Meet the Wandle
Ever since I found I could catch a fish on a fly, I’ve been mesmerised by the ambiguity of chalkstreams.
On the one hand, there’s the natural mystery of where all that water comes from, literally springing from the foot of the hills, cold, clear, and constant, greening the dusty downland valleys where midsummer rain might not have fallen for weeks. But then there’s the artificiality of those fertile, fishy rivers, too: channelled by weirs and sluices, dammed for mills and grindstones, trammelled in their intricate water-meadowed landscape. In the southern half of England, where most of the world’s true chalkstreams flow, they don’t go where they want – they go where generations of our ancestors have told them to go.
At the start of the 21st century this can still mean a captivating mix of natural form and industrial function: what Charles Rangeley-Wilson calls “the wild set beside the man-made, each giving something to the other… the works of man set in context”, a balance that William Morris would still recognise, even as the industrial element wanes.
Further down the watershed, it’s also true that this idyll can start devolving into Disneyfication, plastic lanterns, and running-water stew-ponds, where yobs with rods and 50 yards of desirable river-frontage bawl “Try bread!” from the opposite bank before lobbing half a loaf of Kingsmill on top of the trout you’ve spent the last half hour hopefully stalking on hands and knees. Finally, in extreme cases of lost riverdom, man-made manipulation can end up segueing seamlessly into genuine urban squalor, broken only with fleeting, knee-wobbling flashes of what must once have been.
But right along this sliding scale there are two things that are undeniable.
Firstly, at the peak of their civilised, sluice-filled form, chalkstreams are capable of holding more fish than they ever could in the uncoppiced wildwood that once overshaded their prehistoric, braided banks.
Secondly, whatever they look like now, they’re all the product of geological processes that started while tyrannosaurus rex still walked the earth: warm seas laying down and compressing billions of tiny calcareous coccolith skeletons in layers hundreds of metres thick. Many millions of years later, climatic cooling and erosion have lifted these calcium beds high above sea level, shaping them into Rudyard Kipling’s “blunt, bow-headed whale-backed downs”, where percolating rainwater collects in vast rocky sponges intercut with veins of marl and flint.
When the water level gets high enough in these chalky aquifers, or one of the connecting veins hits the side of a hill, it bursts out as a spring. Depending on the saturation of the sponge, and the shape of the surrounding landscape, the upper reaches of chalkstreams vary in steepness. And while I’ve fished and leaned over bridges on many chalkstreams and winterbournes, I’ve yet to see many as steep as the River Wandle, flowing past my own front door in South London.
After at least a thousand years of human attention, it’s hard to imagine the Wandle’s virgin state, but its northward flow was certainly powerful enough to bury mammoths under deep layers of gravel at Mitcham while the last ice age was still receding. Millennia later, before adventurous nomenclaturists reversed the river’s modern name out of the tribal tag at Wandsworth, 7th century Saxons called it Hlidaburna, the loud or sloping stream: completely fitting for a chalky torrent that falls an average 15 feet a mile from Croydon and Carshalton, at the foot of the North Downs, to lose itself on the plains of the tidal Thames.
As it turned out, this steepness also defined the rest of the Wandle’s history, making it one of the earliest- and hardest- working waterways in the world. In 1086, Domesday Book was already noting the profitability of 11 river-miles driving 13 mills. By the year of Trafalgar in 1805, this number had quadrupled to 12 calico works, 9 flour mills, 5 snuff mills, 5 oil mills, 3 bleaching grounds, 2 dye-works, and one each of paper mills, skinning mills, logwood mills, copper mills and breweries.
Even at this stage, the river would already have been irrevocably altered from its original bank lines: canalised and re-cut to direct maximum flows to the mill-wheels and bleaching-grounds, and even to provide Lord Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton, with a fanciful garden pond that she named the Nile.
Finally, as the Wandle mills powered up for London’s empire-building industrial revolution, their early-Victorian total reached an extraordinary 94 – many with two or even three wheels, and a corresponding emphasis on explosives and heavy artillery. Naturally, where the river was still clean enough, this record number of stair-stepping mill-pools, tails and leats would also have provided excellent habitat for large and fastidious trout, and there’s evidence to suggest that the millers saw their fishings as a valuable extra income stream. Frederic Halford, for instance, fished at McRae’s milling complex in Mitcham on a regular basis during the 1870s, while his fishing partner William Senior commented that he knew of only one free stretch on the entire river – and that was the ford at Hackbridge.
