The WANDLE WANDERER steps out from the source of the eponymous river for a stroll through south London heritage and nature
The Wandle Trail has been in existence for nearly 20 years now, since a group of rambling, conservation and environment enthusiasts pieced together the walking and cycling route from Croydon through to Wandsworth, following the course of the River Wandle. The route is now complete, from source to the Thames.
Three of the London boroughs through which the River Wandle flows – Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth – make much of this resource for the enjoyment of local wildlife and promotion of health and well-being, providing online guides, maps and information. Croydon Council doesn’t seem to bother much, which is unfortunate. And a mistake.
The full trail is just over 12 miles long, and can be started either from East Croydon Station or from Wandsworth, and with a bit of pre-planning and preparation (not least in terms of fitness), can be completed in a day. But that sort of forced route march, especially if attempted in the short daylight hours of winter, will only see you miss much of what the walk has to offer. The chance to pause and smell the roses, as it were. Not that there were many fragrant blooms when we took our stroll over part of the route yesterday.
Better to take in parts of the trail in bite-sized chunks, which we’ll be doing over the coming weeks, with one or two slight diversions. And with an Oyster card to hand. This is very much a suburban walk, and can be accomplished without an OS Map, or car.
To begin at the beginning, as Dylan Thomas once said, the start of the Wandle Trail really ought to be at the source of the river, a spring at the Swan and Sugarloaf.
By 1840, with Croydon growing rapidly, and the Wandle flowing near to where drovers brought their cattle and sheep into town, the chalk stream flowing down the valley northwards was little more than an open sewer.
The river was covered over to try to avoid outbreaks of typhoid in Croydon. This was not entirely successful: there was a public health emergency in 1937, with a typhoid epidemic caused not by a natural stream, but by a water supply from a reservoir and sewage system which by that time was nearly a century old and unable to cope with 20th century demands.
Not until very recently has the Wandle properly re-emerged into daylight from its subterranean course in Croydon. Setting off from the former pub, you can pretty well follow its underground route by walking north up the wonderful new public realm of South End (ha!) and then alongside the busy traffic on Southbridge Road. This is probably the least attractive part of the route, but is included here so that, by the time we have covered all the sections of the route, we can say we have walked the full length of the river. It also will help to explain why the junction by the Treehouse pub is so often prone to flooding: the river is never far away.
Under the Croydon Flyover and along Roman Way, your walk then diverts on to Waddon New Road and on to a footbridge that crosses the railway lines and from which you have some interesting views of the Croydon skyline. Down the other side, into Wandle Park, and you meet the River Wandle for the first time.
This was once a prime example of Victorian civic pride, a park created from two marshy areas, Froggs Mead and Stubbs Mead, to a public open space in 1890. You can still see traces of the Victorians in some of the wrought iron railings near the car park and in the splendid bandstand.
Wandle Park has undergone substantial investment in the past few years, including the provision of a well-used skatepark, children’s play area, a new park cafe – which was closed on a Saturday lunchtime when we passed by – and most importantly, the re-surfacing of the River Wandle.
The river now bisects the park, feeding a pond. The channeling does appear artificial, but despite the park being well used by the public, it is beginning to “settle” into a more natural feel. Certainly, the parakeets who nest in the willows appear at home, flying at head height like lime green Stuka dive bombers along the riverside.
Walk through the park with the river, until it dives below the surface once again. Nearby, in the shadow of a Barratt’s housing development, is the tram stop. The river re-surfaces in Waddon Ponds and Beddington Park, and we’ll visit that section of the river’s route in a future wander. This week, we’re heading to the mills of Merton.
The tram takes you to Phipps Bridge, and the stop is right by an entrance to one of the National Trust’s little-known urban treasures: Morden Hall Park. Your walk can meander through here at your leisure. There’s much to explore. I’d suggest keeping to the left-hand path and, before long, you are reacquainted with the Wandle again as it flows into the former deer park close to the Surrey Arms pub (it is hard to believe that busy trunk roads are so close on the other side of the former estate’s high walls).
Here, the now wider and mature river – after having flowed through Mitcham and Carshalton – slows and pools, creating midge-busy bankside areas where ducks, moorhens and other birds seem at ease. Most of this walking route is flat and on well-made paths, so it is suitable for those with young children, pushing pushchairs or those with mobility issues. On this section of the walk, you can keep close to the river on an unmade walkway popular with dog-walkers but which can be muddy and slippery under foot in the winter, or you can retrace your steps back on to hard path surface.
Both ways lead through to the rose garden, which is interwoven with streams that feed into the main river channels – the Wandle is split into two through the park here – and then on to the Hall itself and its snuff mill.
