The most southerly point on the Underground, Morden can lay claim to one of the most spectacular parks in London and the largest mosque in Western Europe.
Ever travelled south on the Northern Line? Well, if so, there’s a strong chance that you’ll have heard of Morden. Known for being the most southerly station on the whole Underground network and a choice destination for narcoleptic and inebriated south London dwellers, Morden is often derided for being the end of civilisation; the final frontier. Given Morden isn’t even in one of the extreme boroughs (Merton is fully London-locked with Sutton directly south of it), it seemed reports of its dearth may be greatly exaggerated.
I arrived at the station to find my friend mid-conversation with a council enforcement officer, who was proudly, yet despondently, stating that Morden has the biggest concentration of bins and ashtrays in London. Given she’d already fined 10 persons that morning, the local residents were clearly not as enthralled by such wonderful amenities; a point she lamented. She also noted that Morden had the biggest mosque in London and pointed out an excellent pub to go to if we wanted to get into a fight.
Whilst we digested these useful nuggets and our lady enforcement friend dished out her 11th fine of the day – an unsuspecting man letting the pavement feel the wrath of his cigarette butt – we saw signs to Morden Hall Park. The fighting would have to wait.
A mere five minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Morden, Morden Hall Park describes itself as a “green oasis in the city”. Formerly owned by a tobacco merchant by the name of Gilliat Hatfield, the 125-acre park is now in the care of the National Trust (one of only 14 sites within the M25 run by the conservation charity) and pledges to transport you “to the middle of the English countryside”.
Not knowing where to begin, we consulted the map at the entrance to the Park, which had been delicately annotated to include “murder scene” and “rape spot”. The same annotator (I presume through handwriting style) had also seen fit to inscribe the word “Fuck” across the centre of the map to further highlight the esteem in which he or she held the place.
With this reverence in mind, we decided to march on to the Wetlands, which was free of annotations. Given my previous experience of ‘nature reserves’ in London, I was not expecting much, which is why I was taken aback by the majesty of it. Renovated this year to include a 200m boardwalk and viewing platforms, Morden Hall Park’s wetlands should set a precedent for other councils: tasteful, clean and informative, the walkways meander through an abundance of reeds and long grasses and allow you “to get nose to nose” with the flora and fauna.
It might be a stretch to call it south London’s answer to the Okavango – in fact, that certainly is a stretch – but it was still delightful and a taste of things to come. Criss-crossing over babbling brooks, we then came to face to face with the 18th century Morden Hall, which incidentally was not the lodging of Mr Hatfield. Well, he owned it, but preferred to stay in the slightly less pretentious, but still equally splendid, Morden Cottage – a weather-boarded villa built surrounded by a 2.5 acre rose garden.
Given his occupation, it’s unsurprising that the estate was also home to two snuff mills, which ground imported Virginian tobacco into the fashionable Victorian commodity. The mills were powered by the effervescent River Wandle until snuff was no longer in vogue, with the machinery ultimately being removed at the start of the Second World War due to the dying need for scrap metal. However, one of the water wheels remains and, being the National Trust, is complemented by a museum highlighting the “journey of snuff” from the US to the nasal cavities of the English, via Morden.
Already impressed, we then came to a garden centre, an apiary and the Potting Shed Café, before finding a second-hand book shop enclosed in the Stable Yard. Whilst perusing classics, such as “great British dishes” from the 1970s, we asked the bookkeeper about his favourite spots in the area; odds were short he’d say the Park. He didn’t dissappoint. Yet, he also suggested we walk up the River Wandle to Carshalton (his neck of the woods) and visit Merton Abbey Wells. These were in differing directions, so we plumped for the former suggestion.
On our way, we stopped off at the Surrey Arms for a quick half-pint of Guinness (£2.10) and a bag of peanuts (£1). Guinness was not our first choice, but our options were otherwise limited to Carling, Foster’s or another variety of fizzy, golden water. The service was excellent though.
At Ravensbury Park, we reconnected to the Wandle trail and headed upstream. The River is only around nine miles in length – emerging in Croydon and meeting the Thames in Wandsworth – but used to be one of the most hard-working rivers in the world, with over 100 mills in operation along its banks in Victorian times. Such fervent industry led to a perennial tainting of its waters and it has taken a considerable conservation effort to improve the water quality and see fish stocks flourish once more. This operation is clearly still ongoing, as we saw two Environment Agency workers waist deep in the Wandle, plucking out trunks and trash. What’s the best thing they’d found in its waters? ‘Found a watch the other week’. Gold? ‘G-shock’; he was chuffed. His colleagues had found guns upstream in Mitcham.
Conscious we were heading quite a way from Morden, we decided to U-turn and head to the enforcement’s officer’s favourite mosque. With its two minarets towering over the surrounding buildings at 35 metres high, we didn’t struggle to locate it; we did struggle to get in. The security guard was more than happy to tell us that a) the mosque was in fact that largest in Western Europe and b) it accommodates 10,000 worshippers (5,000-6,000 tend to come on its busiest day, Friday), but was not so obliged as to let us stroll in and take a look for ourselves. Apparently, there are special visiting days.
As such, we trotted back to the River Wandle and headed downstream to Merton Abbey Mills. Along the way, we walked past a particularly classy Wimpy joint serving breaded camembert, the Trinitarian Bible Society (a warehouse dedicated to the Word of God) and yet another city farm, which had far too many excitable kids for my liking.
The walk was certainly worth it though, as Merton Abbey Mills is really quite unique. A former monastery and then manufacturing hub, the area was restored in 1989 as a cultural centre and now lays claim to be “London’s alternative market”. It certainly had an eclectic mix of arts & crafts shops and studios, alongside a ‘pirate steak house’, a ‘rock star sushi shop’ and a ‘tattooed bakers’. Throw in the Colour House Theatre – currently showing productions of Cinderella on Saturdays and Sundays – and a shop wholly dedicated to rock (the tooth-destroying sweet) and the party was complete. Alternative? Yep, sure.
Pride of place, however, went to the William Morris pub. Having visited the William Morris Gallery up in Walthamstow back in November, I was a little surprised by its nomenclature, but knowing the previous industrial prowess of the Wandle and Morris’ penchant for textiles, it soon became clear. Complete with an old water wheel, the pub rests cosily alongside the Wandle with a riverside terrace and tastefully-decorated interior. ‘An ideal date spot’, my friend noted – which was just as well as two of our female friends were joining us for lunch.
Nestled on a table overlooking the river, we enjoyed a pint of the aptly-named Wandle (£3.50), before tucking into a pint of Mosaic Pale Ale (£4) and a ‘Hippie’ Burger (£8.50). Unfortunately, someone had swapped the falafel in my burger with a bale of straw, but the bun was lovely.
After lunch, our Wandle-dominated day continued with a leisurely stroll downstream. Thinking back to the mystery annotator, I reckon they must have run out of ink before they could add “…ing wonderful”.