Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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THE OTHER Sunday, my son and I went for a bit of a wander along the Wandle. My son, being taller and fitter than me, waded in and happily fished about for bits of submerged rubbish, but I contented myself with walking along the bankside, scooping up polystyrene cups, tin cans and plastic carrier bags.

Pottering about by the riverside is always fun, but in this case our efforts were on behalf of the Wandle Trust, an ecological charity who had organised this clean-up as part of their ongoing conservation programme.

It's a lovely river, the Wandle, with an interesting history. It gives its name to Wandsworth, where I live, and anyone who has ever been through south-west London has probably crossed it without knowing it, because there are long underground stretches. But whereas many Thames tributaries live secret, subterranean lives encased in concrete, the Wandle frequently bursts forth - through the parklands of Beddington and Morden Hall, for example, and alongside the Southside shopping centre and King George's Park in Garrett Lane.

It's a fast-flowing chalk stream - just like those in Hampshire - which has proved both a blessing and a curse. At the end of the 18th century, during a period when French Protestants were being persecuted, the Huguenot refugees settled in south-west London and found the slightly alkaline Wandle water was ideal for their industries (mainly dyeing, hat-making and weaving) and the river was strong enough to power watermills.

At Merton Abbey, William Morris set up a factory in 1881, and Arthur Liberty followed suit, producing the prints that made his name world-famous. The inevitable result was that the Wandle, once famous for its brown trout, became heavily polluted. By the 1960s, before the dawn of environmental awareness, many stretches were little better than sewers.

In the past 20 years, however, various initiatives have not only helped restore the health of the Wandle but given it a new career. The Liberty silk-printing factory, Merton Abbey Mills, is now a craft village, full of shops and stalls. Close by is the Deen City Farm, and Morden Hall, a former deer park, where the Wandle becomes a series of meandering streams, and children play Pooh-sticks on the bridge.

At Southside, the river has been given a make-over, with benches set along its bank. And the trout are back, released into the river each year by local schoolchildren who raise them in classroom fishtanks.

To describe the Wandle as a "leisure resource", however, is not only to succumb to municipal suit-speak but also to underestimate what seems to be a primeval human need. London developers know river views or dockside balconies add a premium to the price of their properties, but for the rest of us, these stretches of water can have a more visceral importance. It's important to foster this sort of emotional connection, I feel, because it's such a good antidote to the ignorance and indifference that so often leads to environmental damage in the first place.

As my son and I were working, passers-by came up to us and thanked us for what we were doing and told us how much the river meant to them. One family told us that in summer, the stretch of Wandle at Southside was their "lifeline" (their word). They lived in one of the council blocks nearby and in summer, they'd come and sit there, refreshed by the sight of the water. One of the children had taken part in a trout release at his primary school, which I'm sure contributed to his almost proprietorial pride in the river.

It's a pride shared by the Wandle Trust volunteers, who meet up once a month at prearranged sites to clear the river of things like old tyres, supermarket trolleys and fridges. Standing in smelly mud is not everyone's idea of how to spend a Sunday, but it's immensely satisfying. And you sure as hell feel virtuous when you finally get to the pub.

If you would like to help clean up, or for more information about the Wandle Trust, go to www.wandletrust.org, or call 0845 092 0110. The next clean-up is on Sunday 11 February

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