The Wandle Walk

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The walkers gathered in Watermead Lane, to be greeted by Sue Tanton who had organised the walk, and she introduced everyone to me, Meg Thomas, I would be explaining a little of the history of the river and to Rachael Hill from the Environment Agency who would be telling us about the river's wildlife.

The walkers were dressed for all contingencies as the weather forecast had not been too encouraging. As the group grew larger one local resident became a little concerned at the extra cars and people gathering near his riverside cottage but as we did not appear to be a group of vandals (I think age was against us!), he was reassured.

After a short introduction giving a brief history of the Wandle River, we set off along the path.

This stretch of the river is very quiet and we saw several coots nesting, their twiggy rather untidy nests floating in the river. We stopped to watch them but soon moved on as we were clearly not welcome.

We carried on, skirting the Watermeads as entry is restricted especially during the breeding season.

As we approached London Road we were met by a sorry sight on our left, the large open space beside the path was covered with rubbish ruining an area that could be used for recreational purposes.

To our right we could see a small row of cottages called the Fisheries. These cottages were originally built to house the mill workers for the Grove Mill that stood nearby but has now disappeared. In the early 20th century they were used by the Wandle Fisheries Association, an association set up by the local Gentry to stock the river with trout.

As we cross London Road, to our left is where the Eagle Brewery used to be, while run by Thunder and Little it produced the famous Mitcham Ale. Just a little further along towards Mitcham station is the route of the Surrey Iron Railway, the first iron railway in the world.

The river now runs through Ravensbury Park, this is all that remains of the Ravensbury Park Estate which was broken up in the 1930's and developed for housing. Many older residents will remember boating on the pond in the park. An even older use for areas of the park was as calico bleaching fields; the resulting bleached fabric was then printed or dyed to produce chintz.

As the park reaches Morden Road we pass Ravensbury mill; there has been a mill there since the 17th century. In the 18th century it was a snuff mill, and when owned by John Rutter, Mitcham Shag was produced there. When snuffing fell out of fashion the mill was bought by Whitely Products Ltd - they manufactured sports goods and elasticated rope such as used to catch planes landing on the decks of aircraft carriers. It continued to function until the 1960's when it was the last working mill on the Wandle. The Wandle Industrial Museum are hoping to move into this mill which would be a most appropriate home for it.

We then stopped for a welcome break at the National Trust Teashop in Morden Hall Park. Here we collected a few more walkers. We strolled back into the Park to look at the Snuff mills which stand either side of the Wandle near Morden Cottage. One of the mills is used as an Environmental Centre, there is a Saturday club for local children and many schools visit it as part of their environmental education. The Snuff mills were owned by the Hatfeild's who were the last owners of Morden Hall.

On Gilliat Hatfeild's death in 1941 the estate was left to be enjoyed by future generations in the care of the National Trust. The Hatfeilds bought Morden Hall from the Garth Family, another well known local name.

We then continued through Morden Hall Park, following the river until we came to the railway line; crossing this we were alongside Bunces Meadow which was another site of calico bleaching. But it seems that during the early part of the 20th century Bunces Meadow was notorious as a venue for prize fighting and illicit gambling, probably on the fights! Bunces Meadow is now the home of Deen City Farm, much visited by schools, and family groups.

Continuing along the river Abbey Mill Craft Centre was our next port of call and, before we talked about its history, we refreshed ourselves at the William Morris Pub. Although the pub in the market is named after W. Morris this is not the site of his workshops - the buildings were indeed printing mills but the last tenant was Arthur Liberty, whose shop is still in Regent Street. The mills here were still working up to the middle of last century.

The site contains the only turning water wheel left on the Wandle. This wheel was the place of a tragic accident in 1856, when 18 year old Richard Bently, whose job it was to rinse the silk after printing, got his neckerchief caught in the shaft. and was strangled.

Across the road was where William Morris set up his printing works in the 1880's; at first in the work sheds of an old silk printing mill that were still there. Here Morris strove to create a pleasant and enjoyable atmosphere for his workforce. He surrounded the workshops with trees and flower beds and many clients left the mills with a large bouquet of the flowers. Although Morris died in 1896 the mills continued to work but were finally closed in 1941. Sadly nothing of Morris' workshops remain. This historic site, associated with an important British art movement, the Arts and Crafts Movement, is buried under the Savacentre car park. Still there is a plaque along the Wandle bank commemorating its existence.

As we walked through the tunnel leading from Abbey Mills to the Savacentre car park we passed another important piece of Merton's history, the remains of Merton Priory. The Priory was begun in 1117, built by Gilbert the Norman to ensure a place for himself in Heaven, possibly after much pillage during the Norman Conquest! In 1236 a Great Council was held at the Priory to reaffirm the Magna Carta in the Statute of Merton.

Crossing the car park and passing the new shopping development at Colliers Wood we came to Wandle Park. What a change has taken place in what was a rather uninteresting grassed area with a concrete lined river channel. The whole park has been redesigned. The river, free from its grotty concrete prison, now meanders through the park. It is shaped so that children can explore the river (safely, of course), and so that the wild flora and fauna will be encouraged to return. A reed bed has been established to help clean the water.

Going through the park we carried on past the o1d sewage works just past North Rd. Since it ceased to be a sewage works it has been allowed to return to nature and, with a little help, has become a delightful nature park.

This was the final part of a long day that started at 10 o'clock and we finally reached Plough Lane at 3.30 p.m. by walking along the River Graveney, the Wandle's only major tributary. Unfortunately this river is encased in concrete in such a way that it would prove very difficult and costly to naturalise the riverside area. We emerged onto Plough Lane where the appearance of the minibus, here to take back to our starting place, was most welcome especially as the threatened rain had just begun to fall.

Meg Thomas

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