kings until it was sold by Charles I. Now it feels peaceful and a little out of time and worth some extra exploring one day. An overgrown house on the lane looks like it’s conducting an experiment to see how quickly nature will take over when people are no more.

putney park lane

house returns to nature

The South Circular is Upper Richmond Road at this stage. There’s a sign for the London Wetland Centre on the right, a thatched cottage and Rosslyn Park rugby club on the left and I enter East Sheen. It offers a long, straight road of shops and restaurants, that feels very suburban. I pop into a bottle shop called Micro Beers and ask for the most local brewery. The heavily bearded shopkeeper tells me it’s Kew Brewery, just up the road, so I buy a bottle of their Pagoda pale ale.

The road takes a 90° turn to the north and humps up over a railway line with a little thrill of open space and then splits North Sheen Cemetery. I slip through a side gate. Pink blossoms carpet the path. A stone commemorates twenty year old Len, buried in Tunisia in 1943. A corner is Polish, with lots of stones from the 1970s and 80s. A funeral procession makes its way through the cemetery and a few minutes later I see another on the road outside.

Back on track, I’m soon at Kew Green. I had planned to open the bottle of Pagoda but it stays in my bag. Instead I buy a pint of Youngs London Gold and sit outside the Coach & Horses, as close to the green as I can get. A nearby house sports a blue plaque denoting that Pissarro lived there in 1892. The sun is almost out, the beer is soft and gently bitter and altogether relaxing. Another funeral cortège passes by. Counting the men outside the pub, that’s four funerals and one telephone rant about death.

journeys end south circular kew green

I briefly consider a second pint but instead stroll across the green and onto Kew Bridge. The view east is marred by building works. On the north bank, I receive a minor shock. A street sign points the way for the South Circular with N Circular in parentheses. I thought the South Circular would end when it reached the Thames. Fortunately, it goes only a few hundred metres to the Chiswick Roundabout. I don’t bother to go that far and hop a train at Kew Bridge.

Our correspondent had recommended heading west from Dulwich but it was the eastern arm that was more satisfying. I spent that day in search of England and this one accompanied by thoughts of death and climate destruction. Perhaps there’s a link. I’ve still got that bottle of Pagoda in the fridge to cheer me up.