London's Lost Trout River Reborn

James Owen
for National Geographic News
April 21, 2003

City schoolkids have added the last, vital ingredient to complete the Wandle's revival. Kingfishers, minnows and mayflies had already returned to a river that runs through a city of over nine million people. All that was needed were some trout.

Last month brown trout were released into the Wandle for first time in 100 years. The symbolic gesture was made by local classmates who reared the fish in special aquariums at school. After centuries of abuse and neglect, Londoners are learning to treasure this special river.

The Wandle flows through south London, meeting the River Thames at the heart of Europe's largest city. It was once the best trout river in Britain, prized by anglers for the size of its fish. Even the loss of an eye and an arm didn't stop Lord Nelson fishing here two centuries ago, before annihilating Napoleon's fleet at the battle of Trafalgar.

But the Wandle had other attractions. It's steep passage and swift flows were harnessed to power water mills producing everything from silk and snuff to copper and gunpowder. An 11-mile (18-kilometer) section once supported over 90 mills, making it one of the hardest-worked rivers in the world.

As industrial processes developed, so the pollution worsened. By the 20th century the river was all but dead.

This is how local angler Alan Suttee remembers it.

"In the late 1960s the Wandle was officially designated an open sewer," he said. "And in the 70s I remember it running red, pink, or blue, depending on what dye they were using in the local tanneries."

But there has been a remarkable turnaround in the Wandle's fortunes. This can be traced back to the privatization of Britain's water industry ten years ago. Since then Thames Water has ploughed billions of dollars into improving water quality.

Anglers now measure the Wandle's recovery by the size of the fish they catch.

Crawling with bugs

"We've been getting huge barbel, chub, perch, and rudd," said Suttee. "There's so much food in the river these days. If you pull out a handful of aquatic weed, it's crawling with shrimps and other bugs."

Even an Atlantic salmon was caught recently in the outflow of a sewage treatment plant.

Continued on Next Page >>


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