A while ago I wrote a post in this blog entitled “A Dawdle by the Wandle”. It described a walk from the head of the Wandle River in South London to Morden Hall. And a fascinating walk it was with some surprisingly beautiful urban countryside, stately homes and water mills. For the most part the surrounding city did not intrude onto the tranquillity of the river banks.
On that day we walked about half of the length of the river leaving the second half down to The Thames at Wandsworth for another day in the then near future. How time flies. Yesterday, three years, one month and one day later I set out by myself to complete the walk.
I travelled by train to Wimbledon then caught a “tram” to Morden. I say “tram” because it’s much more like a light railway system. Indeed, most of the route is along old railway tracks. Nothing like the real trams that I grew up with in Glasgow in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, running down the middle of the city streets.
The tram stop is called Morden Road and is about ½ mile from Morden Hall my intended starting point. So the first bit of walking was along a very busy road. None of the rural idyll of the previous Dawdle. Relief was at hand when I came to a gate into Morden Hall Park. The contrast between the road and the park was amazing. This part of the park is mostly kept as natural parkland with trees and meadows of long grasses and colourful wild flowers.
The Wandle Trail is well signposted. At this point, and as it turned out for most of the walk, the path is a combined cycle and walking trail. This brings the benefit of an all-weather surface but the downside of bikes passing in close proximity. Why don’t they ring their bells?? Fortunately, I was walking on a weekday so the cycle traffic was fairly light. Also, for the most part, there were very few walkers.
What there were plenty of for the first mile or so, were small family groups with plastic buckets gleaning brambles from the bushes beside the trail. There was an abundance of ripe, black, juicy berries.
The first building of industrial history interest, was Merton Abbey Mills. And I must make a confession. The decision to do the walk was made on the spur of the moment as I found myself with a free day. As a result, I had not done any of the usual research that always pays dividends when travelling in new places. The buildings were on the other side of the river mostly screened from view by trees and scrub on both banks. What could be seen appeared to be over commercialised shops and eating places. I decided to walk by.
As I passed, a large, mostly wooden waterwheel came into site. Although it was not turning, it looked as though it had been restored to working order. It was of the undershot type where the wheel is suspended over a mill race.
I later read on the Merton Abbey Mills website (www.mertonabbeymills.org.uk) that I was passing some real industrial history. The current mill was built in 1885 although there have been mills on the site since the 1600’s. The last industrial user of the site was Liberty’s who were producing their world famous prints here until as recently as 1970.
Another famous name, William Morris the artist, textile designer, poet & writer, philosopher and social activist, moved his textile design and printing works to the site in 1881. At the Merton Abbey works he paid his workers higher than average wages, supplied a library for their education, a dormitory for the apprentice boys and provided work in clean, healthy and pleasant surroundings.
So, I had, through unpreparedness, missed what is probably the most interesting historical site on the lower half of the Wandle River.
Shortly after this calamity, the trail comes to Colliers Wood, a busy place with loads of traffic and pedestrians. Also, as happened at a number of similar points along the trail, the signposting was less than useful. In this case it was further compounded by a closure of the official path whilst an area of formal park was being redesigned. There were no diversion signs. A bit of trial and error, including sneaking through a pub carpark, eventually got me into Wandle Park. There was something disappointing about this park. It seemed to be suffering from neglect or, possibly, just lack of investment. And the signing for the trail had either never been there or had been vandalised, or a combination of both. Whichever it was, the route through the park was not obvious.
Once outside the park and onto urban streets, the route was well marked as the whole trail is part of Route 20 of the National Cycle Network. A short walk led me to the start of the Wandle Meadow Nature Park. This is a strip of woodland and scrub on both sides of the river. During the latter part of the 19th century and until 1970, there was a sewage plant here. When it closed there were a number of attempts to redevelop the site and then, in 1989, Merton Council designated the area as a nature reserve.
There was a distinct lack of information boards. These would have helped to indicate what birds, insects and plants to look out for. Instead, the most obvious “plants” were of the industrial variety lining both sides of this narrow strip of nature. At one point a metal walkway veered off to the left in the direction of the river. It led to a viewing platform extending over an open reach of the river. The only birds around today were a few Mallard ducks but it was easy to imagine that on other days there might be the odd heron or family of swans.
About half way through the nature reserve, the trail had to cross a busy road. There was a Pelican traffic-light controlled crossing to get walkers safely across. Unfortunately, the crossing was closed and no alternative pedestrian walkway was marked. Only when a wide load came along that temporarily stopped the traffic, could I dodge across.
At the end of the park the trail diverted away from the river. The obstacle was the mainline railway running from Waterloo to Surrey, Hampshire and the South Coast cities of Portsmouth and Southampton amongst others. The route went along a few streets of housing until it emerged on the very busy Garrett Lane near Earlsfield Station. Having walked through the road tunnel under the railway, I followed the trail as it continued on urban streets and crossed over the Wandle at a point where the river was harnessed between concrete and brick walls with a concrete barrier running down the middle. After about half a mile the trail entered King George’s Park.
This is a very extensive area made up of a number of distinct sections with many different sports facilities. The first big open area, today being used for dog walking, had been a coal depot for the Army during World War II. Now it is a flat area of grass. After walking gently downhill across a series of flat grass areas and passing a leisure centre, it was a bit of a surprise to find the last part of the park laid out in a more traditional style. There were tennis courts, a bowling green, ornamental ponds and plenty of places to sit. By now the trail had taken me right into the centre of Wandsworth town.
Before leaving home I had printed a short guide to the trail produced by Merton Council. Unfortunately, the pdf version on the web had been designed to be printed on a single sheet of A4. That may sound handy, but the print was some small that reading it was a real trial. The notes for the centre of Wandsworth said “Looking downstream, you can see Youngs brewery on the right. This is the oldest site in Britain upon which there has been continuous brewing.” Sadly, Youngs moved out a few years ago and the site is now a building development. It looked as though some of the original buildings have been retained but today it’s just a building site.
After negotiating my way across the two 4-lane roads that form part of the South Circular London Inner Orbital road, the trail entered its final journey to the Thames. The Wandle is divided into two branches here and runs between concrete walls. Not the most scenic of places. And to make matters worse, the east bank of the river is home to Wandsworth Council’s massive rubbish collection point. Incidentally, the rubbish gathered here is loaded onto barges and towed down to a waste incinerator site on the Thames in the London Borough of Bexley to generate electricity. Good for the environment if not for the enjoyment of the mouth of the Wandle.
And so the walk came to an end with me looking from a bridge over the river towards the mighty Thames about 100 yards away. I’m glad I did it but it’s not a walk I’m likely to do again. But, a return visit to Merton Abbey Mills is definitely on the cards, although the rest of the trail from there to the Thames was mostly disappointing. Having said that, the upper half of the trail, mostly covered in the earlier post, was very rewarding. So my recommendation is to take a bus or tube to Colliers Wood, then a short walk to the mill where you can join the trail and head south to the source. That would be a great walk.