Fishing lines: A river runs through it - very fast

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The Independent Online

It always puzzles me why any fishing club would want me to join their ranks. I don't quite subscribe to the Groucho Marx theory: "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." But I can't think why any angling society would want to count among its members someone who fishes very badly, and who specialises in writing about how not to do it.

So I'm slightly suspicious that Alan Suttie should want to count me among the inaugural members of the exclusive Wandle Fishing Club. First, it's an élite society whose prime target is brown trout. Anyone who has watched me angle with a fly rod will know that I'll never be the star of a sequel to A River Runs Through It, though I could do pretty well in A River Runs Away From It.

Second, the number of trout caught on the Wandle during the past decade is about equal to British victories at this year's Wimbledon. Third, the 11-mile river, which runs into the Thames at Wandsworth, is only fishable in short stretches between factories, shops, housing estates and main roads. Lastly, it was once the most polluted river in Britain, with more than 90 mills along its length. It was, after all, where the Industrial Revolution started.

Doesn't sound much like a chalk-stream trout river, does it?

Yet the Wandle story may have a happy ending, or at least a happy honeymoon. That's highly satisfying, because this river valley was once a very important place. It even made the Pope's hats. The fishing once used to be pretty good, too. Frederic Halford, known as the father of dry-fly fishing, rented a stretch of the river for several years, where he formulated many of his angling theories.

What a river it must have been. It even earns a mention from Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler; in the 1653 first edition he observedthat Wandle trout had marbled spots like a tortoise. In the early 19th century the scientist Sir Humphrey Davy called it "the best and clearest stream near London".

Lord Nelson lived in a handsome house on the banks of the river with Emma Hamilton, and fished there when he wasn't fighting naval battles. The couple called the house Paradise Merton. (Though the Surrey suburb has a few pubs, a memorial garden and the Nelson family pew in Merton parish church, not a trace of the house remains.)

The Wandle was the scene of much industrialisation even in Nelson's time. But it was helped by the fact that it has one of the swiftest flows of any European river. This swept away pollution so rapidly it had no time to kill everything in its path. And industrial waste was nothing new; the Domesday Book mentions 20 mills on the tiny river.

Big business killed the river. But it could turn out to be its saviour. Next week, I'll tell you why my Wandle ticket may not be as daft as it sounds - thanks to the local schools.