Dazzling floral delights in Dulwich: Michael Leapman takes a stroll among magnificent 100-year-old rhododendrons

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Rhododendrons excite passions. Vita Sackville-West thought them vulgar - altogether too showy - yet some will journey to the most northerly and westerly parts of Britain to see them at their early summer peak.

Londoners have no need to go so far, because one of the finest displays is on our doorstep in Dulwich Park - and this is the weekend to catch them at their magnificent best.

Leaving the car on the park's main drive, walk ahead and go right at the first fork, down the wide path with a horse riding track, soon passing the Barbara Hepworth sculpture on the left between the path and the lake. Where the lake ends, follow the sign for Rosebery Gate, keeping the wooden fence on your left. When you are level with the cafeteria turn right, with the bowling green on the left and a view of the Crystal Palace TV mast on the right.

You will see the rhododendrons from a distance, becoming more spectacular as you approach - mainly whites, reds and lilac but a few jazzy oranges and yellows screaming for attention among them. Called the American Garden, this part of the park was often visited by Queen Mary, wife of George V.

The rhododendrons have been there since it opened in 1890 and are now, according to notices in the beds, at the start of a four-year refurbishment by Southwark Council. Leave the park by the Rosebery Gate and go left into the road. After that dazzling display, a quieter woodland stroll is appropriate, so, just before the traffic lights, turn right opposite the large Harvester Restaurant, through an ugly wire-mesh kissing gate into Cox's Walk, a surfaced path through oak trees.

Passing some allotments on your left and a golf course on the right, the lane soon reaches a footbridge over a railway cutting. Cross the bridge and go through the gate into Sydenham Hill Woods, a small nature reserve. Climb the log steps on your right and follow the bank of the cutting. For such a narrow strip of wood, it feels remarkably secluded and there is a bewildering number of paths, but if you follow the obvious ones you will be reassured by the sight of numbered waymarkers every few hundred yards. Bear right at the triangular junction at a clearing, where you may just catch the last of the bluebells.

Passing a small pond on your left, turn right by a tall oak to post No 4 and the remains of a small Gothic-style building. Go uphill past post No. 3 and, where the path turns sharp right, climb the log steps on your left to leave the reserve on Crescent Wood Road.

Turn right, keeping to the main road and passing No. 3, which bears a blue plaque announcing it as the former home of the television pioneer John Logie Baird.

Opposite Dulwich Wood House - a pub topped by a curious wooden lookout - turn right through a white metal kissing gate into a lane running downhill, with Dulwich Wood on the right.

Near the bottom, turn right through a gate into the wood and follow the main path straight ahead to a junction of six, where you bear slightly left downhill on the main gravel track. It emerges at the top of Grange Lane, opposite a prefabricated golf clubhouse.

Turn left into the lane, passing a second and much more impressive field of a allotments on the left. The lane meets College Road alongside the quaint 18th-century tollgate. Turn right, away from the tollgate, to pass the Victorian buildings of Dulwich College on the left - as flamboyant in their way as the rhododendrons.

Keeping straight on at the lights, you soon return to the park gate; if you have time it is worth visiting the Dulwich Picture Gallery just opposite.

The first purpose-built public art gallery in Britain, built in 1817 by Sir John Soane, it has a good small collection of Old Masters, but is best known for the repeated theft of Rembrandt's Jacob II de Gheyn.

(Photographs and map omitted)