Then again, nothing about this exponential growth had been a coincidence. As far back as 1610, when the Wandle’s millers thought they saw their livelihood threatened, they successfully fought a plan to pipe away just a tenth of the headsprings to supply the capital with drinking water. Those same economic priorities meant that most of the river was never culverted over, even in the dark days when London’s other inner-city chalkstreams were buried as sewers, useful or inconvenient, out of sight and mostly out of the minds of the jerry-builders above.
In the end all these factors meant that most of the Wandle now remains above ground for us to regenerate – and there’s a good chance that we’ll be able to “daylight” at least one of Croydon’s covered sections too. By the same token, bringing the Fleet, the Falcon or any of London’s other lost rivers back to light and ecological health would be far more of a challenge. So however inevitable history can look with the benefit of long hindsight, we shouldn’t doubt our luck on the Wandle for an instant.
But as you look at this river’s records with a fisherman-ecologist’s eye, one contradiction in particular leaps out. You have to wonder: how could William Morris, Arthur Lazenby Liberty and all their competitors in the fabric business have valued the Wandle’s water highly enough to want to build their factories there, and still have been so unconcerned about the environmental feedback loops they were creating with such careless abandon, clogging their own millwheels with dye while the valley’s booming population slowly filled the river with sewage?
To be fair, that’s also the kind of thing our own great-great-great grandchildren may end up asking about the way we’re living today… if the planet survives that long. But how could it all have gone so wrong for the Wandle, without anyone really caring?
As steam-power gradually out-competed water, the factories along the river’s corridor converted to producing paints, solvents and increasingly noxious chemicals, all of which eventually found their way into the water. Finally, in the 1960s, the highly-engineered gutter was officially classified as a sewer, and probably not before time. More than a decade later, local residents were still noticing how the river ran “red, pink or blue, depending on the dye they were using in the tanneries”.
Naturally, all this affected the fishing too. In this short review of historical and geological time, it’s impossible to judge how long the Wandle has been a trout fishery – but its banks and waters were certainly declared a Royal Preserve in the early 1600s, and I’m very keen on the irony that an archaeological dig in the early 1960s, just about the time of sewer-designation, uncovered 15,000 prehistoric knapped flints mixed with “large numbers of fish bones” above the headwater ponds here in Carshalton. Were these actually trout caught by our Mesolithic brothers of the angle, 6,000 to 9,000 years ago? I’m investigating right now, and will let you know.
Just before departing to his death at Trafalgar, Nelson is known to have re-taught himself to cast a fly with his remaining good arm at Merton and Waddon Ponds. 70 years on, Halford famously arrived to absorb the lessons of the “Carshalton Dodge”, an upstream-presentation technique designed to outsmart large and wary trout in the very clearest water. Even in 1899, one Hackbridge local could still boast of taking 500 trout a season from his own impoundment and mill-tail, no doubt assisted by the hatchery installed by international polymath Alfred Smee in one corner of his famous garden just upstream in Wallington.
But from 1852, a total absence of trout in the lower river had been blamed on an oil-mill fire that killed everything below it. By 1914 even the famous Carshalton fisheries had been wiped out by massive eutrophication and organo-toxins leaching from the tar then being laid on the roads, and it’s generally accepted that the river’s “last trout”, a leviathan of 22 inches and 5 lbs plus, was knocked on the head by a wormer in 1934.
So until the late 1990s, that’s the way the Wandle stayed, forgotten by history and even by the Environment Agency, periodically scoured by runoff and sewage overspills, noticed only by residents when the smell got too strong, or the tanneries’ dyes du jour made especially striking colour combinations. 10 years later, the healing has started: the river runs the gauntlet of a different set of problems, but its waters are now some of the clearest and cleanest in London, trout are coming back, and 17lb barbel are almost a regular item on the news.
How did we get here? Next month, I’ll be back to tell you more.