The Wandle is a river with a history that far outweighs its rather short length. Its waters flow underground from the North Downs, which are to the south of London, and emerge as springs in urban South London. The River Wandle first appears as a proper river in Wandle Park in Croydon. Over the next 12 miles, or is it just 9 miles or 11 miles (learned sources differ on the actual above-ground length of the river), it gathers tributaries, falls about 125 feet and enters the River Thames at Wandsworth. And it’s the drop and the resulting speed of the water that leads to its fascinating industrial heritage and its role as an ornamental river for grand houses.
At its peak, during the Industrial Revolution of the C17th and C18th, building on a tradition that dates back to Roman times, some say there were more than 90 working mills on the Wandle although today it is reckoned there were only about 50. The river was one of the most industrialised rivers in England. The main industries were textiles, snuff and tobacco, with corn, wheat, chocolate, etc, etc as runners up. It was also considered to be the most polluted river in England.
Today there is not just one River Wandle but a maze of rivers, branches and ponds, some natural and some man-made. And this introduces another part of its history. As you walk down the river from Wandle Park, the route takes you through, or past, a number of old stately homes, or in some cases, the grounds where stately homes used to stand. Perhaps the grandest today is Carew Manor in Beddington Park dating back to 1381 in its current form but the result of the brining together and rebuilding of much earlier properties. The eccentric octagonal brick building, seen from the trail, is a Grade II Listed historic Dovecote with room for 2,000 doves. Other grand houses include Ravensbury Manor dating back to the middle ages but now demolished and Morden Hall now a National Trust property.
As you pass these houses, or through the parkland left behind, you will see how the River Wandle has been harnessed for decorative purposes. In some cases this is by stone-lining the banks, building fancy stone bridges and altering the river course to “improve” the look. There are also places where new branches of the river have been constructed to lead some of the water past the original house.
So now on to our dawdle. A train from Richmond, where we live, took us to Wimbledon where we changed to a relatively new form of transport, the Tramlink service.
To call it a tram is a slight misnomer in my book. When I was young in Glasgow, the trams were the most popular form of transport. For the most part they were double-deckers formed of a single carriage. The rails on which they ran were embedded into the road surface, which itself was normally made of cobbles. For the cyclist they were a nightmare in the rain when the cobbles were wet and slippery. If you slipped into the grooves of the rails you were almost invariably trapped. And the tram stops were at very regular intervals, just like bus stops today.
Today’s Tramlink rails run proud of the surface like conventional train tracks. In fact, most of the routes follow old railway tracks. It is really a light rail service with a single carriage articulated in the middle. And the stops are only about two or three to the mile.
Whether it is a true tram or not, it does provide a great public transport service across South London. For us the Tramlink more or less followed the River Wandle and passed 11 stations in about six miles before arriving at Wandle Park, the starting point for our walk. The Tramlink stops are simple platforms probably no more than one foot above the ground. For us, at the end of the platform there was a gate straight into the park. How very convenient.
It has to be admitted that in Wandle Park where the River Wandle makes its first appearance, it can barely be called a stream. In parts it’s narrow enough to step across in one stride. It is clear that a lot of work has been carried out in recent years to highlight the Wandle and to make the park an attractive place with well-kept grass, shrubs and flower beds. To make the point, Council groundsmen were there when we arrived cutting the grass. The river, it turns out, only makes a brief appearance here, less than 1/4 mile. At the edge of the park it disappears through a grille and dives back underground.
To rejoin the river there is a 1/2 mile walk along local roads and across the A23 trunk road, the famous London to Brighton road. There was no sign of “Genevieve” nor the sound of the iconic Larry Adler theme tune to the movie. We crossed safely. Along Mill Lane, named after a defunct flour mill, Waddon Ponds appeared on the left. This is a lovely little enclave of ponds that are the home to dozens of Coots. There was also a flock of the dreaded Canada Geese leaving a mess wherever they go. Also, as our guide Anne pointed out, here was the first opportunity for a “comfort break”.
It’s worth mentioning that the Wandle Trail is well signposted. Just look for the distinctive symbol of a mill-wheel. Like the river, the trail does split from time to time to pass different sights, the choice is yours. Do watch that you don’t find yourself following a branch that is going back up the river. The other thing to watch out for is bikes. The Wandle Trail is shared for most of its route by a number of London cycle routes. During our day on the trail we met hardly a bike but at weekends and commuter times there may be more around.
The first of the minor signing confusions came in front of an old factory where there was a sign pointing to our right and another to the left. It took a bit of working out to realise that the route to the left would take us back to Waddon Ponds. As we’re looking at it and trying to work out it’s history, two men of our own vintage stopped. They are locals who like wandering the paths and streets of the area. It turns out that there was a snuff mill here in the C18th but in early Victorian times it burned to the ground and was replaced with the current brick structure that was built as a corn mill but now looks as if it was converted to a factory or maybe a warehouse.
As we left the building behind, we came to a row of old mill cottages, very pretty with white painted wood cladding. We stopped to look and a lady came over to ask if we had any questions. She had lived in one of the cottages for 57 years and was a fount of knowledge about changes to the community over the years. She mentioned that when she first lived there, Bridges Lane, which we had just walked along, used to cross the river by a ford. No longer, the river is buried in a tunnel. Although we didn’t see any today, Kingfishers frequent this little enclave.
