Sunday, 26 August 2012

Wandle Trail

River Wandle in Watermeads Nature Reserve River Wandle in Watermeads Nature Reserve

A long-time resident of Wandsworth borough, I have long been aware that the borough takes its name from the River Wandle. This is a river I cross almost every time I go to central London, and yet in Wandsworth town centre is scarcely visible.

This is, hopefully, to change, as I will touch upon later. However, at present the nicer stretches of the Wandle are further from the Thames, as I discovered when I impulsively decided to vary my diet of Thames riverbank strolling with an exploration of my local tributary.

In four different visits so far, June-Aug 2012, I have ended up covering the course from where it joins the Thames at Wandsworth, as far upstream as Hackbridge. I actually ended up walking in alternating directions on my trips, first upstream then down, but for the sake of this post, I shall pretend I walked continuously in this upstream direction.

My spontaneous decision to walk my local river led me into suburbs of London I'd never previously visited, discovering some fantastic and little-hailed parks and nature reserves along the way. I was truly amazed at some of the "secret" beauty-spots I found, but the Wandle is also a river with a strongly industrial history, and that aspect to its character remains evident today.

In fact, it is that character which dominates the river as you start your stroll at the Thames.

Wandle at Wandsworth

Thames to Wandsworth

Where the Wandle joins the Thames is, unfortunately, a far from picturesque sight. In fact, it was so-unpicturesque, I completely abdicated my responsibility to take any photographs. On future expeditions, I shall have to remember my duty to cold documentary photography even where I find myself aesthetically uninspired!

I shall therefore borrow a photo from flickr user McTumshie:

Waste Transfer Station By The Thames In Wandsworth - London. Aerial Wandsworth

If you're thinking "that doesn't look so bad?", then what is not shown here -- or smelled here! -- is the enormous Waste Transfer Station, captured here by Jim Linwood:

A short distance upstream the Wandle tumbles over a large weir/gate, ensuring none of the tributary from here is tidal. Running through an industrial area under the Reading-bound railway line from Waterloo, the water is not obviously polluted or littered, but it looks dark and opaque (the effect perhaps heightened by the overcast weather on the day I walked this stretch), steeply concreted, deep, dangerous and bereft of wildlife. Thoroughly uninviting - but do not be put off, for the river leads to pleasanter grounds ahead.

You'll need to be patient for a while longer though, because as you emerge at the four lanes of the South Circular the Wandle enters an industrial quadrant, the former Ram Brewery, that is currently fairly impenetrable.

Formerly claimed as the oldest continually operated brewery in England, this closed in 2006 as Wandsworth brewers Young's merged with pub company Charles Wells. However, the loss of industrial heritage may have a silver lining as the proposed redevelopment includes a newly exposed and landscaped river, with riverside plaza near the High Street.

We suffer some truly shitty development in this country, and this plan doesn't really blow me away architecturally either, but it does open up the river and preserve the brewery chimney, of which I'm rather fond, so I cross my fingers for this one.

It can hardly make things worse, because at the moment the river exits the Ram Brewery site only to plunge underneath the Southside shopping centre. Which town planner thought it was a good idea to build a shopping centre over your town's eponymous river, I have no idea... I can only imagine that at the time it was built, the river was in too much of a polluted state for anyone to bear putting it on display. Thankfully, it has been cleaned up a lot in recent decades.

River Wandle River Wandle River Wandle

King George's Park to Earsfield

Finally, to the south of the shopping centre, the river emerges.

Looking at Google Maps on my phone I was pleased to see the river then skirted King George's Park. Finally, some beautiful green space for a faux-countryside riverbank amble!

Well... Green space, at least.

I don't mean to be harsh on the place; green space is always nice, after all. And the north end was lively, with a kids playground and locals enjoying the warm weather. But as I walked south the park had a school playing field feel to it, and the river was mostly fenced off and invisible behind the wall of trees along its bank, so my countryside vibes still weren't quite happening.

However, occasional bridges from the park into the adjacent streets offered glimpes of the river, park on one side, light industry on the other:

River Wandle

Towards the end of the park, with some careful cropping of a house, just out of frame here, it was possible to get little glimpses of the river with the city (almost) absent:

After here, I lost the river as I entered Earlsfield, and grabbed a train home.

Nature/Industry contrast on Wandle Trail

South of Earlsfield

From Earlsfield, the Wandle Trail starts being worthy of the name, running more closely and continuously along the river banks.

The natural/industrial contrasts from south Wandsworth continue, in more drastic forms:

Allotment shed by the Wandle

While a little further down, allotments bordering the river bring a villagey feel. With a black & white conversion and a few photoshop filters I could convince you this is an archive photo from 1930:

Birds by the Wandle

Into Merton

Heading down to Wimbledon/Colliers Wood/Merton, wildlife was a more visible presence as the urban surroundings slowly began to recede.

