The Wandle’s name doesn’t exactly conjure up visions of rural riverine tranquillity. Indeed for those of us who grew up in its environs it more likely to suggest urban grubbiness, and old shopping trolleys rammed into a filthy stream. But having heard of recent work to restore and recover stretches of the river we’re keen to see for ourselves and, after only the briefest stroll down some modest London streets (modest alas only in appearance and not in price) the restored Wandle reveals a surprisingly bucolic character. The Wandle Trail
Joining the footpath in Thornsett road, the terraced houses of Earlsfield stand back and willows, ancient ones, line the river which with an unexpectedly leisurely loop has created a little island of shrubs, nettles and willows. The riverside path leads us to the much less bucolic urban thoroughfare of Plough Lane where we pay our last respects to the greyhound stadium which has just held its last meeting, another bit of working class London obliterated by faceless developments. I reminisce about growing up not far away and hearing the roar of the crowds, a time when this sport attracted thousands for every meeting.
Both of us have driven down this busy road numerous times but neither of us knew this tributary of the Thames was making its way underneath, even though unlike many of London’s ‘lost rivers’ the Wandle was never entirely buried. Further on we stop and stare down into the water which, for a moment where a tributary joins, swirls around like a bigger and mightier river. It soon settles back down to a gentle flow and is most noticeably very clear. Much work has gone into the restoration and cleaning of this river, the old industries long closed. It’s meant the return of all sorts of fish, including even the brown trout and now claims to be one of the cleanest rivers in Europe. Although we waited patiently, on this occasion the trout were hiding.
Nature reserves have been created almost the entire length turning it into an unexpectedly rural walk. We linger beside a series of ponds hoping for frog but are unlucky here; We walked in Spring and cowslips and blossom crowned a small hill in Wandle Nature Park. This part of the Wandle walk is not all rural bliss. Staffies rule the roost on the nature reserves, the brambles are dotted with plastic bottles and Macdonalds boxes, and you are regularly disgorged to cross busy roads. One such crossing at Merton road takes you past perhaps the most inelegant of all hypermarkets, the Sava centre. This was the largest hypermarket when constructed in 1989 and has undergone all the vicissitudes of such developments but still it looms over its immediate environments , a monument to how hypermarkets sucked the life out of London’s high streets . But the river trickles around this development and soon picks up again taking us past the site of Merton Abbey Mills where William Morris developed his fabrics and the first Liberty fabric mill was sited, now a food and entertainment venue of a rather uninspiring kind.https://www.mertonabbeymills.org.uk/
By the time we cross the Croydon tram link tram the river has become shallow and narrow peacefully passing alongside the path. Our walk ends at Merton Hall, a National Trust property, where a landscape restoration has created a very attractive wetland. There’s an unexpectedly large area of reed beds with occasional ancient trees and walkways meandering through them, attractively signposted for children. The view across the park, with its ornamental bridges and winding streams, is lovely . Hungry by now, we opt for the tea rooms of Merton Hall’s extensive and well regarded garden centre. The décor is attractive, all restful greys and farmhouse pine, but the clientele is 100% female and mainly over 70. Seeing as we’re fit ladies and in denial about age, this venue is not edgy enough for us after Hackney marshes. It’s been a cold walk and we’re looking for comfort rather than class which is probably fortunate. I have a pork casserole which is a bland version of home cooking and Jacqueline regresses to the nursery with a dish of pasta and tomato. On reflection this is primarily a tea room and the cakes and scones would have been a better choice. Or stopping at one of the numerous eating places Merton Abbey Mills had on offer. It’s cheap here and a logical break on a great walk but there’s room for improvement .
Highlight: The Wandle itself
Steps count: c.12,000
Food cost: cheap but uninspired..