Wandle Trail

Published 12 November 2014

Wandle Trail logo

In 2004 I moved to South West London. Near my house the River Wandle flowed on its lazy journey from its two sources, all the way to its end at the River Thames.

Most of London’s rivers ended up being buried in sewers. The Tyburn, the Walbrook, the Fleet, and many others are buried away, hidden from view. The Wandle escaped that fate and continues to flow in the open to this day.

Twenty years ago though, it was officially dead thanks to pollution. But since then it has been cleaned up and is now alive and healthy, and with its own walking trail. The Wandle Trail. In 2011, after seven years of next door to the Wandle, I decided it was time to walk the whole thing.


East Croydon Station

East Croydon railway station is a strange place for the 13 mile Wandle Trail to begin. It doesn’t really make much sense. The source of the River Wandle is actually a few miles up the road at Waddon Ponds. So quite why the Wandle Trail starts at East Croydon is anyone’s guess.

But the route guide I’d downloaded off the internet says start at East Croydon and the guide must be obeyed so I headed off through the heart of Croydon’s shopping district with its Waitrose, a branch of Wimpy and the (now departed) Alders department store. The huge Park Lane with its underpass is full of cars and buses. The streets are full of early shoppers, office workers and a surprisingly large number of old women on mobility scooters. I could just be anyone in this crowd, and I doubt many of them are spending the day walking to the Thames.

Whilst the trail starts in East Croydon, there’s no waymarking. Croydon Council plays no part in the Wandle Trail so you have to make your own way to the council boundary where Sutton pick up the ball. In the meantime I make my way as best I can using the map I’ve downloaded, picking my way to Wandle Park. A flat piece of greenery with a gasometer in the background, the Trail doesn’t linger and before the walker knows it, they’re crossing the nearby tram tracks and heading down an urban side street.

Smart looking houses line the road, as the Trail crosses the monstrous Purley Way, a quaintly named four lane mega highway. Turn right for London, left for Brighton and Eastbourne. Or maybe just pop in to the giant John Lewis At Home store, or the nearby Sainsburys.

What you won’t see is any water. Well unless it’s raining. You won’t get that until Waddon Ponds where the Wandle finally starts flowing, and where geese glide effortlessly across the water, and small children try to offer them bread to eat.

Geese at Waddon Ponds

The ponds form part of a park, which the trail creators skilfully ignored, preferring instead to go through a business park instead. Still, at least there’s water.

The embryonic Wandle is wider than you’d expect – about 2m or so, although not very deep – and the path stays a respectful distance from the houses on either side.

Beddington Mill looks rather out of place amongst the houses. A tall Victorian building, it sits on the site of a medieval mill. Corn, and later tobacco. In more recent years it housed a clutch company, but passing by it looks rather still and empty; like no one has been in there for years.

More residential streets lead the Wandle on to Beddington Park. The small river is mostly walled in, caged lest it wanted to spread its wings too much. Small man-made weirs occasionally give it a sense of urgency, before calming down a short way on.

Wild flowers near Carew Manor

The park sits in the old grounds of Carew Manor, which is now home to a school instead. My printed out instructions informed me that it is an interesting building, much of it over 500 years old. However there’s nothing to see. It’s all behind fences and trees, and all I get to really admire is a strip of wild flowers which is full of happy bees.

I’d been to the park once before, although in less happy circumstances. We’d found a fledgling pigeon stuck, dumbfounded, near our local Sainsburys. Curiously it was sat on a brown towel, but there was no one around, and the bird seemed as confused as we did, and it ended up coming home with us in an old shoe box. But what do you do with a young pigeon? We didn’t know, but after much hunting, we dropped it off at the Riverside Animal Centre who do sterling work in helping wild animals.

Terracotta bridge in Beddington Park

I passed by the centre now, sat in a corner of the park, near an impressive terracotta bridge. They couldn’t help the pigeon in the end, and the bridge wasn’t useful either – the Trail didn’t require its use.

In a small wooded area I spot a tiny stream feeding into the river. Water bubbles out of nowhere and flows along before meeting up with the Wandle a few metres away. There aren’t many tributaries to the Wandle and this one probably doesn’t make a major impact, but it’s nice to see nature doing its thing.

Still, the impact of that tributary – and other water sources – mean that the Wandle’s slowly getting bigger and deeper, forming a good home for wildlife. Coots and their young paddle happily whilst geese and ducks lazily paddle on whilst dogs crash and splash in the same water. It’s a lovely park to dawdle in however soon its time to leave and head back on the roads towards Elms Pond where a fountain is pumping out turquoise coloured water.

Elms Pond

Just after the pond I follow a sign, accidentally taking a “short cut” that means I’ve bypassed Carshalton Ponds – the second source of the Wandle. The Carshalton arm meets the Waddon one near Wilderness Island where they join together noisily at a weir with a large grill.

