The Wandle is a surprisingly healthy urban river, rising in Croydon and flowing through Sutton, Merton and Wandsworth before joining the Thames. It can be explored by kayak or canoe – but low bridges and pipes, weirs and a 500m section of subterranean paddling mean it’s definitely not for the inexperienced.
Last time we tried to kayak the Wandle there was simply too much water in the river, and our progress was halted by an impassable section of low pipes and fast water – it was impossible to kayak through the obstacle, and impossible to portage around. That time the river gauge at Wandle Park Main Channel showed approximately 0.72m.
This time, in late summer 2017, we kayaked the river with the Wandle Park Main Channel gauge showing 0.40m. There was enough water to paddle, but it was a bit shallow at the start. A drop more water would have been good.
We got on at Merton Abbey Mills, and after an initial scrape soon found enough water to keep us moving. We passed half-a-dozen fishermen, saying hi and often chatting as we paddled past. Almost all were friendly, and only one seemed resentful of our appearance on the river. There was thankfully none of the aggression that kayakers sometimes face on other rivers.
Play waves, pipes and jungle mazes
At Connolly’s Mill the river course drops below an old water mill, forming an entertaining, walled-in play wave where a few of us enjoyed a surf. The river then threads its way past the Wandle Meadow Nature Park. Here, windblown trees block the river in several places, probably left as they have fallen to create a more natural environment that will benefit wildlife – and to puzzle kayakers with an apparently impenetrable maze of trunks and branches.
The river then drops either side of a sheer-walled concrete island, with most of the flow going right. This is the section that stopped us last time, as the right hand channel barrelled into a low pipe. At this lower water level, we could kayak right up to the pipe, but there was no way to paddle under it, so various gymnastics were necessary to scramble over it. The water was about waist deep at this point (update below).
The river continues, at times walled in by concrete, and at others banked by trees and a riverside path. We saw heron and kingfisher, and the occasional splash of jumping fish. The river is split by a low, concrete wall that neatly meanders down the centre of the river, creating two channels. Both are good to go, with the right channel being less obstructed by overhanging vegetation.
At the end of this section the right hand channel led to a large, dry tunnel, but we could join the other channel and follow the river as it curled left and then right.
And then the river disappears. We had expected one tunnel entrance, but there are two – take your pick and see what happens. There is plenty of head room, so even at higher flows these tunnels should be okay, although there may be potential for blockages to form at the tunnel exit. Take torches, but leave them off if you want to enjoy the full spooky experience!
From the tunnel exit to the Thames is a relatively short paddle, but there can be a significant drop in height, depending on the state of the tide. It’s worth inspecting this section first, if you can. With lots of new building around here, parking may well be an issue, but there is good foot/cycle access.
We’d planned to finish at high tide, and to access the last stretch of the Wandle we had to boof a tight, recirculating drop below a foot bridge. An alternative would have been to continue along the right-hand channel, negotiate another low pipe, and then climb out via a ladder on river right, before returning to the river.
Having reached the Thames, we paddled across the now ebbing river to the slipway at Carnwath Road on the north bank, where our shuttle cars waited (free street parking on Sundays). The trip took a couple of unhurried hours, and we rounded it off with a return to Merton Abbey Mills for drinks, toasties and chips.
Note: Low pipes, fast flows, weirs and tidal sections can present significant problems for the urban paddler. These notes are only intended as a rough guide for experienced paddlers.
Update May 2019: The pipe that obstructs progress now has anti-climb spikes over much of its length. The river may be navigable via the much shallower left hand channel (this pipe is in the right hand channel). However you proceed, exercise caution.