YOU don't have to play tennis or care about watching those who do to enjoy a visit to Wimbledon, site of the annual tennis championships, starting here next Monday. While ``Wimbledon'' is synonymous with ``tennis'' to many people - and rightly so - the town has more to offer travelers than its fabled courts.
Many English towns have shops and restaurants that make them attractive to visitors, but few are as accessible from the center of London as Wimbledon. An easy ``underground'' ride on the District Line will take you to Wimbledon Station. Or a faster way is to take a British Rail train from Waterloo Station.
Once you arrive at the underground station, you are squarely in Wimbledon's bustling, modern section, new by English standards, since it grew up in the late 19th century, when the railroad was built. Until nearly modern times, there was nothing here except fields.
Wimbledon Village is up the hill. In sharp contrast to the area around the station, the village has medieval origins. And, though the old manor house is long since gone, there is technically still a lord of the manor of Wimbledon - none other than Earl Spencer, father the Princess of Wales.
The walk up Wimbledon Hill Road to the village is too steep to appeal to everyone. But buses run frequently, and only in a downpour will you have to wait long for a London cab. The way up the hill takes you past department stores, restaurants, private homes, the post office, the library, a greengrocer's with a handsome display of cut flowers and produce, and even a shop that purports to sell 31 flavors of genuine American ice cream.
At the top of the hill, passing the stone memorial to one Joseph Toynbee, Esq. FRS, you're ready for a stroll along High Street, the main thoroughfare. Here you'll find more places to eat. Most notable, perhaps, is the dramatic increase during the last couple of years in the number of establishments serving afternoon tea. The Coffee Shop and Anabel's Salon de Patisserie now compete with the older Rituals Tea Room, farther along.
Next to Gravestock's Bakery there's also Gravestock's Sandwich Shop, complete with ``take away'' options. And restaurants of various sorts abound.
About midway along High Street, a sign points off to the right announcing the ``Lawn Tennis Museum at the All England Club.'' ``St. Mary's Parish Church'' is also signposted there. And in fact, the church is worth a detour. Today's building is on the site of a much older church, which, with a few houses along what was then known simply as ``The Street,'' was the medieval village of Wimbledon.
While you are exploring this section, you may want to look at a few side streets. Each one is different, but they all look wonderfully English to American eyes. The half-timbered houses and the prevalence of brick - there are very few frame houses - are further English cues. So is the fact that virtually every house, no matter how small, has its garden. And, though many gardens are walled, the bright profusion and perfume of flowering trees and other blooms cannot be kept hidden altogether.
Longtime residents find High Street today not what it used to be, and they regret some of the changes. There is no question that the influx of shops like the Real Cheese Shop, with its elegant presentation of more than 140 cheeses, is indicative of a definite move up-market. Still, for the visitor it is lovely.
Even so, other English villages have their shops, restaurants, charming houses, and parish churches. And many trace their history to medieval times. But what makes Wimbledon unique, apart from the tennis, is Wimbledon Common, an expansive refuge of greenery that opens out before you at the end of High Street, just past the war memorial. Together with Putney Lower Common, Wimbledon Common comprises 1,100 acres, measuring more than a mile and a half on each of its four sides.
If you're tired of city pavements, you can leave macadam behind here and ponder an earlier England. This common was once the site for some famous duels. In 1798 Prime Minister William Pitt dueled George Tierney here.
For London visitors who have no time for an extended trip into the English countryside, Wimbledon Common may be just right to capture some of the country's rural flavor. Kite flying, dog walking, outings, and games are the pastimes here.
Crisscrossing pedestrian paths, ``roads,'' and riding trails cut through most sections of the Common. Golf courses, playing fields, and sports grounds also break up the open areas and deeply wooded sections. Last October's hurricane brought down many trees, but the overall effect remains.
A good map of the Common, available from the local bookshops, is likely to prove useful to anyone spending some time here. Special points of interest, such as the windmill in the northern corner, are clearly marked, as is Caesar's Camp, a 14-acre area thought to be the remains of earthworks from the New Stone Age.
Follow the road from the windmill to Cannizaro Park, and you'll find a fine old estate, Cannizaro House, that has been turned into a hotel. The gardens, which are open to the public, offer carefully tended flower beds, towering rhododendrons, sweeping lawns, and magnificent trees. When you leave Cannizaro Park, it's worth pausing for a moment where West Side Common and Southside Common come together. Fronting on a tiny green is Crooked Billet, as quaint a street as you could ask for.
By then, it may be time to head back to the station. After such a day, you'll be able to tell friends that you were in Wimbledon. Maybe they'll notice a distinction from the tennis crowd, who usually say they were at Wimbledon.
If you decide to go
For more information, contact British Tourist Authority at 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019, or in other major cities.