River Wandle, London

The two founding branches of the River Wandle rise at Carshalton and Croydon where the chalk of the North Downs gives way to the sand and clay of London. These bright, lively streams join at Hackbridge and the combined chalkstream flows north for nine miles through the urban sprawl of Britain's capital, meeting the River Thames at Wandsworth.

Admiral Nelson fished the Wandle in his last years before he died at Trafalgar in 1805. His casting arm had been lost in a sea battle a few years before and he had to teach himself to cast a fly with his weaker arm. 

In his early adult life Frederic Halford fished the Wandle in every season between 1868 and 1881. He initially used wet flies (!) but enjoyed very little success. He learned from local anglers that the Wandle's wary trout were best fooled by casting a buoyant dry fly from downstream of their tails. This was the 'Carshalton dodge', a practice which he would later write about so influentially after he moved to Hampshire in 1880.

My first glimpse of the Wandle, which could pass for any of the chalkstreams in Hampshire.

I first came to know of the Wandle as a potentially serious fishing option when I read Theo Pike's book, 'Trout in Dirty Places', when it was published in 2012. Thanks in large part to the decline of polluting industries and the devoted attention of a small group of people, the book spoke of the river's remarkable recovery to life from a lifeless open sewer. Trout were reintroduced at the turn of the 21st century and by 2010 it was confirmed that they were breeding successfully. Before that, the last trout reportedly caught from the Wandle was in 1936. But the writing had been on the wall for much of the century before that, as the effects of the Industrial Revolution came to be felt in rampant, unchecked industrial and human effluent.

The thought of a revitalised chalkstream flowing lazily between swaying ranunculus (and the occasional shopping trolley) in the maelstrom of modern London has fascinated me ever since. It's enthralling to think that amidst the chaos and clutter of London, trout live once again in the Wandle's wild corridor. I resolved to one day fish the Wandle and finally did so in April this year. 

Treated sewage water joins the chalkstream. Sewage has been an historic problem for the Wandle.

My Visit

I had been warned to fish the river on a week day to avoid crowds, so I took a day off work. It felt odd then to be jammed into a train heading to London during the rush hour commute. When my stop eventually came, I clutched my waders and rod tightly and had to politely barge my way through the crowded aisle and only just managed to alight in time before the train lurched onwards to the city. 

I walked ten or fifteen minutes to the nearest bridge over the Wandle and was gobsmacked by what I saw. I hadn't known what to expect, really, but the river I saw would not have looked out of place had it flowed in Hampshire between the Test and Itchen. I observed the water for a long time but didn't see any fish in the clear water. 

Bjorn was delayed in London's infamous traffic so I wandered downstream to get a feel for the water. I'd read a fair bit prior to my visit and knew to expect a large influx of treated sewage effluent (80% of the river's average flow) a little way downstream. A wonderful looking pool has been created by the meeting of these slightly opaque waters with the river's original flow, and I couldn't resist a few casts with a team of heavy nymphs whilst I waited for Bjorn to arrive. The best way to attack the pool and the calmer water against the far bank seemed to be to get in downstream and wade forward. I was a little taken aback by the speed of the flow but soon adjusted to the water tugging at my legs. I expected my indicator to be plucked beneath the water by a fish at any moment, but it never came. Two passing policemen waved and stopped to say hello, just as I was retrieving a fly from the branches of a tree. One of them said "We see lots of fishermen here but you're the first we've seen in the water!"

When Bjorn arrived we made for the classic chalkstream water above the bridge. We took turns to cast to the water between the weeds, hoping to tempt a trout to emerge from beneath the weed's verdant shelter. We saw no sign of fish and moved to the top of the reach, where water cascaded for several feet over an impassable weir. Bjorn caught a small chub (his first) where the sweeping tail of the pool disappeared beneath a willow tree. The chub was quickly released. From the frothing pool beneath the dam wall I hooked a fish which instantly leapt from the water and shook itself free in the process. I only saw it fleetingly and couldn't tell if it it was a trout, but it certainly behaved like one.

Above the dam wall the water was backed up with the character of a pond for a long distance. We tried a few casts from the bank but saw no sign of fish. We did eventually spot some large chub, which we left alone, and then, at last, where the river had once again picked up a semblance of flow, we stopped dead in our tracks along the footpath. We'd seen a large fish which was unmistakably trout, its square tail the giveaway. With Bjorn staying on the path to act as spotter, and roofers working on a nearby house shouting their encouragement, I slipped into the water downstream of the fish. From there I could stalk up behind the trout and make an unimpeded cast, Carshalton Dodge style, except that I had on the end of my tippet a small beadhead nymph. I launched my nymph forward but in the nanoseconds before my leader alighted on the water Bjorn yelled out that the trout had spooked and darted away up river. "Looks like it spooked at your leader flash." We suddenly knew what a tough gig we faced. 