The Wandle was heavily industrialised in the 17th and 18th centuries, the constant flow providing a source of clean, pure water, and of power, to drive water mills. By the 19th century, it is reckoned that there were nearly 100 mills along the river in south London
The main industries were tobacco and textiles. In Morden Hall Park, grinding tobacco into sniffable snuff was a lucrative business from the late 1700s until the practice fell out of fashion in the early part of the 20th century. The family which owned Morden Hall imported their tobacco from their own plantations in Virginia. The National Trust, which was given the estate in 1941, has got one of the mills back into action as an education centre, which is worth a detour on this walk.
We pressed on, past the wide open fields which have been allowed to stand untouched, untended, as natural as is possible, becoming wetlands, vital habitat in south London’s concrete jungle.
As you’d expect with a National Trust property, Morden Hall Park is well signposted and has guiding maps at at its entrances. We were following the paths towards Deen City Farm and Merton Abbey Mills, crossing bridges leading us to an exit at the north-east corner of the park.
On the far bank, about a dozen mature, tall trees have been felled, while from the left-hand side as you walk northwards comes the distinctive smell of the farmyard. Deen City Farm is free, and has llamas as well as horses and cattle, a riding school and cafe.
Past the farm entrance, and careful through its vehicle access road, walking beneath the overheard electricity cables, on one side of the river are the shabby shacks of light industry, on the far bank a collection of riverside houses. The end of the walk is not far away now, and in total we’d have walked less than four miles either side of the tram ride.
And there, on the other side of a footbridge, is Merton Abbey Mills, a 1980s heritage development, with the William Morris pub – Morris had one of his textile printing works alongside the River Wandle – and a few pricy boutique shops. If shopping, rather than walking, is your thing, then you might want to plan your excursion for a day when the market is fully open; when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon in January, it was all a little desultory and shut-down.
The pub does offer toilets and food. But a fiver for a small bowl of soup seems aimed rather more at the occupants of the nearby yuppie flats. The pub also has Young’s beer on tap, providing a link to another stretch of the Wandle Trail later in this series.
Refreshed, we walked back, using slightly more direct routes through the parkland this time; there’s also the option to stay on the tram into central Croydon, rather than disembarking at Wandle Park. By the time we returned to our South Croydon starting point, we’d covered just over six miles, and with the stop it had all taken a little more than four hours.
The next stage of our Wandle wander will be a little shorter, and closer to home.
Coming to Croydon
- David Lean Cinema, Hannah Arendt, Jan 20
- David Lean Cinema, The Imitation Game, Jan 22
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
- Storytime (for under-8s), Oval Tavern, Addiscombe, Jan 24
- David Lean Cinema, Night Will Fall, Jan 27 (Holocaust Memorial Day)
- David Lean Cinema, Kon-Tiki, Jan 29
- Storytime (for under-8s), Oval Tavern, Addiscombe, Jan 31
- Man to Man group session, St Andrew’s Church, Feb 3
- Soul Symphony Community Choir taster session, Feb 3
- Eagle Improv, Spread Eagle Theatre, Feb 4
- Storytime (for under-8s), Oval Tavern, Addiscombe, Feb 7
- Tales of Love, Lost and Found, Spread Eagle Theatre, Feb 7
- Man to Man group session, St Andrew’s Church, Feb 10
- Uninvited Guests, Spread Eagle Theatre, Feb 11-13
- Man to Man group session, St Andrew’s Church, Feb 17
- Norwood Society talk: Crystal Palace and Dulwich, Feb 19
- Man to Man group session, St Andrew’s Church, Feb 24
- Rosie Wilby, Spread Eagle Theatre, Feb 27
- Amy Wadge and Luke Jackson, Stanley Halls, Feb 28
- Man to Man group session, St Andrew’s Church, Mar 3
- Holmes Alone, Spread Eagle Theatre, Mar 6
- Man to Man group session, St Andrew’s Church, Mar 10
- Eagle Improv, Spread Eagle Theatre, Mar 11
- Iain Lee, Spread Eagle Theatre, Mar 14
- Man to Man group session, St Andrew’s Church, Mar 17
- Norwood Society talk: Charlies Dickens in Norwood, Mar 19
- Man to Man group session, St Andrew’s Church, Mar 24
- Eagle Improv, Spread Eagle Theatre, Apr 8
- Anatomy of the Piano, Spread Eagle Theatre, Apr 15
- Patrick Monahan, Spread Eagle Theatre, Apr 16-17
- Norwood Society: Balloons and airships at Crystal Palace, Apr 16
- South Norwood Community Festival, July 5
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