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 watched a BBC program presented by author and fisherman 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.