The river gets noticeably wider now. It is now about 8 to 10 feet across, the water is clear and from time to time there are small fish. Every so often the river is carried by a bridge across what would be the natural watercourse presumably to create a head of water to drive a mill wheel.
As the route passes Carew Manor, mentioned earlier, the river runs between stone banks and meanders through the grounds of the stately house. In days gone by, this used to be part of a much larger deer park.
A short distance further on, the river widens into a large pond with a number of small islands and plenty of bird life. Over to the right is an elaborate new building that copies the style of the original manor house that stood here. It is now used as a restaurant and function suite.
At this point we took a small, “official” diversion along local streets towards Carshalton Ponds. On the way we pass through what used to be Westcroft Farm. Some of the farm cottages are still standing and one is in the magnificent half-timbered style. A small park takes us right into Carshalton Village, and a selection of pubs. Anne has chosen The Greyhound, a Youngs hostelry, for lunch and a good choice it turns out to be.
After a longish hour, we decide it is time to continue else we’ll be spending the afternoon here and missing out on more delights of the Wandle Trail. Crossing the road to get back to the path proves quite hazardous. This may be called a village with all the connotations of a quiet backwater, but this village straddles a main road and the traffic flow is almost continuous. It’s a matter of taking your chances.
Carshalton Ponds had a history of drying up. Now a plaque stands on the banks to commemorate the “waterproofing” project of 1966/7 which has successfully resulted in permanent, water filled ponds. Much more picturesque.
The next point of interest is Wilderness Island, a London Wildlife Trust nature reserve. As the name implies, it is on a small island in the River Wandle which is now a more substantial river having gained water from tributaries including the outflow from Carshalton Ponds. It is also now running through more heavily populated areas and rubbish has become a problem.
For a stretch, the river is fenced off. There are no signs to indicate the reasons for the fencing but it may be to allow the banks to regenerate after years of neglect in this area. The Wandle now passes the grounds of Tooting & Mitcham Football Club, a team that plays in the Ryman Isthmian Football League, a semi-professional and amateur league with three divisions. From the size and modern build of the grandstand and the well-maintained appearance of the grounds, it looks as though TMFC is a successful, well-supported team although their lowly position in the league tables seems to contradict that.
Crossing the busy Bishopsford Road, the trail enters the Ravensbury Park, the former site of another stately home, Ravensbury Manor, demolished in the mid C19th. The park is now owned and maintained by Merton Council. At the western end of the parkland, stands the former Ravensbury Mill, that in its day was used in the manufacturing of snuff and tobacco.
And finally, after a little over 5 miles we entered the grounds of Morden Hall. This was one of the stately homes built along the River Wandle. It is now owned by the National Trust. The old snuff mill still exists but the wheel can no longer turn. In an innovative project, the National Trust has installed an Archimedes Screw utilising the same mill race that drove the wheel, and is now generating electricity that is used to power some of the buildings on the site.
Today’s walk was now over and we settled down to a cup of tea in the NT café. We had taken things at a slow pace in order to spend time looking at the new, to us, area of South London. It is an interesting walk and one that is worth reading about before you set out – or having good guide as we had. Because you are virtually all of the time in a valley, there are no distant views across London but that doesn’t matter, there is plenty to occupy the mind at close quarters.
You quickly lose all sense of where you are in relation to the surrounding urban areas. The route we took passed through three London boroughs namely Croydon, Sutton and Merton. Apart from the names on road signs and litter bins, it was impossible to tell which borough you were in at any one point in time. Some parts of the trail are in close proximity to modern day industry but you soon move on to quiet woodlands, parks and, of course, the river.
During the walk, to underline how close the walk takes you to nature, we came across two handsome, adult swans with five brown, fluffy teenage cygnets. At another point we saw a mother Mallard duck teaching five bundles of feathers to swim against the current. Each sighting provided an excuse to standstill and watch. Now we know where the time went.
This is a fascinating walk, in a part of London we hardly know. We can’t wait to go back to Morden Hall and continue the Wandle Trail to its end at the River Thames in Wandsworth.
The best reference work I have found, courtesy of guide Anne, is “River Wandle Companion and Wandle Trail Guide” published by Culverhouse Books at £15. It was published in 2012 so is up to date.
A search of the web will reveal many other points of reference. Take your pick.
In researching the archives for this blog, and using primarily the web sites of organisations that exist to preserve and record the history of the river, there are many apparent anomalies. The length of the river varies by as much as 30%. So, for example, one source says it is 9 miles long whilst another equally reputable source suggests 12 miles. Similarly with the number of mills. The number varies dramatically although this may in part result from some measures being the number of milling businesses whilst whilst others are the number of mill wheels. Another set of variations creep in when you look at the topography. Over the centuries the course of the river was artificially altered either to create mill races or build storage areas for water now appearing as ponds. In addition branches were established to feed mills not on the direct line of the river and other branches were constructed to provide water features for some of the grand houses that were built along its length. So much is a mystery and all the better for that.