I'm gutted that this leg turns out to be one of the least interesting day walks on the whole Capital Ring, as I used to live in Balham and spent many a day wondering just where those green Capital Ring signs were pointing (assuming, of course, that they were actually pointing along the proper route, rather than the skewed version that introduces the Ring). The fact that today's walk is nothing but a relatively bland wander through everyday suburbia comes as something of a disappointment.
OK, so there's nothing actually wrong with day 5 of the Ring, and the surroundings are never anything other than pleasant, but unlike the walks either side of the Streatham-Wimbledon Park leg, there's absolutely no highlight. Day 4 has views and pretty little Norwood Grove, and day 6 is arguably the best day walk in Greater London, but day 5 exists only to join up these other parts of the Ring, and as such it's a bit of a let-down. Still, even classic albums have the odd bit of filler, and there are far worse walks in London, so I'll be kind...
A Tale of Two Commons
From Streatham, the Ring quickly passes what is probably the most notable building of the day – Streatham Pumping Station, which looks for all the world like an Islamic temple tucked away by the railway lines of Streatham Junction – and heads north to Tooting Bec Common, the first of two green spaces on the itinerary. Unfortunately Tooting Bec Common is a relatively average park, and although the Ring tries to take in its major feature – a large pond in the middle of the common – you can't actually see anything from the path, and before you know it you're back into the suburbs of Balham.
Comparing the suburbs of Balham with those on the earlier part of the Ring is entertaining, particularly as there's precious little else to do while winding through the streets towards Balham High Road. While the suburbs of eastern London are home to houses whose front gardens have mysteriously morphed into graveyards for rusting car wrecks, the front gardens of south Balham are given over to the slightly more active but no less chaotic pastime of DIY. Balham feels like a suburb whose buildings are slightly too tatty for the price, and it appears that the residents are keen to do something about it. The result is a collection of houses whose paint is cracked and whose window frames are rotting, but it's not disrepair, for the front yards are full of bags of sand, cement mixers, piles of bricks, stone slabs, and the gentle lilt of the working man's radio. Balham might be showing its age, but it's getting the architectural equivalent of anti-ageing cream slapped on its face, and this makes it an optimistic place to explore.
But it isn't particularly thrilling, so it's a relief that soon after crossing Balham High Road, the Ring reaches Wandsworth Common, the second green space of the day. Strangely, the Ring ignores the open spaces of the common and instead sticks rigidly to the flanks of the busy Brighton train line, which rather removes the point of being in such a green part of the world; presumably this is because there are some pleasant ponds with a worthwhile boardwalk en route, but all too soon Wandsworth Common runs out, and it's back into the suburbs and the urban sight of Wandsworth Prison's gates.
From the prison the Ring turns into Magdalen Road, which goes in a straight line, all the way to Earlsfield. This is not a particularly interesting stretch, but as I turned into the top of the street, I noticed a group of white-clad forensic investigators clutched round number eight, the front room of which was shielded by sheets of plastic in the distinctive manner of crime scenes. I would later find out that the previous Saturday, police had discovered the body of a 45-year-old millionaire who had been assassinated in this, his £850,000 home, the day after he sold it. Still waters run deep in suburban London, evidently.
Luckily I knew none of this as I tackled an alternative to the official route, which follows the straight and rather uninspiring Magdalen Road. This alternative avoids the traffic and shuffles well and truly off this mortal coil, for along the western side of the road lies Wandsworth Cemetery, which is absolutely massive and is worth exploring if only for its size. Crumbling graves nestle next to vibrant displays of affection, and it's a sobering little walk along the edge of the burial ground.
From the cemetery it's a short suburban hop to Wimbledon Park tube station, where this rather forgettable day's walk ends. Still, at least it's easy to combine this section with day 6, where things really take off...