Southfields, Wimbledon Park, Colliers’ Wood, South Wimbledon and Morden all have at least two things in common. First, surrounded by dense housing, shops and the other trappings of suburbia, they are all stations on London’s underground network. From them, tube trains rattle their sardine-packed, self-loading cargoes of commuters to and from central London every day. Second, and with a bit of imagination, each of them could be said to be no more than a decent double-haul from an historic southern chalkstream, the Wandle, as it heads northwards for eleven miles from its sources in Croydon, Beddington, and Sutton, through Mitcham, Morden, Merton and Wimbledon, to join the Thames in Wandsworth.

The steepness of the gradient down which the Wandle runs into the London Basin makes it fast-flowing and this, combined with its proximity to the capital, has long seen it being used as a source of power, particularly for milling. In 1086, the Domesday Book recorded 13 mills along its length. By the beginning of the 18th Century, there were 41, producing everything from skins, cloth and dyes through copper, timber, paper, oil and flour to beer and snuff. They were, however, modest enterprises and the river remained unpolluted and remarkably productive as a fishery until about 1880. During the first half of the 19th Century native trout of two and three pounds were commonplace, and catches were recorded of 400 brace taken in a four-month period.

It is said that Admiral the Lord Nelson fished the Wandle when not otherwise engaged in his ménage à trois with Emma Hamilton and her husband, Sir William, having bought Merton Place for the three of them in 1801, four years before his death at Trafalgar. The well-known Victorian angler, Alfred Jardine, once took eight trout weighing 32lb from the Wandle in a single day. And Frederic Halford began his fishing career on the river in the 1860s, fishing it for several years before transferring his allegiance to the Test at Houghton in 1877. His diary for 1869 records his having caught two fish, each weighing 3lb 2oz.

It was the value of the Wandle to farming and light industry, and the attractiveness of its valley which attracted wealthy home-builders, that saved it from the fate of so many other London rivers, which were buried and used as sewers or simply covered over.

In the late 18th Century though, as steam took over from running water as a source of power, many of the mill sites converted to producing paints, solvents and chemicals, all of which eventually found their way into the river. Eventually, in the 1960s, it was officially classified as a sewer.

The Wandle has received much media attention in recent years, chiefly because of the efforts of a small but dedicated and energetic band of people who, against the odds, have restored it, if not to the rural idyll it once was, at least to a respectable status as a viable mixed fishery. Although it now weaves its way under highways, past factories and through concrete culverts, it is in good shape once again, supporting burgeoning weed growth, respectable fly life and 21 species of fish. Almost as important is the way in which those involved have encouraged local people – especially young people – to take an active interest in the health and welfare of the river.

Much of the recent press coverage was generated by Thames Water’s disastrous pollution of the Wandle on September 17, 2007 when, during cleaning of the tertiary treatment plant at Beddington Sewage Treatment Works, industrial strength chlorine was released into the river.

It took three days for Environment Agency (EA) officers, helped by members of the Wandle Trust and local angling clubs, to remove some two tonnes of dead fish from the river. The pollution spread downstream for nearly 5km and had a catastrophic impact, killing the majority of the fish, much of the Ranunculus and other in-stream vegetation, and virtually all the fly life.

To its credit, Thames Water, immediately and un-bidden, provided financial compensation for the damage, and the work of restoring the river began. Two years after the catastrophe, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see who was doing the work and how they were getting on. Accordingly, I arranged to meet Theo Pike, chairman of The Wandle Trust, and Will Tall, riverfly co-ordinator for The Wandle Piscators.

We met at the William Morris pub near Colliers Wood overlooking the river. Having parked in Sainsbury’s car park off Merton High Street, as bidden, I walked through the pedestrian subway under the A24, doors in its walls concealing the ruined foundations of the once powerful Merton Abbey, past Kentucky Fried Chicken and into the Merton Abbey Mills complex, a mini-maze of cafés, restaurants, a theatre and an assortment of shops, all of which continue the ‘arts and crafts’ tradition of the site. (William Morris produced high quality ‘arts and crafts’ goods here from 1881 until 1940, and the mills were also the base for Arthur Liberty, founder of the Liberty’s shops.)

