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Beautiful eighteenth-century architecture, vast common  – and a deep-level WW2 air raid shelter. You should allow at least an hour for your explorations.

From the Clapham Common Tube take the exit marked The Pavement/Old Town. Walk to the right to have a look at the station itself. Not many stations can be described as ‘cuddly’ but this is one of them. Originally built in 1900 it was modified in the 1920’s. Over on the wide section of Clapham High Street is a less lovable modern wall hiding another entrance.

At the lights by the Edwardian clock tower cross the narrow bit of the street towards a mock-Tudor building. Wander left along an area known as The Pavement, to see the Old Town. On the way you will pass the Georgian façade of No. 17. It had been a pharmacy since 1829 when Margaret Buchanan bought the business in the early twentieth century.   She played a pioneering part in the training of women pharmacists. Now a gift shop. Next are more old shop frontages, including a patisserie on the corner of Bromell’s Road which has a huge plaster ice-cream cone attached to the outside.  As the road forks there is a small green. The building at the end of it is an old fire station.

Continue straight ahead – you are now in Old Town.  The last shop in the row of small business premises on the other side of the road was clearly once an ironmonger’s, as it has large jars attached to the wall to show it sold oil.
Back on your side, the handsome houses at No’s 39-43 are early eighteenth century. A blue plaque on No. 43 commemorates  John Francis Bentley (1839-1902) the architect of Westminster Cathedral.

At Maritime House, originally built for the National Union of Seamen, now Government offices, look upwards to spy out some rather alarming fish.  Continue past the modern fire station, next door to which is an former vicarage. Cross the road here and go left. No.4 has a neat display of topiary. High up on the wall of No.12  is a relief reading   ‘Contentment passe richesse’ (Contentment surpasses wealth).   This is the motto of the Atkins Bowyer Family, once Lords of the Manor of Clapham,  and is thought to have come from the old manor house. At No.16 pop into cobbled Scout Lane to view the side wall which has an entertaining variety of  windows.  There are eight of them, and not one matches another. Further on, the archway with a clock is a pleasant 1990’s shop and office development in keeping with its surroundings.

Opposite Orlando Road is The Polygon. This was originally a large group of cottages, but now only a few remain.Go past Orlando Road, (where Old Town officially ends) and continue on what is now Clapham Common North Side. Follow this round to the right. On the corner of Macaulay Road is a  brick cottage c1700. 

Cross over North Side and head for Holy Trinity church (1776) which you will glimpse through the trees. It is associated with The Clapham Sect. This was a group of Christians, including William Wilberforce, who fought for the abolition of slavery.

Near the church is Cock Pond (large paddling pool), and towards Long Road stands a drinking fountain with a statue of a woman giving water to a beggar. It was cast from a German sculpture and presented  to Clapham in 1895 by The United Kingdom Temperance & General Provident Institution. This was not quite such a  generous  gift as might be supposed, as a new home had to be found for the statue after the enormous weight of bronze and granite began to damage the vaulting in the warehouse on the northern approach of London Bridge where the work had originally been erected.   Ironically, the temperance fountain (no longer functional) is a meeting place for those who are not particularly interested in drinking water.

Return to North Side for a row of early eighteen-century terraces – No. 14 (rebuilt after bomb damage in 1940) was lived in by novelist Graham Green . Two of his novels ‘The Ministry of Fear’ and ‘The End of the Affair’ are set in  London during the Blitz - ‘The End of the Affair’ was actually set on Clapham Common. After No. 21, which still has its coachway, comes a not very attractive block of flats. Cross Chase Road to discover a building easier on the eye – the first of the set that makes up the Trinity Hospice. Charles Barry (the architect of the new Palace of Westminster after the fire in 1834) lived here. Cross Victoria Rise and you will notice on either side of Cedars Road two startling blocks of flats. These are among the first examples (1860) of French Pavilion roofs, later to be found in many grand London buildings, but the round-headed windows with their typical, rather clumsy, Victorian plasterwork decorations seem out of place.

Time to go back to the Common itself via the traffic island for more exploration (detailed history here).  Although it is chiefly grass with avenues of trees, there are three permanent areas of water: Long Pond near South Side at the end of Rookery Road and,  further south,  Eagle Pond and Mount Pond which are used by anglers. Egyptian geese are around, as well as the more usual waterfowl.   Among them was a heron and as I watched it was being repeated dive-bombed by a crow. Herons are not easily budged and this one simply stood completely still until it thought the crow was getting a bit too close - then it opened its formidable beak and saw off its attacker pretty smartly - worth a picture..

More or less at the centre of the common is an impressive 1890’s bandstand, the largest in London. Nearby are the Bandstand Beds, part of a community project designed to encourage people to have a go at growing their own veg.
In the southern corner, at the junction of Nightingale Lane and Balham Hill is a stark concrete building of considerable interest to anyone who likes quirky history: the deep-level WW2 air-raid shelter that could be reached by stairs from Clapham South Tube station. Originally a series of tunnels was planned to add passenger capacity on the Northern line, but the idea was shelved at the outbreak of war in 1939. It was then realised that if tunnel construction went ahead it could provide air raid shelters,  which could be used subsequently for the extension of the Underground.

Clapham South was one of three shelters in the area and not only provided a safe haven for Londoners trying to escape the Blitz, but afterwards became a hostel for troops on leave  and for some of the immigrants from Jamaica who arrived in Britain on the MV Empire Windrush. In 1951 it came in handy as a cheap ‘hotel’ for visitors to the Festival of Britain. (There were nowhere near enough ordinary hotel beds in London at that time). Two years later it  was used for the same purpose at the time of the Coronation. The original plan to run extra Tube trains never materialised, but even after years of disuse the shelters here and in other parts of  London still remain dry and  are sought after by companies specialising in archive storage.  Excellent historic photographs of the Clapham South shelter hereThe latest use for the tunnels is perhaps the most bizarre of all. In March 2014, after eighteen months of trials,  a herb farm began full-scale operations using an integrated hydrophonic system. 
NEWS:Tours of the old shelters are now available and Transport for London have secured planning permission to create a restaurant on the site.  Details

Before making your way home via Clapham South Tube,  walk a few yards past the station (along Balham Hill) towards shops and a large curved white object.  This is known as ‘The Drum’ and was another way in to the shelter. It is Grade 2 listed and has been turned into a glistening structure of some beauty by the developers of the residential accommodation above.The adjacent information board  will ensure that more people get to know the intriguing history of the strange underground world under Clapham Common. 

MAP of general area

TRAIL MAP produced by Friends of Clapham Common

Photos  ( click on image to enlarge)
Ice cream cone in The Pavement/Oil jars at No. 1 The Polygon
No. 17 The Pavement

Nos. 41-43 Old Town
No. 14 Clapham Common North Side
Trinity Hospice
Holy Trinity Church
Statue on drinking fountain/Wildlife at Mount Pond
Deep-level shelter on common
'The Drum', Balham Hill

If you are travelling south outside peak hours you may have to change at Kennington to pick up a Morden train - usually a very quick and easy connection.

Clapham Common is just one route from the many to be found at London Tube Rambles. There are architectural gems, beautiful country views, historic places and quirky buildings in the area covered by the outer London Underground stations. Usually the discoveries are within a mile of the Tube - often only five minutes walk away. If you reached this as an individual page via a search engine, you might like to go to to see the other destinations explored. You'll be amazed at what's out there!

© DR