Notebook: Wimbledon's shady legacy lives on: Villagers were cudgelled, highwaymen were hung, duels were fought there. And today 'Wimbedounyng', where Rachel Nickell was murdered 11 days ago, is still on edge

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The Independent Online
HOW UNSAFE is Wimbledon Common? When I went there last week, few people strolled or jogged across its 1,100 acres of heath and woodland. But after leaving the spot where Rachel Nickell was raped and murdered in front of her two-year-old son 11 days ago, I noticed four men, a woman and a white dog walking in single file. One of the men had a video-camera on his shoulder. The woman made notes on a clipboard. The dog's leash was held by a middle-aged man with white hair and tanned complexion. After he shook the hands of his companions and moved off, curiosity got the better of me.

'They're just the police,' he said. 'They wanted to know exactly where I'd walked on the morning I found the body.'

On the day after the murder, newspapers had referred to 'an elderly man walking his dog (who) saw what he thought was a woman sunbathing'. Was he that man? 'Yes, of course. It's amazing how the press gets things wrong. Elderly, they said. Would you say I was elderly?'

He declined to give his name, or indeed to say much about his discovery on 15 July ('The police tell me I should say nothing that might jeopardise the investigation. I suppose that's reasonable enough'). But it seems that, on approaching the 'sunbather,' he found instead a bloodsoaked child sobbing and moaning over a woman whose throat had been cut. Did the experience convince him the common was unsafe? 'I used to come here a lot on walks,' he said, shaking his head and moving towards the car park. He drove off in a blue Volkswagen Golf.

IN THE dell where Ms Nickell perished, remnants of the blue-and-white plastic tape, used by police to seal off areas of investigation, dangled from low branches. Recently cut bramble and bracken had begun to decompose in the shade, evidence of the police search for a weapon among last autumn's leaves and this summer's undergrowth. The track suddenly split, the left fork sloping densely downward; the right winding up out of the dell towards a sunlit mound, formed years ago out of spoil from the widening of the A3 and now thickly covered with grass and wild flowers. Where the track divided, bouquets of flowers lay at the foot of a tall, straight tree. Some had begun to wilt inside sheaths of paper and plastic.

Suddenly, a middle-aged woman emerged alone from the dell's darker depths, poking at the undergrowth with a stick. I asked if she had lost something. She introduced herself as Felicity Parkin, and said she was interested in archaeology and spiritualism. Was she afraid? 'No, no. I trust in God. Anyway, the correct thing to do if you're being followed is to stop in your tracks straight away. This morning someone was walking behind me, a dark person - no matter, all God's children - so I stopped immediately until he'd passed. Most people would have speeded up to try to outdistance him. I feel perfectly safe.'

Why was she here? 'I'm trying to find out if it's Roman,' she said. On one of the common's three golf courses there is a flattened bank known as 'Caesar's Camp', but archaeologists and historians are unconvinced that the great soldier was associated with it. Miss Parkin said: 'I'm good at finding things. I've found bullets and knives and a glazed tripod. I also found this.' She opened her handbag and removed a twisted stone. 'If you look at it from this angle, it's a monk or a Druid,' she said. 'See? I'm going to try hard to discover its history.'

The common may seem peaceful enough, but there is violence in its history. The village of 'Wimbedounyng' was created in Saxon times. From 1328 until 1536, a Manor of Wimbledon appears among the possessions of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1588, the Queen granted it to Sir Thomas Cecil, first Earl of Exeter. His house there was replaced in 1732 by one built for Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, who left it to her grandson, John Spencer.

The Spencers seem to have been a troublesome bunch. In 1801, they tried to enclose the common, claiming that 'persons (are) shooting night soil and other filth' on to it. The attempt failed. In 1864 a large number of vocal commoners forced Parliament to frustrate another Earl Spencer from doing likewise. The common then passed into the control of 'conservators'.

The soil is of poor quality. In Tudor and Stuart times, even local tenants who had a virgate (15 acres) were allowed to graze only five 'beasts for the plough', 25 sheep guarded by a shepherd, and two pigs, ringed through the nose to stop them rooting up trees.

According to Norman Plastow's 60-page A History of Wimbledon and Putney Commons, published by the 'conservators' in 1986, 15th-century villagers used to cudgel one another over rights to remove wood. Later, highwaymen haunted the place and, when caught, were strung up on a gibbet overlooking the Kingston Road. At the start of the present century, old people recalled an area harbouring 'Gypsies, vagrants and trespassers' among whom one did not journey 'without a patrol'. Famous duels took place: the earliest recorded was between Lord Chandos and Colonel Compton in 1652, and the most notable in 1798 between William Pitt and William Tierney, MP for Southwark (no blood was spilled). Among others who wielded pistols there were Canning and Castlereagh, and the Earl of Cardigan and Captain Harveyn Garnett Tucker.

RON Ribbins, deputy ranger, has worked on Wimbledon Common for 21 years. I found him in the ranger's office behind a restored 19th-century windmill on the eastern side of the common. He is tall, neatly dressed and of military bearing, his white beard close-cropped and his sandy hair smoothed back in lightly oiled waves.

Six keepers, three on horseback, patrol the common, on the lookout for pests, who include 'flashers' and treasure hunters with metal detectors, the use of which is forbidden. Maintenance workers also watch for trouble, be it vandalism, attacks on wildlife, or attempts to bathe in Queen's Mere, an artificial pond shaped like a light-bulb but in reality an impenetrable murk. 'Our numbers haven't changed since I first arrived,' Mr Ribbins said. 'The keepers' presence is a good deterrent against troublemakers, and the maintenance staff act as our eyes and ears.'

The patrols, he explains, are from early morning until sundown. 'It would be pointless and dangerous to patrol at night. The common is open on all sides, and there are no opening and closing times as in a public park. There are so many places to hide.' At the time Rachel Nickell was murdered in the dell, he said, a mounted keeper was actually heading in that direction.

He extols the virtues of the common, which attracts thousands of people on summer weekends. Only one man - a jogger - had ever been bitten by a snake. 'It's better than being in the country. There are fewer limits here and no walls or fences. The general trend is for people to come in their cars, park in the car park on the other side of the windmill and go for a walk. You get more joggers and dog-walkers than when I first arrived, but the biggest changes have been wrought by nature. Two big fires in 1976, the year of serious drought, coincided with a fire brigade strike. The fires smouldered for months, flaring up periodically. Large areas of scrubland went up in flames, opening up new vistas.'

By mid-afternoon Wimbledon Common was almost deserted. Half a dozen people sat outside the tea-shop facing the car park and the greens of the London Scottish Golf Club showed few signs of activity. Two uniformed officers occupied a large police trailer within sight of the ranger's office. Beneath the sails of the windmill, men with surveyor's instruments recorded details of the killing ground.

In some of the open spaces, poles bearing framed warnings seem to outnumber the surviving trees: 'Car theft is increasing. You are at risk.' 'Dangerous for swimming.' 'Do not remove spawn or tadpoles.' These notices are brightly coloured. Even more eye-catching is a large yellow board covered in black letters: 'Here on 15.7.92, approximately 9.30am- 10.30am, a woman was brutally murdered as she walked with her 2-year-old son. Did you see or hear anything? Can you help? In confidence phone 081-947 1212, or call at local p/station.'

I didn't feel unsafe but, like the man who found Rachel Nickell, I was reluctant to stay.

(Photograph omitted)

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