The Island isn’t really one – just a patch of land bordered on two sides by the different bits of the Wandle – but does house a nature reserve. I idly wander through it, trying to keep my eyes and ears open for the thirty different bird species that apparently live there. A sign at the entrance says a tawny owl has been seen, and they hope it’s one of a pair. All I see are some large tadpoles and a dead bee floating away in a stream. Yet, given the urban sprawl on all sides, it’s a quiet, rather tranquil place. One to tarry in awhile. If you’ve got nowhere to go anyway.


With the two having become one, the Wandle can carry on its way. Houses sit on all sides, but there’s plenty of people using the Wandle. Kids on bikes, people with dogs. This may be a route to the Thames but most of its users are clearly local.

After Watercress Park the paths begin to stray away from the river, and at one point the Wandle is hidden away behind a large metal fence. The path is quieter here away from the parkland, and more litter strewn. There’s even a pile of building waste dumped in a “discrete” corner of some trees, which is enough to make you despair.

Wandle Trail blue plaques

Although this is the first time I’ve tried to walk the whole thing, it’s certainly not the first time I’d ever headed down the Wandle Trail. A year or so earlier I’d headed down from my house, doing well until the Merton/Sutton council border when I got lost in a housing estate. Somehow I lost the river and never managed to find it again.

I almost did the same on this visit. The cause of the confusion is that the Wandle Trail is a cycling and walking route, and at times the two diverge. If you miss the footpath sign, you’ll head off the wrong way. And I almost did.

Still, better news is at Bishopsford House. Described as “derelict” on my map, it certainly was last time I came this way several years ago but now it’s been tarted up and converted to flats, and looking very splendid indeed. And ideal for the football fan too, being conveniently sighted for lovers of Tooting and Mitcham United, whose stadium is just down the trail.

Ravensbury Park is a delightful little place, where the river splits off in to two channels, with the trail going firmly down the middle. Another woman on a mobility scooter sits nearby, her vehicle adorned with a pair of fishing rods. Squirrels run around in the trees and a pair of swans eye me suspiciously as I take their photo.

At the edge of the park, a series of stylised metal gateways and bridges, part of an art project launched in 2002. Later there will be a viewing platform, snaking its way out into the river with nowhere to go. www.wandletrail.org is expensively embossed on each one, there for eternity whilst the website itself lasted only a few years.

Now fatter, deeper, wider, the Wandle pushes on through weirs and heads out of one park and into another. Throughout its short journey the river has been subject to the whims of man, but nowhere more so than the National Trust owned Morden Hall Park. Here man has split it off into many different channels and culverts for decorative and practical reasons, including the powering of waterwheels.

Dog having a splash around in Morden Hall Park

As if in deference to this abuse of its flow, the Wandle Trail steadfastly ignores the Wandle itself for most of its trip through the park. It’s hard to even know which of the many bridges in the park are actually crossing the river proper. But then much of the park is ignored. The acclaimed rose garden is never entered. The National Trust shop bypassed. The Hall itself never visited.

Not that there’s much at the Hall. Built around 1770 it has spent time as a home, a military hospital and a boarding school. Most recently it was a restaurant and wedding venue but its last operator went under during in 2009. It’s been empty ever since; the current owners Whitbread seemingly happy to leave it until their long lease finally expires.

I’m now on the home straight. My home anyway, not the Wandle. Morden Hall Park is my local park. The National Trust’s gardeners are out in force pruning and strimming whilst small children cling to their buggies as a large group of cyclists head past and I stroll on. Back over the tram tracks, down the dog poo lined alley next to Dean City Farm. It’s lunch time. Time to check out what the chef has got on at Chez Andrew. I leave the Wandle Way and head home.


The Abbey Mills waterwheel

The Wandle Trail’s logo is a waterwheel. The sign of industry. Of power. Whilst it doesn’t any more, this was once a river that once worked. At Abbey Mills, a certain famous textile designer, novelist, and socialist activist called William Morris had a factory. One of the best known faces associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris printed fabrics for Liberty from his base at Abbey Mills, and a large waterwheel, powered by the Thames, was used in the process of washing fabrics clean.

The waterwheel’s still there but the print works closed many years ago. Now Abbey Mills has a new life; the old print works buildings now housing a craft market, small shops, eateries, studios and a pub.

Come on a weekend and the area will be filled with market stalls and people, perhaps even someone playing music in the modern bandstand. That said, the nearby Sainsburys and Marks and Spencer megastore combo attract a bigger crowd, and the Wandle Trail heads past them next. Merton Bus Garage follows, and then it’s into a completely different Wandle Park which sits under the watchful gaze of Colliers Wood’s hated black tower. Built in the 1960s, and clad – insanely – in black concrete, it gives the impression of a sinister fortress of doom, and quietly crumbles away amidst the backdrop of cries from it’s owners that they really are starting redevelopment on it this year, honest.

