If you're ever in Wandsworth with five hours to spare, why wouldn't you walk to Croydon? The Wandle Trail runs all the way, unlike the river of the same name which flows in precisely the opposite direction. The Wandle's no lost river, it still winds lazily through Sutton and Merton and is blatantly obvious if you know where to look. And knowing where to look is easy if you follow the well-signposted footpath and cycleway along its length [here's the very detailed map/leaflet]. I last walked the Wandle Trail five years ago, so if you want to know what the walk's like I suggest you go and read that [report][35 photos]. But I thought I'd walk it again over the weekend to see what had changed, because no London walk ever quite stays the same. [9 new photos]
Last time I was at the mouth of the Wandle it looked very different, but that was because then was high tide and this was low [photo]. The wooden walkway at the end of the river is no longer new, and the surrounding marshy terraces have had several summers to bed in. Up the creek I was expecting the Young's Brewery to have been torn down by now, given that it last churned out barrels in 2006, but not so. Developers Minerva had their previous planning application turned down so are now developing a new brief with one fewer skyscraping apartment block. They still hope to "unlock a new urban quarter for Wandsworth" (sigh), with flats and offices and a bijou shopping street, but will at least retain the listed brewerybuildings facing the town centre for future generations. Five more years, and this short stretch of Wandle may finally be opened up for public access.
South of Wandsworth's main shopping mall, the river bursts out from beneath HMV and Cineworld to run along the edge of King George's Park. A couple of blue ceramic plaques commemorate mundaneevents which took place along the Wandle Trail - one the playing of Poohsticks, the other the exercising of "friendly dogs Rory and Max" [photo]. At least they're still legible, which is more than can be said for the detailed information boards scattered along the river's length. These recount the Wandle's history and geography in impressive detail, but they've not weathered well and in five more years I'd expect them to be completely weatherbeatenly unreadable. Another casualty of time is the unusual series of numbered waymarker posts [photo]. These sculpted beasts were supposed to run from 1 (in Wandsworth) to 100 (in Carshalton), but fewer than 10% were ever installed. Number 10's in KG park, correctly displaying up and downstream, but also the web address of a site that's now defunct. Log into wandletrail.org today and you'll get updates on hiking in America, not the grand artistic plans once dreamed of for the Wandle. How easily online content slips away, while the metal URL endures.
Only beyond Earlsfield does the path finally get up close to the river, and even then there's usually a screening row of trees and undergrowth between the cycleway and river. This is a strangely post-industrial landscape, all backs of council tips and electricity substations, plus the odd allotment, looming pylon and disgorging outfall. At least it has some character, which is more than can be said for the site of Wimbledon's old Plough Lane stadium. Five years ago all I saw was a blue wall surrounding a would-be construction site, whereas now a complete village of highrise flats cover the grandstands and former pitch [photo]. A highlight of the following stretch is a metal viewing platform built out towards the confluence of the Wandle and Graveney, now with trees and greenery pushing up between the slats [photo]. Here I watched a close-up heron, beak dripping, staring into the concrete culvert for a passing fish to gobble - the river's cleaner now than it ever was. But as for the talking lamppost by the railway line (a Wandle Trail artwork originally set off by a motion detector) alas that's evidently vanished.
Colliers Wood brings a sharp burst of commercialism [photo], with a retail park built across the former grounds of Merton Priory. Its foundations were discovered when Sainsburys built a Savacentre here in the 1980s, and the remains of the Chapter House have been preserved in a concrete basement beneath the feeder road. It's only rarely open, so I was annoyed to discover one of those rare occasions was over the weekend, and I'd walked almost straight past without noticing. For anybody local it's open again next weekend too, as part of the Merton Arts Trail, or you can read Ian's account of this peculiar medieval survivor. Merton Abbey Mills survives rather more intact, as a riverside craft market. There seemed to be more foodie drinkie outlets than last time I was here, plus a burgeoning pottery business in the watermill producing attractive and practical kitchenware.
Moving upstream, past the tramline, comes Morden Hall Park. This is one of the National Trust's few south London outposts, where casual visitors enjoy a mix of landscapes with tea, second hand books and a garden centre. I was pleased to see that the watermill had been restored since my last visit, even if its blades will never turn again [photo]. And even more pleased that the river's flow will be harnessed in a very different way at the old stable block, scheduled for reopening in a month's time, and due to be powered by London's only hydroelectric Archimedes Screw. If I ever write a book entitled "London's 100 most overlooked Lovely Places", Morden Hall Park will get a look in. I also rather enjoyed Ravensbury Park, the next greenspace along, much more than I had last time I was here. As well as some arty geometric bridges [photo] there was a long waterside stroll to enjoy, at last close-up beneath a leafy canopy, like a proper river walk should be. [photo]
I didn't have five hours to spare, I only had three, so this is where I bailed. I could have continued to Hackbridge, Carshalton Ponds and Waddon, but the complete eleven mile Wandle Trail defeated me. I'll save the upstream chunk for later, but I won't leave it five years this time.