The London Borough of Merton merits wider appreciation, which is why in my novel Frightgeist I send two young lovebirds on a voyage of discovery to Morden at the J.R.R Tolkein end of the Northern line. They emerge from their train having enjoyed a running joke about encountering Orcs or Gollum to find themselves amid one of the earliest of Charles Holden’s modernist London Underground stations and admiring the “handsome atrium and the golden circle of pendant ceiling lights in the outer ticket hall”. Outside, they see the station entrance as “a wide and imposing, a super-retro spectacle”. Far from being a suburban dead end, the Mordor soundalike is full of wonders.
You don’t have to walk far to find them. Merton Civic Centre, home of Merton Council, was originally built for commercial office and post-sorting use. Opened in 1962, its look seemed to aim to complement Holden’s work. It was named Crown House in honour of a pub called The Crown that got knocked down to make way for it. The Crown was a mock-Tudor creation. Ersatz succeeds ersatz perhaps, though I find the Civic Centre genuinely handsome. Council officers began moving in from Wimbledon Town Hall in the mid-1980s and the building completed its transition into a local authority HQ after a debating chamber was installed.
The station and the municipal habitat fringe a pedestrian island with a sign tree at its heart. One of its branches points the way to the Baitul Futuh mosque, whose dome glints in the distance down London Road at an address the mosque’s website claims to be in Surrey (perhaps it isn’t only classic Home Counties Little Englanders who don’t recognise the existence of Greater London).
The mosque is sometimes claimed to be the largest in Europe, though this has been strongly contested. Seemingly not in doubt is its remarkable history. It was completed in 2003 at a cost of £15 million, all of it donated by members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a movement that began in British Indian Punjab in the late 19th Century.
It has hosted the BBC’s Question Time, been named one of the Top 50 Buildings in the World by The Spectator magazine and recovered from a serious fire which broke out there in September 2015. It hosts the Friday sermons of Ahmadiyya head Mirza Masroor Ahmad, which are televised across the world. In his book London’s Boroughs at 50 Tony Travers describes it as “a physical manifestation of the multicultural city London has become”, one of an array of grand new religious buildings the city hasn’t seen since the 19th Century Gothic revival.
That’s a magical haul of architectural delights in the space of a 15-minute walk, though Merton Council wants to make more of Morden if it can. A town centre regeneration plan is in place, featuring “a thriving town centre with new homes, improved transport and public realm, revitalised retail and modern business space”. Don’t wait for the plan to be put into effect before paying a visit.