The 20th century was not particularly kind to Morden in South London, with a sprawl of housing following the opening of the Underground station interspersed with industrial sheds, a town centre that is focused on the roads cutting through its heart – albeit supporting it as a major bus interchange – and the electrical pylons of Beddington away in the distance. Hidden here, however, along the route of the River Wandle are a string of natural areas for local people to enjoy and relax in and for natural wildlife to prosper. They seem to have come together into a string of pearls more by serendipity rather than conscious planning and today the Wandle Valley Regional Park joins these various pearls together. .
You feel sorry for the River Wandle. A tributary of the River Thames running from Croydon to Wandsworth, it once had importance as a major resource for mills along its length, but over the years as these declined, parts of the river were enclosed in uninspiring channels or culverted, for example underneath the Southside Shopping Centre in Wandsworth. It is good to see progressive improvements in Wandsworth as part of the redevelopment of the town centre.
In Morden, however, we can celebrate the river from the estate of Morden Hall Park to the nature reserves of Ravensbury Park and Watermeads Natural Reserve, the latter two perhaps not as well known as Morden Hall Park. I myself only discovered them today when looking for somewhere new to explore for my walking.
Ravensbury Park is part of the estate of the former Ravensbury Manor which dated back to the 13th century. Mills were built along the river from the 17th century onwards and in the 18th century a calico printworks was established, which employed 280 people here and in Wandsworth. The lake is relatively new and links with the nearby Watermeads nature reserve, at this time of year covered with aquatic vegetation, which suggests you might be able to walk on it – but beware!! With good sense, the local authorities bought the land that forms the current park in 1930 when the estate was broken up as a public open space for the new and developing community.
Some of the trees date back 200 years and include unusual species such as ginko and swamp cypress planted by different generations of owners of the estate.
At the end of the park, across a road, is the Watermeads Nature Reserve which was saved from potential destruction earlier in the century at the instigation of The National Trust founder Octavia Hill and her sister Miranda and it was protected as a wildlife reserve but not accessible to the public until 2015 after the construction of new bridges and paths to allow public access and sluices to improve the wetlands habitat for wildlife.
Historically a trout stream, the meadows at Watermeads would have provided winter feed and summer pasture for grazing cattle while, in the 19th century, a number of mills were constructed along its length, some of which still exist at its edges.
The Wandle Valley Regional Park is a partnership that has been created with the aim of both enhancing the natural and physical environment around the River Wandle, including wildlife areas and historic buildings, and improving the social circumstances and employment for people in the area, with a recognition that the two can go hand in hand. The website lists out current projects and also and provides a useful map for those wishing to explore further.
This is a long term project, but one that recent events have highlighted is essential to the wellbeing of the local community.