“No clearer or diviner waters ever sang with constant lips of the land which giveth rain from heaven,” wrote John Ruskin of the River Wandle. In his day it was known as the one of the finest chalk streams in the country, the one on which Lord Nelson cast a fly as it flowed near his home in Merton shortly before voyaging to Trafalgar.
Then something happened. The Wandle went to Hell and back as the new industrialists realised that its fast-flowing waters were ideal for turning water wheels with which to power factories. There were eventually almost a hundred of them, making the Wandle one of the most intensively utilised rivers for its size in the world. It was also one of the most polluted as manufacturers of paper, snuff, leather and goodness knows what else emptied their chemicals and effluent into this innocent river, killing all the fish and making it seemingly irretrievably polluted. As a child when daring to go near its banks I never thought it would be other than permanently toxic.
But miracles do happen. Thanks to de-industrialisation, higher standards, a strategic plan and an army of volunteers, trout and other fish such as barbel have returned and the Wandle is now one of the cleanest rivers in the land. It is worth walking the Wandle Trail to Wandsworth, where it empties itself into the Thames – almost the only London tributary that hasn’t been covered over – – and back into deepest Surrey, where it rises, a journey on which you hardly see any roads. The Wandle was lost but now it has been found, an inspiration for any other river thought to be beyond hope.
Victor Keegan is a former leader writer and economics and technology specialist for the Guardian. The previous 27 instalments of his Lost London series can be found here. His book of London poems can be bought here. Make a £50 donation to the On London Crowdfunder and you can join Vic on a wander round some great Lost London sites and have a drink on On London founder Dave Hill at the end. How can you resist?