The River Wandle (2010)

The Wandle Trust hold regular volunteer-led river cleanups.Motorbikes, fridges, mattresses, safes, water tanks, baths, guns - these have all been pulled from the Wandle on cleanup days.Such a volume of rubbish is pulled from the river that it's not uncommon for the council to need two vehicles to cart it away.Theo Pike - Chairman of the Wandle Trust.Some of the Wandle's canalised steep sides mean it can be an effort just to reach the river."Wandle Delta" warning coneJane Porter of the Wandle Trust.Collected rubbish after a cleanup in Poulter Park.In September 2007 a chemical spill from the sewage treatment works killed tens of thousands of fish and invertebrates, setting conservation work on the river back years.The Wandle's eel population was also badly hit.Theo Pike and John Bishop bury fish killed in the pollution incident. Thames Water admitted liability and provided £250,000 to allow the Wandle Trust to take on their first full-time employee.Shopping trolleys pulled from the river in Earlsfield.Riverfly monitors kick-sample in Morden Hall Park.Cyril Bennett demonstrates kick-sampling technique to the Wandle's Riverfly Monitors.Jed Edge inspecting specimen invertebrates on the Riverfly Monitors' induction course, led by Cyril Bennett.Jed Edge demonstrating pith float making at the Wandle Valley Festival 2008.Fly boards provide an ideal habitat for invertebrates to lay their eggs.Cleaning gravel beds on the upper Wandle to encourage trout spawning.Will Tall at work on a flow deflector. These both help increase the flow of the river, scouring spawning gravel, and provide slack water behind them for fry to take refuge.Floating pennywort is a big problem on the Wandle - it suffocates the river to the detriment of other plant life. Wandle Trust volunteers roll it up and leave it to rot.The Environment Agency perform regular fish surveys on the Wandle. Electofishing involves stunning the fish with electric current in the water, netting them, and noting their species and size before releasing them.EA Fisheries office Tanya Houston and her team in Hackbridge.Measuring and logging specimens taken during an electro fishing exercise.A Wandle eel.Fly fishing at Shepley Mill.Stickleback turn up regularly during kick-sampling sessions.The first grayling to have been caught in the Wandle for many years.The Wandle holds a number of sizeable trout, particularly in its upper reaches.Wandle Trust Trustee and illustrator Jane Porter's project with local school children culminates in floating lanterns being released into the flow of the Wandle in Morden Hall Park.The Wandle at Goat Bridge, Sutton.Ziggi Sinnette running for office at the Morden Hall Park Angling Club.Theo Pike leads up the Wandle Piscators AGM in the upper room of the William Morris pub at Merton Abbey Mills.The Wandle has a strangely magnetic effect on shopping trolleys.Children fishing the Wandle with a net at Hackbridge.Volunteers install coir rolls to help soften the canalised banks of the upper Wandle.Seeded with vegetation, the coconut-matting rolls provide a quick solution to where there's a lack of riparian fringe.Local schoolchildren preparing to release their trout fry as part of the Trout in the Classroom Project.School pupils helped from the river after releasing trout fry into the river as part of the Trout in the Classroom trout release in Morden Hall Park.Trout in the Classroom fry pre-release.Flowering ranunculus.A cleanup at Ravensbury Terrace in Wandsworth.Gathering Mayflies on the Avon in order to strip their eggs in an attempt to populate the Wandle with mayflies.Captured mayflies ready to be stripped of their eggs.A floating board carrying a glass slide with several hundred thousand mayfly eggs. If the project is successful, mayflies should start appearing on the Wandle in 2012 (2013 note: the project failed to work, possibly because of low-lying pollutants affecting the survival rate of the mayfly nymphs)

The Wandle is a great example of how a photo project can grow into something else altogether.

Several years back, I started a London-based project photographing the city’s urban fishermen. This was literally a case of getting out the A-Z and looking for blue lines and blobs, jumping on the bike, and seeing if anyone was mad enough to think they could catch any fish in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities. The project took me from the canals of North London to the ponds on Clapham Common via Battersea and Burgess parks, and eventually led to an intriguing seemingly uninterupted line of water that ran from Croydon to Wandsworth. This turned out to be the River Wandle. I photographed a few of the fisherman along the river, then largely forgot about it for a couple of years as the fisherman project sat in a bottom drawer (I had photographed the lot on that forgotten thing of the past – negative film – on my 2nd hand Bronica SQa).

A couple of years later, I was watching a program by an affable chap called Charles Rangeley-Wilson all about trying to catch a trout in the middle of London. My ears pricked up, and memories of people standing by bus stops carrying fishing rods came flooding back. And there he was on the Wandle in Earlsfield, right by where I’d photographed a boy with his fishing rod by a burger van. There was some interesting stuff about the Wandle, including a section following a bunch of keen-as-mustard urban environmentalists pulling all sorts of rubbish out of the river – motorbikes, washing machines, mattresses, and endless, endless shopping trollies. At the time I was looking for a new project to get involved with and the Wandle seemed like a worthy contender – both as a story of hope, and an interesting take on nature in a seemingly hostile environment. Plus it was a logical spin-off to the urban fisherman project. I had to know more…

So it was that I found myself standing in a river behind a housing estate in early February 2007, chatting with a man with an unfeasibly fishy surname called Theo Pike. He told me more about the Wandle – about how, in the days when Nelson used to fish it, it was famed for its trout and the clarity of its waters. And how, for the same reasons that its fast flow proved such good habitat for trout, its power was harnessed in the 19th century to drive as many as 90 mills along its stretch. The inevitable pollution followed, and by the mid 20th century it was effectively a sewer, running red one day, blue another, depending on what dyes were being used at the time in the tanneries. The Wandle was dead. But then, as the industry slowly started to disappear, the stench began to dissipate, and people started to take an interest in the river again. One thing led to another, and the group that is now the Wandle Trust was formed, meeting monthly to carry out river cleanups in the 3 boroughs through which the Wandle flows (Sutton, Merton and Wandsworth).

I became a regular at the clean-ups in 2007, conveniently avoiding much of the hard work with the excuse that I had to photograph it. I made new friends, particularly amongst those with an interest in things that swim (my passion for photography is equalled if not surpassed by my passion for fly fishing). And I began to learn about bugs, becoming a certified riverfly monitor and in the process part of a team that regularly monitor the Wandle’s invertebrate life. I became a committee member of the Wandle Piscators, a group of hard-core urban fishers committed to restoring the natural habitat of the river. We built flow deflectors and installed coir rolls, counted bugs by their thousands, manned stalls, tied flies, fished next to bus stops and watched as local school kids introduced trout fry back into the river… I hung out with people whose fishing knowledge far surpassed mine, started travelling to parts of the UK with them that I didn’t even know held fish, started going on European jaunts with them in search of bigger and better prey…

This is what I love about photography – you never know where it’s going to lead you or how it’s going to affect your life next.