Wandle Trail River Wandle in Merton

The city was becoming something occasionally glimpsed each time the wooded river crossed a road:

River Wandle

In fact, it wasn't just a matter of losing the city, it was a matter of plain old getting lost. Passing beside/through Wandle Meadow Nature Park and Wandle Park, I took a few wrong turns. No disrespect to those who managed to create this trail, but I've walked on more smoothly flowing long-distance paths and trails in my time! Due to the patchwork of land ownership, it cannot always follow a direct riverside path. As it zigzags around houses, roads, tramlines, industrials, there is not always a surplus of signposting.

At one point I came across the plain absurd - at the edge of a new housing estate, a footbridge had been built over the river, but nobody had built the stairs down to the meadow on the other side. Not feeling in the mood for jumping maybe 10 foot down, with camera, I turned around to cross the river by the road, instead.

However, in nice scenery a bit of getting lost is never a bad thing, and approaching Morden, near the entrance to Deen City Farm, the Wandle began to seriously flex its picturesque pseudo-rural abilities.

River Wandle in Morden Hall Park
River Wandle in Morden Hall Park River Wandle in Morden Hall Park
River Wandle in Morden Hall Park

Morden Hall Park

I started the first and last of my journeys from Morden Hall Park, first heading downstream and the next time heading upstream. Morden was previously known only to me as "the end of the Northern line", but this free-to-enter National Trust property is a delight for which it's worth going to the end of the line.

I shall have to go back and check out the estate in its own right, including the buildings and visitor centre. It has a pretty interesting history - originally a deer park owned by Westminster Abbey, then a school, then owned by tobacco merchants using watermills on the Wandle to grind snuff, then a military hospital during the First World War...

Speaking of history, "in 1805, the river Wandle was described as 'the hardest worked river for its size in the world' due to its large number of water mills located along its banks", grinding tobacco, wheat and powering the river's large textiles industry. In a fitting update to this watermill-heavy history, the National Trust installed an 8.5KW Archimedes screw in the river at Morden Hall Park this summer, which is planned to generate enough electricity for the stable yard and snuff mill visitor centre, with another 20% sold back to the national grid.

For now, though, I was on a mission, and stuck to the river as it wound through the 50 hectare (125 acre) park. Being a blazing hot day on both occasions, very pleasant it was too.

Squirrel in Ravensbury Park

Ravensbury Park to Watermeads

In stark contrast to the dark and dangerous looking Wandle near the mouth, here the river is broad, shallow and wonderfully clear and clean-looking. On such a sunny summer's day, it was extremely tempting to get in, and several people - and dogs! - were doing exactly that, but I kept my feet dry for the walk ahead.

Leaving Morden Hall Park I immediately entered Ravensbury Park. Small but very nice, there were picnicking families and playful squirrels. If my appetite for watching and photographing squirrels has a limit, I have yet to discover it.

Wandle in Ravensbury Park

The Wandle divides and merges many times along its course, and it does so here, with the footpath on an island between the main river course and a broad, still pond:

Wandle in Ravensbury Park River Wandle in Watermeads Nature Reserve
River Wandle in Watermeads Nature Reserve

Watermeads to Hackbridge

Emerging from Ravensbury Park, I lost the river and walked a short distance alongside the slightly unsalubrius arse-end of Tooting & Mitcham United FC's stadium. I rejoined the river to discover it was at its most beautiful yet.

I uploaded these photos believing them to be Watermeads Nature Reserve. However a little googling now suggests the actual nature reserve is not open to the public - presumably the area where I "lost" the river. This, then must be technically adjacent to Watermeads. At any rate, it was a little idyll of the English country river, and one which I had entirely to myself.

Weir on the Wandle near Hackbridge

After this stretch, the path becomes a little unglued before resuming its riverside route in Watercress Park. Here, the path becomes suburban, skirting the back end of postwar housing estates. I met a man from Hackney, supervising a girl who could have been his daughter, or perhaps niece; he told me he was visiting relatives and was impressed by how nice it was down here. I told him it was my first visit to the neighbourhood too, explaining that I'd been following the river down from Wandsworth, and concurred with his positive assessment.

Shortly after this weir I emerged onto Hackbridge Road, and bade the river farewell, making my way to Hackbridge Station.

I can't claim to have "done" the Wandle just yet. At some point in the future I shall have to return to Hackbridge and continue through the wonderfully named Wilderness Island, to Beddington Park, Waddon Ponds and the source at Croydon's Wandle Park. For now however, I have been inspired to turn my feet towards another Thames tributary, of which more to follow in the hopefully not-too-distant future.


Zones 2-4
Waterloo / Vauxhall / Clapham Junction to
Wandsworth Town
Victoria / Blackfriars to

Colliers Wood Northern

Morden Road
Phipps Bridge

The northern end of the river is accessed from Waterloo with trains to Wandsworth Town and Earlsfield.

Striking into the middle of the territory I covered, the easiest way for most is probably the Northern line to Morden, although it's also well served by the Wimbledon-Croydon Tramlink (a system I have yet to use).

From Hackbridge there are trains to Victoria, Clapham Junction and Blackfriars which should provide a route home to suit most tastes.


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