Bjorn preparing to cast to a rare rising fish

By now we'd concluded that this section of the river held very few visible fish. We were a little surprised that we hadn't seen any number of juvenile fish. At one point I thought I had hooked a fish and got rather excited, but it was only a soggy sock which I disdainfully removed from the hook point with my index finger and thumb, and threw up onto the bank. Later we watched a heron stalk the margins, a good indication that juvenile fish must be present even if we didn't see them. 

The footpath beside the river was fairly busy with walkers, mostly mothers pushing prams, and young men wearing tracksuit bottoms with status-symbol bull terrier breeds on chained leads. Some returned our greetings but the majority didn't spare us a further glance, as if fishermen are a very normal occurrence.

We got a little excited when we encountered a rising fish, but Bjorn's casts with a dry fly seemed to spook the fish for it never rose again.   The top of the stretch leading up to the next major arterial road appeared to have been worked on - a series of serpentine bends had been reintroduced to the river and deflector logs had been staked into the riverbed at intervals. It looked every bit a chalkstream but sadly, we saw no sign of fish yet again. I threw a nymph into the dark, deep water beneath the bridge, holding out hope but sensing that it just wasn't my day, and so it transpired.   

On the walk back downstream to Bjorn's car, we ran into a local angler walking upstream with a bait rod in his hand and a plastic worm attached to the hook. He verified our own observations by saying that he'd never seen a year with so few fish in the Wandle, which he said he'd fished for the past five years. "I've never seen it this bad" he said in another breath. He seemed genuinely worried and blamed a rising number of anglers who kill the fish they catch for eating. I wondered if he was intentionally downplaying the state of the river - the shrewd tactic of any local angler who runs into novice out-of-towners - but his statements certainly matched our own experience. It was sad to learn that this might be the case. 

Before packing up for the evening Bjorn and I walked a little way downstream of our starting point, in the hope of catching a fish before leaving. I was particularly keen to avoid my first blank in a very long time. Earlier in the day a walker had told us about a trout so large he wondered at first if it was a salmon. A salmon in the Wandle! What a turn up for the books that might be one day if salmon might be encouraged to swim up the Wandle. Several manmade barriers would need to be knocked down first for that to happen. The walker generously told us where to look and at the right place we only had to pause on the footpath and peer into the water to send the behemoth tearing off downstream in fright. It was unmistakably a very large trout. The few trout we saw in the Wandle certainly seemed to be very much on edge!

Choking clouds of midges finally sent us on our way. Bjorn said the factory on the opposite bank was letting off a dreadful odour (I cannot smell) and it was another reason why he wanted to leave! 

The Future

Despite enjoying the rich history of the occasion and deriving enormous pleasure from pursuing trout in a river which had lost them for almost a century, I was disappointed not to catch one on my first visit. I intend to return again some day and hopefully put that straight. But I'm also worried about what the local angler said and my own experience of seeing only a handful of mature trout and no real numbers of juvenile fish.  

The population of Croydon today stands at 400,000, a 4,900% increase since the time when Admiral Nelson fished the Wandle. The chalk aquifer is heavily abstracted to satisfy the drinking demands of an ever increasing population of London. Pollution spills still plague the river from time to time. Remarkably, a substantial volume of raw sewage is intentionally allowed to enter the Wandle today, as the very sewage infrastructure which allowed the Wandle to make a come back in the late 20th century now creaks under the weight of more people. Thames Water made 294 releases into the Wandle and a tributary in 2021 alone! It's frustrating that the Wandle should continue to face these challenges after the hard lessons of the recent past. 

The Wandle has shown in the last few decades that rivers can be brought back to life, a real cause for celebration. Life is tenacious, but as my own visit seemed to highlight, we should never take anything for granted and perhaps for the trout it clings tenuously rather than thrives. We must be careful to jealously guard it.


  1. Justin
    I hope the powers to be can bring this beautiful river back to life with trout flourishing again. Heavy fishing pressure can take a toll on the fish population as well as the pollutants; a shame! Interesting read ------thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bill. I hope so too.


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