Residents lead the way in restoring the River Wandle

by Kelly Oakes

Bright and early on a June weekend morning, volunteers in a park in south London are pulling on waders, grabbing litter pickers and slipping their hands into protective gloves. It’s time to clean up the River Wandle.

The Wandle starts in Croydon, runs through south London and ends up in Wandsworth. That’s where I am today, at a stretch of the river not far from where it joins the Thames. A group of around fifty volunteers has turned out for the river cleanup. After cutting our way through the jungle of plants to the edge of the water, those brave enough to lower themselves into the river do. The rest of us help out from the banks, ferrying rubbish in wheelbarrows from the waterside to a rubbish pile across the bridge. It is not long before the first major find of the day: a mattress, weighed down by an immense amount of water inside it, that takes several people and a great amount of heaving to pull out. One bit of rubbish down, who knows how many to go.

Many years ago the Wandle was a famous trout fishery – rumour has it Lord Nelson fished there – but industry that sprung up along the banks of the river eventually made its waters uninhabitable for wildlife. Now, the local community is helping the Wandle clean up its act. And the wildlife is starting to come back, too.

In the 1960s, the Wandle was declared an open sewer. “It was biologically dead – nothing lived in it,” said Dr Bella Davies, director of the Wandle Trust. Waste from tanneries along its banks made the chalk stream river’s naturally crystal clear water run pink and blue, and changes to the structure of the river made it hard for fish to make their home there. Pollution in the 1930s killed off what was left of the trout.

Since then the Wandle has improved. But the river suffered a set back in 2007 when a form of bleach from a nearby sewage works was accidentally emptied into it, killing two tonnes of fish. “At that time a lot of people were very surprised at what had been living in the river,” Dr Davies says. “But now it was all dead.”

Despite this, last year the Wandle was included on a list of Britain’s ten “most improved” rivers by the Environment Agency. “The river has recovered well,” says Dr Davies. “But there are still signs that it hasn’t got back to where it was before.”

That it is on the road to recovery is thanks in no small part to the Wandle Trust, a charity dedicated to restoring the river. The Trust organises community cleanups along the whole course of the river, as well as other restoration projects. Andy Bolgar, a volunteer who helps to organize the cleanups, says that he was first motivated to come along because he lived close to the river.

“A lot of the people here live along the course of the river,” Mr Bolgar says. “It’s been good for getting people aware of the their surroundings.” Mr Bolgar hopes that the cleanups will encourage other residents to look after the river, too. “If it looks clean then hopefully other people will be less likely to throw more rubbish into it,” he says.

Local children, who might not be old enough – or tall enough – to get into the river and pull rubbish out get a chance to play their part in restoring the river too, through the Wandle Trust’s ‘Trout in the Classroom’ project. In an effort to fill the Wandle with trout once more, schools are given tiny trout fry to rear in class before they set them free into the river.

The trout released as part of ‘Trout in the Classroom’ are now starting to spawn, suggesting that the Wandle is not far from becoming a haven for trout and other wildlife once again. “Trout are an indicator of good water quality,” says Dr Davies. “So this indicates that the river has much better water quality than it used to.”

To help fund these initiatives the Wandle Trust has taken advantage of new legislation that created opportunities for smaller organisations to get involved in urban river restoration. “Before it was often the Environment Agency that was leading on these kinds of rehabilitation work,” says Dr Lucy Shuker, a researcher working on urban river restoration at Queen Mary, University of London. “Now organizations like the Wandle Trust and other river trusts are able to get involved in doing not only the physical works but also bringing in local communities.”

“Its vitally important that the local communities can benefit from the changes that happen to a river when you restore it,” Dr Shuker added.

Back at the cleanup, the River Wandle is looking better already. The day’s haul included a total of three mattresses, fifteen tyres, six trolleys and, unusually, a large fiberglass pufferfish. While removing rubbish and releasing trout will not solve all the problems that the River Wandle faces, it gets the local community involved – and that is vital for the future of the river.