The rebirth of the urban river

A leading angling blogger reflects on a river’s transformation

When it comes to living the dream as a fly-fisher, there’s no greater luxury than being able to walk out of your own front door, maybe with your rod already strung up, and stroll down to your local river in the reasonable hope of catching a wild trout on a dry fly.

More than 10 years ago, when we first started work on the Wandle, that dream was still far off – and even today it commands a price of toil, sweat, funds and worry. Since early July, the banks of the upper river have echoed to the thud of pneumatic drills, the grinding of caterpillar tracks and the rhythmic tink, tink, tink of sledgehammers as we’ve taken out a weir, reintroduced more than 50 tonnes of gravel, and finally fixed logs and other new habitat features in the reconstructed channel with two-metre lengths of rebar and lots of voluntary muscle-power.


In August we invited 500 fresh-faced Goldman Sachs interns to help us clear hundreds of metres of invasive Himalayan balsam from one of the river’s historic parks. And then, just two weeks ago, we all held our breath as a fire broke out in a tyre-processing plant in Croydon, and icebergs of foam drifted surreally down the river in a reeking slick of soot and fire-water. (Fortunately no major harm seems to have been done, but it was a worrying moment for the Environment Agency’s publicists, who’d recently picked the slow news day after Bank Holiday Monday to name the Wandle as one of the 10 most improved rivers in the past 20 years!)

But a few days later, as I crossed the roads to my chosen stretch of the Wandle under turning leaves and a cloudless Indian-summer sky, tied a tiny palmered gnat to my tippet and crept upstream through shallow water as clear as glass, I knew beyond doubt that our dream was becoming reality. On different parts of the river, my pals had been catching trout all season long, and those rings on the surface, confident among the splashily eager dace and chublets, just looked trouty.


And in the end, I wasn’t even all that surprised when a chubby little salmonid calmly broke the surface to sip the fly (pictured). Slowly and surely, and not just in south London, urban rivers are on the rise.