Three months on, I can share another Time Out article with you. It's a bit long, so I've split it in half (part 2 tomorrow). Ah, memories of high summer and leafy green trees...
London Journeys: the Wandle Trail Part 1: Carshalton → Colliers Wood
Londoners contempating a riverside stroll invariably head for the banks of the Thames, or maybe the Lea, but rarely the Wandle. This unsung river snakes a dozen miles across the southwestern suburbs from springs in Sutton to the Thames at Wandsworth. Its fast-flowing waters once attracted a string of industrial watermills, many of which are now part of exclusive housing developments. But there's still a lot to see along the river, much of it green and pleasant, and a bankside footpath called the Wandle Trail showcases the lot.
According to which website or leaflet you believe, the Wandle Trail begins either in Croydon or Carshalton. I started from the latter [photo] because I only fancied an eight mile stroll, not the full eleven. My chosen journey was to be guided from source to mouth by 100 numbered 'waymarkers', part of a nationwide project to jazz up the National Cycle Network with artistic installations. But I hunted in vain for posts '100' and '99' in the distinctly unglamorous car park outside the Carshalton Leisure Centre, so I gave up and followed the original signposts along the river instead.
The Wandle was full of contrasts even in its first few hundred yards - first a millstream through wooded parkland, then a concrete channel between new-build apartments. In many places the river could have been any shallow rural stream, weeds waving lazily beneath rippling clear waters [photo]. In special secret spots, where rope-tied tyres hung limply from branches above shaded pools, this was surely suburban schoolboy heaven [photo]. Elsewhere though, yes, the riverbank was more a mugger's dream.
Near Hackbridge an artistic gateway (numbered 86) blocked the path [photo]. Spiralling railings curved both in and out from a central point, resembling from above some kind of metal whirlpool. Negotiating the chicane was quite fun on foot, but passing cyclists seemed less enamoured by this mini version of a medieval labyrinth. Beside the fence a beery bloke sat merrily watching this unintentional entertainment. "They paid fifty grand for that," he moaned, "and for what?"
They paid even more for two metal-mesh bridges in Ravensbury Park, numbered 70 and 67 respectively [photo][photo]. Each has a hole in the centre, one square and one circular, but this time no barrier to speeding cyclists. I was particularly struck, artistically speaking, by the way in which the wire uprights of bridge 70 echoed the supermarket trolley discarded in the weir below. Across the road was the busiest stretch of the trail, for dogwalkers at least, across the NT-owned Morden Hall Park [photo]. Here the Wandle meanders ornamentally through ancient wooded meadows, albeit conveniently close to the car park and tea shop.
At Merton Abbey Mills are the well-kept remains of Liberty's silk-printing workshops [photo], complete with well-preserved rotating waterwheel [photo]. The factory buildings here have been given a new lease of life as a popular marketplace, selling artsy crafty stuff of the slightly-twee type that you either adore or wouldn't give houseroom to. William Morris's nearby printworks have been less fortunate, however, and now lie buried somewhere beneath a particularly enormous Sainsbury's [photo].
Originally featured in Time Out Magazine London [11 October 2006]