Wandle Restoration Part III

How we got stuck in

Jon Beer once said that it’s not always obvious where a story begins. Fair enough, he was writing about another river entirely. But let’s start the Wandle’s modern era in October 1995, when something went very badly wrong at Thames Water’s sewage treatment works in Beddington.

Today, secure behind ten-foot chain link fences, the old deer park of Sir Walter Raleigh’s in-laws still covers hundreds of acres of prime South London. Somewhere among the lagoons and filter beds lie the ruins of a Roman villa. A nearby landfill site provides strangely secluded habitat for Britain’s second-largest colony of threatened tree sparrows, and sand martins swoop over some of the most sophisticated sewage treatment technology in Europe.

But back in October 1995… something went very badly wrong. Nobody at Beddington really seems to have noticed, and the works first created by the Croydon Board of Health to protect themselves and the Wandle from the contents of their own thunderboxes debouched a week-long slug of raw sewage down almost eight miles of chalkstream.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but it was the worst in living memory. For many Londoners, holding their noses as the horror poured past, it was the final insult to a once-great river – and one of them in particular took it personally.

In one of the very first articles I wrote about the Wandle, I described Alan Suttie as a “one-man firebrand, fisherman, illustrator, lobbyist and local historian”. I still can’t improve on that, so I’ll say it again.

Persuaded by Alan and the celebrities backing his newly-created JetSet Club – acronymically, Junior Environmental Taskforce, Senior Environmental Taskforce – Thames Water invested millions at Beddington to guarantee the quality of the water that still makes up 90% of the Wandle’s normal volume, and ensure that such an environmental catastrophe could never happen again. (If in doubt, when you’re forming your own eco-pressure group, do as Alan did, and recruit a few luminaries like David Bellamy and Angela Rumbold, local MP and Chairman of the Tory Party. You won’t go far wrong.)

London’s major water company may still get a bad rap for the Hobson’s Choice they face on the Thames – flood Isleworth with sewage and watch the writs roll in, or let it out into the Tideway, every time there’s a sudden summer storm and still no government-sanctioned Super Sewer to send it down?

But it’s truly impossible to understate the ecological importance of the millions Thames Water invested at Beddington during the late 1990′s. After all, you can have a chalkstream with every fish-holding feature in the textbook, but without the right quality of water, that river will be a flowing desert, devoid of all but the most insignificant forms of life. Now, thanks to Alan and Thames Water, the 90% of the Wandle’s water that came out of the treatment works had become some of the cleanest in London, and the river’s slow rebirth could begin.

So how did the rest of us get involved?

Myself, I’d seen the river for the first time in 1998, researching an article about the old Liberty printworks at Merton Abbey Mills. I remember hanging over the footbridge in front of the Sainsbury’s Savacentre, trying to ignore that monstrous grey shed behind me and the knowledge that its bulk obliterated the site of one of Britain’s most venerable monasteries, peering into the dark water for a sign of life. Perhaps a dace rose, perhaps it didn’t: it was mid-February, after all, and less than three years since the river’s very own Great Stink.

But when discussion on an internet fishing forum turned to the Wandle, almost five years after that, I knew what the problem looked like. I won’t say I knew right then that my life was about to change, but I certainly sensed some game afoot.

A chalkstream!! In London!! Forgotten by almost everyone else, free for us to turn back into a healthy fishery again!!

How inconceivably cool was that?

(Actually, this is still a feeling I haven’t completely worked through. Excuse me while I scream, punch the air and dance around the room with delight again for a moment).

That’s better.

OK, so when you’re a fisherman stuck in the middle of the big city, and you think you’ve just discovered your own personal salvation, there’s nothing like going off the deep end. And that’s just what we did, Richard, Jamie and I, meeting in person for the first time beside the big brown winter-flooded end of the river in Wandsworth, to risk life and limb wading up the culverts under the Big Yellow storage centre on Garratt Lane.

Later, when we’d all dried out a little, we met again in an Irish bar nearby to talk strategy and structure-building. Later still, casting round the internet for more ideas and contacts, we got in touch with Alan.

Very quickly, we concluded that one little urban chalkstream wasn’t big enough to soak up more than a single organisation’s concentrated efforts, and we knew mad genius when we saw it, too. So our gang joined their gang, and the whole-watershed vision started taking shape.

Working-party river cleanups were rationalised to a regular second Sunday of every month, advertised with email blasts and a website – and hard work all round has turned the charity’s keystone “Trout in the Classroom” project into the beginnings of a nationwide phenomenon.

Three years on, volunteer numbers have grown to twenty or thirty at every cleanup, Alan has moved on to other ecological projects, and we’ve just relaunched the charity as the Wandle Trust.

We don’t claim to know everything yet – not by a long way – but we’re learning fast. Late last year, we commissioned a full-river survey from the Wild Trout Trust, and we’re looking forward to getting going on their blueprint recommendations. Relationships are being consolidated everywhere, from teachers and council waste departments to volunteer river wardens, fisheries specialists and biodiversity officers, and our profile among the Wandle Valley’s residents is growing all the time.

Partly to prepare for the way we hope we’ll develop – as an educational eco-charity that’s river-based but isn’t just for fishermen – and partly with the explicit intent of playing “bad cop” to the Wandle Trust’s “good cop” when necessary, we’ve founded the first new and functioning fishing club in London for a hundred years, the Wandle Piscators. In tribute to Lord Nelson, one of the Wandle’s most famous anglers, we constituted the club on the Battle of Trafalgar’s 200th anniversary, 21st October last year. So it’s appropriate that our fishermen are now catching grown-on “Trout in the Classroom” hatchlings not far from where he once plied his left-handed rod.

Naturally, there are still challenges to face.

Anyone who tells you it’s easy to fund the running costs of a small charity is lying, and the south of England is burning up with drought and over-abstraction (the Wandle’s level dropped to its lowest ever this February, and our headwater aquifer is now emptier than it’s ever been recorded).

We’re still astonished by the way a river’s health can simply fall through the tangle of red tape strung out between even the best-intended local councils and different departments of the Environment Agency. And every time we tackle a new stretch of the river with a Sunday-morning cleanup, it can feel like we’re starting all over again.

But it’s well worth the work, and sometimes the heart-ache. It’s also a lesson I won’t forget in a hurry: how a powerful community of interest can suddenly coalesce on the world wide web, making close virtual friends of people who’d never otherwise have met, and then come together offline to start moving tectonic plates of influence in the real world.

So if any of this sounds good, wherever you’re reading this on the www… come back next month. In the meantime, I’ll start thinking of a few ways you could get to work on a river of your own.

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