Urban Packrafting on the River Wandle

Most of London's great tributaries have been lost beneath pavement and concrete. Rivers like the Fleet and Tyburn now trickle through pipes to the Thames. The Wandle, however, still carves much of its original course and has been steadily cleaned and cared for, presenting a unique opportunity to explore a regenerated urban river.

It's a short and varied paddle, that involves drifting through busy streets and quiet woodlands, clambering over pipes and fallen trees, navigating occasional weirs, concrete culverts and a winding pitch-black tunnel. For these reasons, it can be dangerous and shouldn't be attempted when water levels are high or if you're inexperienced. But it's also great fun and very beautiful in its own way!

We launched below the waterwheel at Merton Abbey Mills (having parked in a nearby pay and display) and within minutes were being swept along a beautiful chalk stream.

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Soon we were paddling alongside pedestrians on Merton High Street.

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At a branch in the river we took a left and headed under a low bridge, towards the 18th century Connolly's Mill. Originally constructed as a corn mill, the building was then used to produce high quality leather for over a century, some of which can still be found in the House of Lords and the QE2. It's also the first of a few hazards as river narrows and flows underneath into a millstream with a small standing wave. There was no sign of recirculation when we approached, but you could see how higher flood waters might suck you in and then punch you into the pipes hanging underneath. We had a good look, then shot this underground weir and were spat out the other end grinning and alive.

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The river slows as it passes through the Wandle Meadow Nature Park. This is a peaceful and wooded stretch with a few fallen trees blocking the route. Negotiating these requires a little bit of clambering and balancing, but it's worth persevering as there are few obstructions afterwards.

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The exception is a low pipe at Trewint Street Island. This is a grand name for what is essentially a huge concrete block situated mid-stream (apparently once the site of a mill). It's worth knowing where it is, as a small weir on either side speeds you up and feeds you into the pipe that passes through both channels. We could see the pipe but if the water levels had been higher it might have been hidden just below the surface. As the water flow was manageable, one of us went right, and was able to clamber over the pipe, whilst the other, being more adventurous, went left down the steeper weir and slide underneath it.

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It was a beautiful Autumnal day and as we drifted past Garratt Park, a few allotment owners waved and passed the time of day with us. One of the sheds was constructed from a mosaic of Estate Agent For Sale signs, leading you to wonder how the owner acquired such a variety.

Usually the river has plenty of anglers but we saw none on this trip. A lot of work has been put into cleaning the Wandle and it now has a healthy population of trout, carp and barbel amongst others.

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We came to a concrete culvert section that split into two channels, separated by a low wall, and opted for the right channel for no particular reason. When the channels rejoined and then split a second time we chose left, which was probably lucky as the right channel disappeared under a nearby building, whilst our channel swept us cleanly round towards the Southside Shopping Centre in Wandsworth.

Here the river changes again entering two parallel winding tunnels. Again faced with a choice we chose left. Once underground a series of bends, mean you can literally see no light at the end of the tunnel. Head torches are invaluable to help spot any debris that might hinder a safe exit. Luckily on our paddle through it was completely clear and a hole half way along gave us the option to switch to the adjacent tunnel if needed. At about the same point we noticed a tunnel branching off river left, into the darkness, but didn't have time to explore it.

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We emerged below what used to be the Young's Brewery and a short paddle brought us to Bell Lane Creek Weir and the Thames.

Above the weir was hung a bell with the inscription, 'I am rung by the tides'. As the tide was out there was a significant drop to concrete and mud below (the tidal range on the Thames can be 20 meters) the Weir so we avoided it and kept right. 50 meters further on, we came to some large steps leading to The Causeway. A heavy mat of pennywort weed complicated the process of getting to the steps but once out there is a patch of adjacent grass, allowing a bit of space to relax and pack up the packrafts.

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Being short of time we rolled our packrafts into our rucksacks, hopped on a bus, then took a tube one stop to get back to our parked car.

This is a great microadventure, that is varied, fun and perfect for packrafts that can be easily carried home on public transport.

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Useful Notes:

  • Our paddle was 5.8km and took about an hour and half.

  • It is possible to paddle on to the Thames, but you have to pass under a large, low pipe and then bounce down a shallow, stepped Weir. The bridge over this weir had collected some debris just below the surface so it’s worthwhile checking your exit before running it. Potentially at mid to high tide, one might be able to run this or Bell Lane Creek weir and then turn left to Putney or right and downstream towards Chelsea.

  • A river gauge at Wandle Park Main Channel gives a good indication of when to paddle the river. Apparently 40cm is passable but shallow, whilst 75cm can sweep you against low pipes. Luckily we had 50cm which seemed perfect for our packrafts. This kept us afloat, but meant we were able to easily clamber over trees and pipes when needed. There is an hydraulic flood barrier just above Merton Abbey Mills which can suddenly release substantial amount of water. The river levels fluctuate fairly wildly here so you may not know if the levels are perfect, until a few hours beforehand.

  • There is a well documented, if infrequent, history of canonists paddling the Wandle, however please do your own research to ascertain your rights to paddle this river.

  • The Wandle Trust have done incredible work cleaning and improving this river. Many of their volunteers are anglers so if you do decide to paddle, take care not to disturb them. The Wandle is classified by the Environment Agency as a coarse fishing river with a closed season between March 15th and June 15th. However there may be game fishing between October 1st to March 31st. The Anglers Guide to the Wandle contains a huge amount of information about the river. The Wandle Trust organise volunteer cleanup events on the 2nd Sunday of every month.

  • Finally, consider taking a bin bag and collecting any litter you come across!

Tim Clark