Beyond the park and over the Wandle sits a bridge. Or part of a bridge. From the other bank, it crosses the river and then sits there. There’s no way in to the park.

The bridge is useless, rightly given the nickname of The Bridge to Nowhere and the result of a feud between a house builder and the local council over who actually should stump up the cash to actually connect it. My Wandle Trail map boldly proclaimed it would be finished in 2010 – the previous date of 2005 being crossed out – but no work had been started. It would take until the summer of 2014 before the connection would be made, and the Wandle Trail could stop taking random detours down side streets to get to the other side.

Wandle Park's Bridge To Nowhere

The Trail then heads into Wandle Meadow. A local nature park built on the site of an old water works, it seems to fight a never ending battle with litter and overgrown weeds. More wholesome was the mum picking blackberries with her young son.

The path next to the river seems to get more overgrown. Fallen trees block the way, and I find myself at a dead end. Somehow, without me noticing, the path has headed off in a different direction, heading off away from the water’s edge in order to pass under a railway line via a rather diminutive tunnel under the railway line to Sutton. One so small in height that it requires the walker to bend down a little.

On the other side of the tracks, the tone of the river changes. Business is everywhere. Bin lorry depot, bus depot, car showrooms, tile stores, a giant substation. The river is contained between stiff walls, imprisoned by concrete as if people don’t actually want it there. Like they’d rather it was somewhere else. Buried in a sewer perhaps.

Ever since the Wandle passed under a train line in Merton, it’s changed. It has become less playful, and not quite as happy. The river has been hiding away from the Wandle Trail, and keeping its distance.

Near the border with Wansdworth it becomes audible, then visible. Through the bushes it’s grown wide, travelling fast down weirs, although this burst of energy is short lived. There is no riverside path any more, and the trail can do nothing but head east towards the shops and pubs of Earlsfield’s high street before heading off west out of it.

There’s streets lined with houses, a park and shops selling ice creams, one of which I suck happily on as I wander through suburbia. The Wandle could be anywhere; the river seems to have vanished. Signs on the road point people to “Riverside Walk” but they’re just tormenting as there’s no water to be seen anyway. Those looking for fish, ducks or eels are required to make alternative arrangements.

The river pops up again fleetingly outside Wandsworth town centre, but disappears once more. The streets are full of people, buses, shoppers and a large shopping centre takes centre stage instead.

The former Youngs Brewery in Wandsworth

Over the road, stood the brooding, empty site of the Youngs Ram Brewery. Closed in 2006, originally due for redevelopment in 2008 but still waiting when I walked by. The old brewery tap still has signs in its window. The menu is there, and another informs people of the tap’s opening hours. There’s no chance of getting in though, and a broken window allows the passer-by to look in at the former pub. Inside tables scattered around, and a giant Youngs logo stands propped up against a wall; all left when the previous owners sold the site. Despite the closure, some brewing actually continues inside on a small scale and when redevelopment finally does come, a microbrewery will be included.

The Wandle passes it all by, never giving this former hotbed of industry much thought, although the river does have it’s own beer named for it, brewed at nearby Sambrooks brewery although that modern brewery doesn’t sit as close to the river as the Ram did.

Finally, at the last minute and near the Armoury pub, the Trail is re-united with its namesake. There’s not much left now. The river looks sad. It’s journey is soon to end and it hasn’t had company for a while.

On a short stub of land called the Spit, it’s time to bid farewells. The Thames is up in front. The Wandle’s tale is now done. Lost in its bigger neighbour. And the Thames. well that’s a whole other story.

At the end of the Wandle

Planning Your Own Trip

The Wandle Trail is a fourteen mile walk from East Croydon to Wandsworth. It can easily be walked in a day, and there are railway stations at both ends with regular services. It also goes past numerous transport links.

A downloadable leaflet about the route can be found on Merton Council’s Wandle Trail web pages.

Photos

The Wandle Trail, July 2011

Your Comments

Pat Trezise

9 January 2017 at 10:01 am

I remember walking along a towpath at west Croydon on my way home from St. Marys school in Wellesley Road. West Croydon There was a very high brick wall and we were told that at midnight Sir Walter Raleigh walked along the top of it with his head under his arm. As children we were scared and fascinated. That was early fifties. I wonder what it is like now.

Guy

27 July 2018 at 8:46 pm

Didn’t even know there was a river out of Wandle Park, have passed the place once or twice. Might just give it look see.

How well is it marked from the Wandsworth end?

David

1 March 2019 at 3:47 pm

I live on the Sutton/ Carshalton border. I have cycled it many times and walked the local parts, between Merton Abbey Mills and Carshalton, quite often. At one point in the late 19C/early 20C it was one of the most industrialised stretches of water in the country with about 90 mills on it’s 10 mile length. By WW2 it was basically an open sewer but has cleaned up in recent years to be able to support trout and a host of other wildlife

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