Sunday, 22 July 2007

Are you lost?

"Are you lost?" the man asked. "No", I replied "we're puzzled". And we were because we were trying to find the beginning of a walk. We were planning to walk along part of the route of the river Wandle beginning near Wandsworth Town train station and finishing 4.5 miles later at Merton Abbey Mills, near Colliers Wood Station.

We were following the route described in Gilly Cameron-Cooper's book Walking London's docks, rivers & canals and cursed ourselves for leaving the A to Z at home which at this point would have been more useful. We began to get our bearings after we'd crossed four lanes of traffic, which is part of the Wandsworth gyratory system, and found Smugglers Way which took us close to the river Thames. Feeling more confident we got on to the Causeway which we learned from the guide book 'was once the road to the village square over the marshy delta of the Wandle'. Evidently the Wandle was great for water power and was one of the best rivers in England for driving mills and this gave rise to all sorts of industry being established on its banks. In the early 19th century the many mills were powering industries like 'lavender and leather processing and the production of beer, gunpowder, chocolate, textiles and paper'. In fact the Ram Brewery, which had been a commercial brewery since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and later bought by Youngs in 1831, has only recently closed for business.

After our fleeting sight of the river Wandle we came upon a modern day industrial site where we were directed to turn left. This was impossible as the way was blocked by a building so we trudged on until we found a local map in a bus shelter which put us back on the right route. This involved recrossing the gyratory system and here our walk proper began. We circuited the Ram Brewery premises which was full of parked vehicles and appeared to be functioning but there was no sign of human life. We wondered what's going to happen to the place now: more than likely it will end up with expensive flats built on the site.

We decided to give the town museum a miss and pressed on to King George's Park and the Wandle Trail, leaving the road works and building sites behind us. The Wandle disappears under Wandsworth's famous Arndale shopping centre and we picked it up again in the park which is a very pleasant, manicured municipal green space with an impressive willow tree, tennis courts and playgrounds for the kids. The further we followed the Wandle Trail the less built up the route became and we could enjoy the rhythm of walking and breathing fresher air. This wasn't to last long because our way was blocked again with industrial buildings and we had to make our way through a large housing estate, which had amazing repeating curved arches under which we walked, to Garrett Lane and then into Earlsfield.

Earsfield was once a rural village and presumably Garrett Lane had been a country lane before the opening of the railways. Now you have to use your imagination because there is concrete and tarmac as far as the eye can see. We decided this was a good as time as any to stop at a pub, and it was pouring with rain, so we ducked into a cavernous bar which it turned out was called 'the puzzle'. Once we'd rejoined the trail we entered the part of the walk which felt very much like being in the country. Our pace slowed and we had time to stare and listen to the sounds of the river. This may not have lasted much more than a mile but the impact it had on me made it feel like the greater part of the walk. Before too long it was time to start navigating our way around Colliers Wood. We couldn't walk through much of the Wandle Meadow Nature Park due to flooding but we could see it and it looked like a lake.

According to our map the end of our walk was in sight but, like the start of our outing, we had much circumnavigating to do before we reached our goal. We found ourselves traipsing through an out-of-town retail park where many centuries before Merton Priory had existed until the Dissolution in 1538. Instead of walking through cloisters, or attending church, or getting fish from the fish ponds we found ourselves passing PC World, fast food joints and filling stations. Still surrounded by retail outlets built in the 1980s we were puzzled again as to how to get to Merton Abbey Mills but we carried on until we saw a small area of old buildings with many sign posts saying 'Merton Abbey Mills'. So there it was, at last and we gratefully sat at a table at Mama Rosa's Italian Trattoria to eat a delicious Italian meal while reading about Emma, Lady Hamilton, Admiral Lord Nelson and William Morris, the pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement, all of whom had lived, loved and laboured on this same site in previous generations.

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