Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
Published April 16th 2014
Put Your Tracking Skills to Good Use
With an area covering four hundred and sixty acres of land, Mitcham Common stretches across the borough boundaries of Merton, Croydon, and Sutton. It is an important conservation area that's part of the Wandle Valley Park, and is a beautiful place to visit.
Because it covers such a vast area, Mitcham Common is separated into seven segments, and depending on how long a day out you want - or how much of a work out - you can walk each segment on individual trips or do the whole kit and caboodle in one day. I walked four of these areas the other day, and it took about three and a half hours (including time for breaks).
The common has a diverse range of habitats from heathland to grassland to woodland to wetland, and is home to many species of wildlife. At each entrance point to the grounds, there is a map with a brief history, and suggestions on which flora and fauna to look out for.
In its ancient history, the area used to be a vast oak woodland, but with the arrival of man, agricultural grazing turned it into fields. Even when the practice ended, the acidic soil was too infertile for the trees to grow back, and it became an area of hardy scrub.
Mill Green is the smallest part of the common, and a fair distance from the main land. It was therefore one of the sites I didn't end up visiting. Mill Green used to consist of a hay meadow, grassland, two waterways, and some woodland, which was planted in the early 1990s. In 2009, however, the conservators took a public opinion survey, and the response led them to create an informal recreation area, and relax their mowing regime creating more enjoyable place for visitors, as well as benefiting local wildlife.
Of the two waterways, one is the Beddington Effluent Carrier, which takes treated waste from the sewage works to the River Wandle. The quality of the water has much improved in recent years, as they have discovered through continuous monitoring of fish and insect stocks.
The other waterway was once a branch of the River Wandle, but has since become nothing more than a ditch is a ditch, choked up by vegetation.
Adjacent to Mill Green, today Gunsite is not used as much more than a shortcut to Mitcham Junction Tramstop, but it has a much more interesting history. The area is named after that fact that during World War Two it was used as a gun site for shooting down enemy aircraft. Although temporary living accommodation for the soldiers was set up that has long gone. Much of the vegetation, however, is a remnant of their gardening.
If you cross over the railway, then you will end up at junction, where you can either turn left for the golf course, or right for One Island Pond. I went to the golf course. If you join Mitcham Common Golf Club, then you can play the eighteen holes, but even if you are not interested in golf, you can have a wonderful walk, because it has lots of wildlife.
One Island Pond
One Island Pond is not a natural phenomenon, but was in fact an incidental result of gravel extraction during the nineteenth century. The gravel underneath the common became a valuable resource because of the increased construction of roads. The many gravel pits left behind garnered complaints from the public, so by the end of the century, the Common was taken over by the conservators for protection, and the ditches filled in with water.
The land surrounding the pond used to be flat, but it was re-landscaped in the late 1970s and early eighties. Now it is a hilly area full of wildflowers.
One Island Pond is popular amongst anglers because it is the only pond on the common to have any large fish. The conservators regularly de-stock the other ponds because the young of other animals are put in danger by their presence.
Mill House Ecology Centre
Cross over Croydon Road and you'll see a sign directing you to the Harvester restaurant; follow it, and you'll end up at Mill House Ecology Centre.
What Remains of the windmill.
in 1806, a miller called John Blake Barker given permission build a windmill on the common, under the condition that he 'grind the grist of the people of Mitcham for two days every week forever at a reasonable price.' In 1860, a house was built next door, called Mill Cottage. The windmill was in constant use until 1862, when lightning struck and put it out of action. The house was then owned by the Watson Family until 1936, after which it had many uses, including a home for girls, a creamery, a biscuit packing factory, and a youth centre. Today it is an ecology centre used by the conservators staff.
The remains of the windmill is now a centrepiece of a car park, used by customers at the Harvester restaurant. This makes a great pitstop to eat, when visiting the common.
Behind Mill House is grass and heathland. This used to be used as football pitches, but now conservation insures that the natural habitat can grow freely. Heathland used to be abundant, but as London expanded, the land was built over for roads, housing, and other forms of urbanisation. There are now only eight hectares of heathland left in the city. Plants that you can find growing on the heath include pretty whin, dwarf gorse, spiny restharrow, harebell, and dyers greenwood. Don't worry if you don't know what they look like, notice boards around the common give illustrations, so you can lookout for them.
One form of plant life you'll also see is elm scrub; this is basically the remenants of what used to be a long row of elm trees, but they fell victim to Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s.
The area around Bidder's Pond is very hilly, but as with One Island, it is not natural. Between the 1940s-1960s, the area was used as a landfill site, creating lots of uneven mounds.
It was from the top of one of these hills that I saw Bidder's Pond, where geese, coots, and other birds were swimming. Geese can be aggressive towards humans, but this one was very mild mannered; it swam up to the bank, where I was lying, stepped out of the water, and started nibbling grass right up close to me. It swam away again when someone's dog came charging up though.
As well as waterbirds, the pond also provides a home for newts, lizards, slow-worm, grasshoppers, and butterflies. Some of the butterflies you should be able to spot are the green hairstreak and the white-letter hairstreak. I didn't see either of these, but I did see a small red one.
Back over the hill and you'll get to Arthur's Pond. Hidden away behind some shrubs, 'pond' is a rather grand name; it looks more of a boggy pit of water to be honest.
Before heading back to Mill House, I walked down to another area. - Okay, I'll admit it, I got lost, and took a wrong turning. It's not my fault though, the map was facing the opposite direction to the way I was looking at it.
My unexpected journey took me to Croydon Athletic Football Club, which aside from a stadium, also featured allotments, an open field, and a horse.
Seven Island Pond
Once back at Mill House, you want to cross Windmill Road to Seven Island Pond. This giant body of water was also formed through gravel excavation, and the landfill hills are dominated by vegetation associated with waste ground.
In the mid-2000s, the pond was in danger of drying out because of silt; in 2008, the pond was drained, the silt removed, profiled into islands, and then the ditch re-filled with water.
Despite its unpleasant origins, the rugged landscape is absolutely beautiful, made even more so by the swans. It is a good spot for mountain bikers, who want a challenging climb, as evidenced by the many tracks left behind.