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The Bright Side of Balham

A circular route highlighting the greener spots of Balham and its most famous art deco property.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 33ft (10m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Paved streets, tarmac and gravel paths across commons

Landscape Urban greenery

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 161 London South

Start/finish TQ 285731 Balham Station (tube and rail)

Dog friendliness No particular problems

Public toilets None on route

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 Turn right at Balham station, along Balham Station Road. Cross at the lights, past the Bedford Arms pub, into Fernlea Road. At a mini-roundabout turn right before a strip of common and go under a railway bridge. Turn left and follow the wall of the railway embankment, passing a playground and playing fields on the right.

2 At another bridge take the right-hand tarmac path running parallel to a row of houses. As the path bends to the left, it runs alongside another railway track lined with trees before meeting a road, Bedford Hill. Turn right and cross the road to join a path across Tooting Bec Common.

3 Turn sharp left and continue along a path that hugs the railway track and passes Tooting Bec Lido. Pass the Lido car park and follow the path that circles it clockwise. After crossing the car park approach road, take the right-hand path leading into the common and, at a clump of trees, turn left along a narrow path around a lake.

4 Beyond the children's playground take the next left to the café and follow this path until you reach Hillbury Road. Turn right at the crossroads and continue ahead into Manville Road. At the next crossroads turn left into Ritherdon Road and continue to the end.

5 Turn right at the traffic lights into Balham High Road, passing Du Cane Court and St Mary's Church before reaching the station from where the walk began.

When I tell people that I live in Balham, it never fails to amaze me how many knowingly answer with that old chestnut: 'Ah, you mean the Gateway to the South'. The catch-phrase, made famous by Peter Sellers, seems set to stay around for a few more decades. Fortunately, Balham has much more to offer than mere access to south London - some might even say it has had the last laugh.

Balham is mentioned in the Domesday Book. In the late 18th century it mainly consisted of fields peppered with large houses. In the 1860s, by the time the railway network had increased, it was already popular with the working and middle classes and residential developments began to appear. In the 1930s the architect G Kay Green designed the largest privately-owned block under one roof in Europe. Du Cane Court, named after a family of Huguenots on whose land the site was built, contains 676 flats and is home to more than 1,000 residents. When the Second World War began many people left for the relative safety of the countryside but the Foreign Office came to the rescue: many of its staff rented a flat in the block, no doubt impressed by the short train journey to Victoria. In the 1940s a small flat cost around £6 a month to rent, which was not considered cheap but it included a remarkable view. Today, from the seventh floor rooftop, the panoramic view over London must surely match those from Parliament Hill, Alexandra Palace, Canary Wharf and anywhere else north of the river, for that matter.

Despite being a major landmark in the area, because of its size, it was never bombed by the Germans during the war (although 64 lives were lost when Balham Station was hit). Some even say that Hitler had placed spies here and that it was used as a landmark by his aircrews. If this were true, the spies would have been in good hands for, food rations permitting, the restaurant on the top floor served some very fine dishes.

Margaret Rutherford, the comedy actress who became a household name after starring as Miss Marple was born here in 1892. Also born here, but in 1946, was John Sullivan, who wrote Citizen Smith and the timeless Only Fools and Horses for television. If you want to see the interior of Du Cane Court, you'll have to watch one of the Agatha Christie adaptations in which the lobby and flats have been featured; the sweeping art deco staircase is indeed a rare and wonderful sight.

What to look for

Hamilton House, on the right of Balham High Road is the Polish White Eagle Club used by many of Balham's Polish immigrants who settled here after the Second World War. On the opposite side of the road is the red brick Polish Catholic church, Christ the King.

Where to eat and drink

The Bedford Arms is a comfortable, airy sort of pub with sofas and a fireplace. At weekends it's like a chameleon, turning into one of London's premier comedy clubs favoured by both comics and punters. The quirky theatre is balconied with an ornate, domed ceiling and tables in the intimate 'overflow' room are decorated with candles. When the laughter ends it turns into a nightclub until 2am. The café on Tooting Bec Common serves all-day breakfasts, burgers, and sausage and chips. It claims to be open seven days a week except at Christmas.

While you're there

During the summer months, if your lungs are strong, take your swimming gear on the walk and visit the gigantic Tooting Bec Lido where even one width of the pool is a breathtaking 108ft (33m). Lidos are larger than life and this one, with its endearing wooden cubicle doors painted in bright, Caribbean shades, is no exception. On a hot summer's day it can get as many as 6,000 visitors.

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