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Secrets of the Natural Wimbledon Common

A nature walk around the famous Wimbledon Common, now protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Distance 2.7 miles (4.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 98ft (30m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Gravel, tarmac and woodland paths

Landscape Open heath and woodland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 161 London South

Start/finish TQ 229726; Wimbledon rail 1½ miles (2.4km)

Dog friendliness No particular problems

Parking Car park by Wimbledon Common Windmill

Public toilets At car park

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1 From the car park walk back along the road to a junction. Turn right here and pass beside a metal gate. Ignore the path on the left after about 300yds (274m) and continue ahead alongside a bridleway. After the next junction the path curves to the right and crosses the Royal Wimbledon Golf Course (beware of low-flying golf balls). At a fork, follow the left-hand track to a tarmac road. Cross it and take the path opposite, across the heath towards the trees - follow the track through this woodland area.

2 At a T-junction turn right, downhill. Continue through the woods with the golf course on your left. Take a right-hand fork (the left one hugs the perimeter of the golf course) and then pass through three concrete posts, leading to a path on the right. The next stretch of the walk, which later curves right again, passes some buildings and continues for about a mile (1.6km).

3 Cross a brook at a junction and continue to another fork. Ignore the small path to the right and take the next right fork, which in turn swings to the right and runs parallel to some playing fields. Keep on this gentle, uphill track through woodland, but stop to take a look at the war memorial beyond the playing fields. Continue past some buildings on your left and 100yds (91m) further on, a cemetery in Putney Vale. The path descends gradually. On the right, opposite a metal gate to the cemetery, look out for a red brick ditch. Turn right over this ditch until the path opens up to Queen's Mere, a picturesque pond much favoured by dogs.

4 Follow the path with Queen's Mere on your right. At the end take the track uphill, bearing right. At the top turn left and walk back to the car park.

If you are unfamiliar with this area, you may be surprised to discover that 495 acres (200ha) of Wimbledon Common comprises thick woodland, with the rest made up of heath and grassland. In 1987 the Common was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as its proximity to London makes its valley mires unique. While heathland in other areas has fallen prey to developments such as supermarkets and airports, Wimbledon Common's status as a candidate for a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has ensured its protection from such an outcome.

By the 1860s, Wimbledon Common had come in to the ownership of Earl Spencer, as titular Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon. In 1864 he revealed plans to enclose 700 acres (289ha) of common for parkland, a garden and house building. Though the commoners raised few objections, the Enclosure Bill stalled in the committee stage as MPs had become increasingly concerned about London's diminishing open spaces. After seven years of legal wrangling, a solution was found in the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871. Earl Spencer was compensated for his lost land, and the rights of the common were passed to conservators, charged with preserving their natural character. Between them, Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common now contain 50 per cent of London's heathland. But these are not the only natural credentials about which the commons can boast. This is also a prime site for the endangered stag beetle.

Where to eat and drink

Wimbledon Tearooms, by the Windmill car park, has seating inside and out and prides itself on its freshly-cooked food. Snacks include toasted sandwiches and jacket potatoes and an interesting array of baguette fillings. Hot meals include a mixed grill. If you're after sofas and a brasserie-style restaurant, the Common Room in nearby Wimbledon village serves light, healthy dishes.

What to look for

Each year on Wimbledon Common the park ranger team identifies at least 200 species of mushroom, of which only 10 per cent are inedible, have no culinary value or are poisonous. The mushrooms extract foods from decaying matter, which is nature's way of recycling, and so mushrooms here should not be picked. Many of them attract a lot of attention, especially the Wood blewit and the Boletus species, which are highly prized on the Continent. Although grey squirrels are abundant and foxes are often seen, some less obvious (in fact, very elusive) creatures sharing the Common are the bank vole, the short-tailed vole, the pygmy shrew, grass snakes and the occasional stoat. The woodlands also support five species of bat.

While you're there

The interpretation centre in the rangers' office, on the other side of the tea rooms, illustrates how the Common is maintained, what the role of a ranger involves and explains how the wildlife can be managed. There are some wildlife exhibits and also facilities for group lectures. During the mushroom season (mid-September to late November) you can join one of the organised Fungi Forays, to discover more about the fascinating underground route network of mushrooms. The 'fruiting head' that you see above ground is only the tip of this intriguing woodland iceberg.

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