Theo’s ready smile and quiet modesty mask a real passion for the river and a wealth of knowledge about its background and the things that need to be done to improve it further.

He told me he had been born in Cambridge, brought up in Surrey and educated at Harrow and Durham University, where rowing ran a close second to his studies for a law degree. A countryman by nature, he remembers school holidays chiefly for excursions with an air rifle around the farms, woods and plantations of Surrey, which enabled him to supply Gordon Griffiths with satisfying numbers of squirrel tails, starling skins and the like.

Theo’s first foray with a rod produced a sunfish taken on a lure from a lake in the Western Rockies at some time in the 1980s. An ember of enthusiasm glowed and he fanned it with one of Simon Gawesworth’s small stream fishing courses on the Torridge in Devon. But rowing occupied much of his leisure time thereafter and it was not until 2001 that he really returned to fishing.

Since then, he has fished in the Alpine regions of Austria, France, Italy and Slovenia as well as in Scotland, on passport fisheries in Wales and the West Country and on the Salisbury & District Angling Club’s waters. It was while fishing the Upper Soca in Slovenia, that a marble trout (Salmo marmoratus) very nearly took a brown he was playing clean off the hook. On another occasion, in the Dolomites in Italy, a big grayling he had hooked ran downstream and then jumped on the spot five or six times, leaping clean out of the water.

Back at home, living in Hammersmith in west London and carving out a career as a writer, Theo began looking for decent, accessible fly fishing which did not require a drive of an hour or more out into the countryside. Late in 2002, through fly fishing forum conversations with Richard Baker, already a Wandle angler, he discovered the Wandle almost on his doorstep.

The Wandle Trust had been established the previous year as an environmental charity dedicated to restoring and maintaining the health of the river and its catchment. Theo joined the Trust and, for five years from 2003, served as a Trustee with responsibility for the river restoration strand of its work. It was this role that was to lead to his representing the Trust as Acting Director in the negotiations with Thames Water and the then ACA following the disastrous pollution incident in 2007.

In 2004, Theo married, and he and his wife Sally moved to Carshalton, no more than a long cast from the headwaters of the river. In 2008, he was elected chairman of the Wandle Trust.

The keys to the Trust’s success have been the development of three clear strands to its work – education, clean-ups and river restoration – and a willingness to work with others.

The Trust’s educational work is based largely on the ambitious Trout in the Classroom project, begun in 2002. The objective then was to involve 20 local schools, enabling their pupils to hatch, rear and release brown trout into the river. Aquariums are installed in the schools and volunteers then give post-installation talks on trout, trout-rearing and the aims of the exercise. The 20-school target was achieved in 2008 and maintained again this year, with an estimated 1,000 fry being released into the river at three sites. It is difficult to imagine a more creative way of interesting youngsters in trout and in the overall health of the river.
Clean-ups, advertised on the Trust’s website and by email, are held on the second Sunday of each month throughout the year. Typically, each one attracts around 50 volunteers, by no means always the same people each time. The range of items dragged out of the river is astonishing, from the predictable supermarket trolleys through bedsteads, bicycles, carpets and a lamp post, to a firearm or two, a boiler and, literally, a kitchen sink.

The real starting point for the restoration strand of the Trust’s work was the commissioning in 2005 of a full-river habitat survey from the Wild Trout Trust. This helped identify stretches that were ripe for restoration. Hard-sided areas of steel sheeting or concrete can be softened. Where too many trees overhang the river, they can be thinned and recycled into current deflectors. The Trust has also been working with the EA to decide what to do about the weirs and similar structures that remain from the river’s industrial past, but are preventing fish from migrating.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the social and scientific research being conducted by Dr Bella Davies, the Trust’s first ever full-time Development Officer, for the development of a Community Catchment Plan, which will show what the river really needs in order to give it community-driven sustainability.

