A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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14 - Past wonders along the Wandle: trout, squabs, snuff and a hammer-beam hall

I need to backtrack along The Brandries slightly to get to Guy Road which brings me to the north bank of a small river. After running in two narrow channels upstream it joins together again here by a mini weir. This is the Wandle, a water course rising in a series of springs along the foot of the North Downs, and which, at this point, is still very much in its upper reaches. Although it is running in a westerly direction when it crosses the 300 easting (very near to where Hilliers Lane becomes Beddington Lane) most of its nine mile length runs northward towards the Thames at Wandsworth. In past times, it was called the Ledebourne and Lovebourn, names which came from the Middle Saxon name, Hildaburne, meaning either a loud or sloping stream. The present name, Wandle, appears to have come into use in the 16th century. In the past, poets have used the Latinised form - Vandalis.

The Wandle has always been too small for navigation but served well for mills and to produce power for working metals, leather and even gunpowder. It also ran through parks, gardens and estates, and was particularly famous for its crystal-clear water and the quality of the trout. By the mid-19th century, though, pollution had become a problem, as this salutary tale (drawn from the London Borough of Sutton website) shows. At the time, the Croydon Board of Health was discharging all of Croydon's untreated sewage into the river. The fish died, and foul mud accumulated. Alfred Smee, who owned a garden at The Grange just above Wallington Bridge, sued the Croydon Board and won. However, the Board is said to have 'resisted the law till a committal was signed to commit the members of the Board to prison' for contempt of court. This led to the construction of Beddington Sewage Farm on an area of flat land that had formerly been the northern part of a deer park belonging to the Carew family.

This was not the end of the Wandle's problems. With London industry and commerce expanding rapidly into north Surrey at the turn of the century and through the 1920-30s, long sections of the river became lined with buildings. The banks were often mistreated, built up with concrete for example, and the river itself was polluted and used as a rubbish dump. Moreover, with urbanisation, increasing volumes of water were pumped from the ground to supply homes and factories thereby reducing the natural seepage into the river. Again it was improved sewage works - with expanded facilities at Beddington - that helped. More recently, though, the public and consequently politicians have paid more attention to the environment generally and to the Wandle specifically: an organisation called The Wandle Group was formed in 1973 to coordinate the activities of various local societies interested in the river; the four Wandle-side local authorities are working on a riverside footpath; and voluntary conservation groups, such as the London Wildlife Trust, are lobbying for improvements. It is not possible to recreate the rural river that existed in the past, Sutton says, but the river is steadily becoming again an attractive amenity, and a refuge for wildlife in the urban landscape. Indeed, a few trout, dace, perch and roach have been found in the river, although this is downstream from the Beddington Lane area where stickleback still have the run of the shallow waters.

Not very far along the Wandle track to the west, across grassy banks and past an old cedar tree and some ugly modern housing, is Carew Manor, now the home of a school with its Grade I listed Great Hall, a picturesque dovecote, and St Mary's Church which stands elegantly between Carew Manor and Beddington Park.

The exterior of Carew Manor dates to the 1860s when it was transformed from a manor house to an orphanage, but the building still contains the 15th century Great Hall, with its unusual roof, constructed of arch-braces and hammer beams. It was built by Richard Carew, whose son Nicholas was a star performer in tournaments and a favourite of Henry VIII. The unusual turret-topped dovecote was built in the early part of the 18th century. It originally contained over 1,000 nesting boxes built into the inner face of the wall, giving it a complex honeycomb-like structure. Squabs (young pigeons) were provided for the Carew Manor table, and probably for sale in London markets also. There is now a Roman coffin on the ground floor (found in the 1930s during the digging of a pipe trench nearby) which is made of non-local limestone and dates from the 3rd or 4th century.

It is possible that the church at Beddington (St Mary's), first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, was founded by either Azor the Saxon lord who owned Beddington before 1066, or Robert de Watteville who gained the manor after the Norman conquest. The Roman coffin in the dovecote and another one found nearby, however, may indicate that this site was regarded as sacred long before the Saxon-built church. There are a few fragments of Norman stonework, but, otherwise, the font is the oldest existing part of the church, and this dates from the late 12th or early 13th century. The window at the east end of the inner north aisle is a decorated Gothic style and probably dates to the first half of the fourteenth century. Among a number of interesting features, the church boasts a magnificent organ screen (by William Morris & Co) and the Carew Chapel on the south side of the chancel which contains the tombs of Sir Richard Carew and his grandson, Sir Francis Carew. The latter was an important Elizabethan gardener who, reputedly, planted the first orange trees in England. He also received two visits from Queen Elizabeth I, in 1599 and 1600. Consequently, there's a road today called Queen Elizabeth's Walk, which runs south of the Croydon Road (between Sandhills and Queenswood Avenue), thus indicating the extent of the Carew estate at the time. Although the Walk no longer extends to the church, the survival of the existing section is thought to be due to its inclusion in the large Queenswood estate after the sale of the Carew lands in 1859.

Having found such rich history to the west, I am tempted to divert my walk two hundred yards, along the Wandle, to the east of Beddington Lane towards an old mill. Here can be found three cute, joined and very small bungalow cottages, timber-framed and white painted, with tiny porches. These were houses built in the 1880s for mill workers. Each one has an itsy-bitsy garden, sloping down to the Wandle. From the one nearest the mill, there is a sweet wooden bridge over the water. One of the cottages, with two bedrooms, is currently for sale at a price of over £200,000 - which is a lot of money to pay for cute and not much room! And a few yards beyond the cottages stands the old Beddington Mill building, currently in the hands of Precision Clutch Components. Constructed in 1891-2 by Wallis & Co to serve as a flour mill and bakery, it stands four stories tall, built of red brick with iron casement windows still in tact, and a decorated gable.

Two Mills at Beddington were mentioned in the Domesday Book, and one of them may have been on this site. In the 16th century, though, it is certain that there was a mill here, perhaps owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. By the early 17th century, a lease document shows the mill belonged to the Carew family, and was used to make flour. For much of the 19th century, until it burnt down, it was used to grind tobacco into snuff. (This was not the only mill on the Wandle used for snuff, further downstream, the 'Snuff Mill Environmental Centre' can be found in Morden Hall Park.) A few yards further upstream of the mill, where the road called Richmond Green now is, and opposite what was once called Brandy Bottle Hill, watercress beds were still being managed into the 1930s.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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