Secret London History – The magic of the River Wandle
First visible source of the Wandle
IF THERE’S ever been magic working on London’s rivers it is surely the Wandle which meanders from Croydon to the Thames at Wandsworth. Unlike the Tyburn, the Fleet, the Wesbourne or the Walbrook, it has come back from the dead.
It went from being an idyllic trout stream trout, which John Ruskin rhapsodised about and in which Lord Nelson cast an occasional fly, to being the worst polluted and most heavily industrialized stream of that size in Britain. Industry after industry built mills to take advantage of its fast flowing waters to make everything from gunpowder to snuff.
Now it is back to its pristine state thanks to de-industrialisation (electricity made water mills uneconomic) and help from an army of volunteers. It is now awash with trout and barbell a wonder to behold. This week I jumped at the chance to join 40 others to follow Ian Bull on one of his splendid walks which started where the Wandle begins its journey.
Which is not the most romantic of places. It actually springs forth from under East Croydon station (en route to the Thames at yes, Wands-worth) and has long since been lost to sight. So we walked through central Croydon treading on some unlikely places – like the path of one of the world’s first railways, the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone horse-drawn railway built in 1805 – before we hit open country. The Wandle makes its first public appearance above ground in Wandle Park, thanks to some vital reclamation work that has been done.
It now looks almost static but in its day 90 million gallons of water a day flowed from here to make the Wandle one of the country’s fastest flowing rivers and a magnet for any company wanting cheap energy. It has been reduced to a bare trickle because huge amounts have been siphoned off for our own domestic consumption. But as we soon found out as the river winds its way from Croydon to Carshalton it quickly attracts more water from the natural reservoirs underground as it gathers pace.
The Wandle is special to me because our dad worked on the maintenance of rivers and streams in the Surrey County Council area. In those days the Wandle was so toxic as dozens upon dozens of companies unleashed their waste chemicals into this poisoned river that it never occurred to us that it could actually be cleaned up.
But cleaned up it has been and this delightful stream is a living monument to what can be done if people put their minds to it. It is a lesson for the rest of the world.
I wrote about a walk from the other end of the Wandle here
. . and a poem arising from it here