To those who have seen Theo’s commitment to the Trust and its work it should come as no surprise that he was awarded the Wild Trout Trust’s coveted Bernard Venables prize in 2008 – presented each year for “supporting the aims of the WTT over a lengthy period and for inspiring by example many other volunteers to give freely of their time and energy in the cause of brown trout conservation.” This year, he joined that exclusive band of people from around the world – six in all – named as Sage Conservation Heroes.

The flip-side to The Wandle Trust is the club that fishes the river. The Wandle Piscators were founded alongside the Trust in 2004 to draw a distinction between conservation and angling. The Piscators are a mixed-species, mixed-method club, and they are as committed as the Trust, with which they work extremely closely, to helping the river recover.

For the past couple of years, the Piscators have been running the national Riverfly Partnership’s Angler Monitoring Initiative on the Wandle, checking the river’s water quality by kick-sampling its aquatic invertebrates on a monthly basis. The scheme is sponsored by Thames Water as part of the Living Wandle project.

Pollack starter
The co-ordinator of the project is Will Tall, whom I met with Theo. His commitment and success were recognised in September this year when he became the first recipient of the Thames River Restoration Trust’s new John S Hills Memorial Award, for “for outstanding contribution to any of the Trust’s objectives within the Thames catchment.”

Will is every inch the cheerful rugby player he was – having played for Bedford and for Durham University, he played 1st division rugby with Rosslyn Park in the late ’80s before retiring from the game when it turned professional – and his enthusiasm for the Wandle and its fly life are infectious.

He told me he had been born in Bristol and that his family had moved to Buckinghamshire when he was six, to within a few hundred yards of the River Chess, another Home Counties chalkstream. Educated at Merchant Taylors School in Northwood, he revelled in his semi-rural surroundings at home, spending much of his free time playing rugby and chasing rabbits, trout and pheasants.

Will began fishing during a summer holiday in Cornwall. Armed with a simple starter kit bought from the local newsagent, he caught a pollack which was, he says, scarcely bigger than his hook. Hooked himself, he spent every free moment thereafter coarse fishing – on the Grand Union Canal, at the Rickmansworth Aquadrome, at the Tring reservoirs and on the Thames at Marlow. His first trout, taken from the Chess on a worm led to bigger and better things – a 2lb 2oz brownie, also from the Chess, and then to the challenge of fly fishing, at Latimer Park Lakes, also on the Chess. Since then, he has fished in the UK, in Normandy and in the United States, his most notable fish, and his biggest to date, having been a 24-inch brownie on a Williams’ Favourite from the Middle Provo in Utah.

Will is the chief executive of PowerPredict Ltd, who specialise in providing wind-power predictions for grid operators and energy traders, and with his wife, Jo, and their two daughters lives in Wimbledon Park, scarcely further from the Wandle than Theo. His interest in the river is no less intense. He first read about the Wandle Trust in FF&FT. On one of the monthly clean-ups, he wrecked his back and was left wondering what he might do to help without incurring pain. Then, also in FF&FT, he read about the Riverfly Partnership and the launch of the Anglers Monitoring Initiative (AMI). Attending the Partnership’s second Riverfly Conference in March 2007, he met Theo. They discussed the possibility of establishing an AMI branch on the Wandle and Will began bug-hunting in October that year.

Today, he leads a team of 18 qualified riverfly surveyors, monitoring eleven points on the river on a monthly basis, collating and distributing the data. He is also actively involved in building relationships with the EA, local councils, Thames Water and anyone else who can influence the quality of the river.
I asked Theo and Will what were the greatest help and the biggest obstacles to so ambitious a project as the restoration of an urban river like the Wandle. The greatest help, they said, has been Thames Water’s collaborative approach to the work, committing so much, so willingly. One of the biggest obstacles was the bizarre policy that sees fines levied on polluters going straight into the government’s coffers, rather than towards repairing the damage.

As we stood on the bridge across the river by the Sainsbury’s car park, someone upstream was throwing bits of bread into the water. Downstream, for as far as the eye could see, the water’s surface was broken by the rings of rising fish – probably dace or chub. That seemed slightly surreal and almost miraculous. But it was not a miracle. It was tangible evidence of the work being done by Theo, Will and their fellow volunteers. More power to their elbows.