James Stephenson has had so much positive press over the years for his efforts helping launch the modern railway – first on the Stockton & Darlington Railway and then on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway – that you could be forgiven for thinking there weren’t any other pioneers.
But there are others worthy of getting some recognition, including the Surrey Iron Railway which was designed by William Jessop and opened in 1803 as the first publicly-funded railway in Britain. The horse-drawn freight line ran through the Wandle valley to Wandsworth until it was superseded by steam in 1846 (the opening of a canal between Croydon and London in 1809 took much of its trade away).
Unlike the later lines built in the north, the goods-only Surrey Iron Railway wasn’t powered by steam, but it – and Jessop – still deserves being celebrated. New tracks for steam trains were laid along much of the original route and are still being used today.
Back in the first half of the 19th century the Wandle was described as “the hardest worked river for its size in the world”, so it’s perhaps not surprising that this pioneering toll railway was built here. Wagons ferried raw materials and finished goods – particularly coal, building materials, lime, manure, corn and seeds – to the plethora of mills and factories on the banks of the river.
There had been industry along the Wandle since at least medieval times, with the Domesday Book recording 13 watermills which used water power to produce flour. Other mills served the brewing and textile industries, with the latter also benefitting from dyeing and bleaching works.
Over time, the range of goods manufactured along the river was greatly expanded, ranging from iron and leather to paper and oil. Roads simply weren’t good enough to carry what the Wandle valley needed, hence the need for the Surrey Iron Railway – and another one, the Croydon, Merstham and Goodstone Iron Railway from 1805, that served the quarries in Merstham.
To get a greater sense of the Wandle’s industrial history, I walked some 11 miles of the Wandle Trail, a waymarked route that largely follows the course of the river (which can be seen most of the way). The paths are mostly very good and there are numerous signs which point the way.
The heavy industry along the banks of the Wandle disappeared after the Second World War leaving only smaller manufacturing sites and warehouses today. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I was very close to the river when I visited the former studios of long-running police drama The Bill (Sun Hill police station was mocked up in an industrial estate in Merton).
Starting my walk outside a Tesco Express store housed in a charming old pub building (with signage for the Swan and Sugarloaf Hotel remaining), my walk took me from the very source of the River Wandle. Not that I could see any traces of it at first, given it was buried under roads – there are some horrible flyovers here resulting from Croydon’s building boom in the 1960s – and modern-ish homes.
It wasn’t until the underused Wandle Park that I saw any water at all. The river gushed out of a pipe into a small section of canal, before it quickly disappeared again (and then reappeared at the centre of a smart Barratt housing on the other side of a tram crossing).
But the intense rain and the dull urban scenery meant I didn’t really enjoy this early part of the walk. On busy Purley Way – one of Britain’s first purpose-built bypasses – I was greeted with the likes of John Lewis and Next superstores.
Then after Beddington Mill – a towering brick building dating back to 1891 and operational until the 1950s and now luxury apartments – things began to improve. My route took me along paths nestling on the banks of the Wandle and through a succession of green open spaces.
Beddington Park is the former Carew Manor deer park, where the route loops around the river and a number of ponds. On its edge – seemingly out of sight from the vast expanse of greenery – is a sewage treatment providing a significant part of the Wandle’s flow.
I then soon passed what had been built Carshalton Snuff Mill. The building (now a printworks) at first glance looks like it was built after the Second World War, but dating from 1782 it is actually one of the oldest surviving industrial structures on the river.
Nearby stands Strawberry Lodge, which was built in 1685 for a Josias Dewy who owned gunpowder mills on the Wandle. Adjoining a church building, this too doesn’t look its old age.
Entering Watermeads nature park, I saw the investment that the National Trust is making here. My guidebook from just a few years ago described it as “overgrown and usually open to the public”. But I found it open and an extremely pleasant green place to walk, with boarded walkways taking you right by ponds with a variety of birds in the water and trees.
The National Trust also seems to be spending money renovating its Morden Hall Park estate, which features open fields, a rose garden and wetland. As it was pouring with rain, I stopped for a quick drink in the deserted café in the stable yard (where there is also a second-hand book shop) before have a wonder around some of the other interesting buildings.
Morden Hall’s last occupants were the Hatfeild family who made a fortune by grinding tobacco leaves to produce snuff when it was a fashionable commodity. One Snuff Mill here dates from 1825 while another was built in c1750. Both were powered by the two waterwheels (one survives, but no longer turns) on the River Wandle and operated until 1922 when snuff-making became less popular.
From there I soon reached Merton Abbey Mills, which was established by Huguenot silk throwers in the early 18th century. Now an arts & craft market and home to a number of eateries overlooking the river, from 1724 this site had been used to print fashionable calico printing which became know the world over. It retains a giant waterwheel.
Although I passed a number of small factories and distribution centres, there are still significant parts of the trail that seem wild and open – even though at times homes may be just yards away, hiding behind trees. For this we have hard campaigning from John Ruskin and the Wandsworth Open Spaces Society to thank.
“Twenty years ago there no lovelier piece of lowland scenery in Southern England,” wrote Ruskin of Carshalton Ponds in the 1870s. So one of the things he did was bring stones from the Lake District to try to improve the environment. They also stopped open spaces being covered in excessive new buildings.
Quite what Ruskin would have said about some of the unsightly housing that has cropped up along the banks of the river is another question. Perhaps the lowest point was seeing a number of blocks of boarded up post-war apartment on the banks of the River Wandle. Clearly, an experiment in housing gone wrong.
And just as my walk started in a busy shopping area, the final leg took me through a bustling town centre. Shortly after King George’s Park, the River Wandle disappears under the Southside shopping centre (built in the site of a former flour mill which existed until the 1920s) with restaurants and a cinema opening out onto the main road.
But before getting the train back into central London from Wandsworth Town, I had one more glimpse of the Wandle left. Passing the former Ram Brewery which is being converted into apartments (it was operated by Young’s from 1831 to 2006 when it moved all its brewing to Bedford – leaving a small start-up brewery), I headed down The Causeway.
There was a tidal mill here from medieval times until it was demolished in 1892, and at the end of this stretch I could see the river water gushing through a large pipe into the Thames. I had reached the end of my River Wandle walk.
Categories: Changing London