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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Fishing for Treasure along the Wandle!

As our Wandle Treasure Hunt project continues, more treasures from our volunteer-researchers are being fished out. With a variety of heritage themes to choose from, the treasures range from man-made buildings and architectural curiosities, both past and present, to more natural marvels such as wildlife. Rich in their variety, the range of treasures reflects the similarly rich heritage of the River Wandle.

A fine example of such a natural, living treasure is the kingfisher, among other birds, that can be found at Beddington Park, near Carew Manor. These small, distinctive, bright blue and orange birds reside by slow moving or still water.  Although there are approximately 90 species of kingfishers, all are characterised by having stout bodies with very small feet; short tails; short and rounded wings; and large heads. Their signature long, dagger-like bill helps them to tunnel holes into earth banks in order to build their nests.

But why should the kingfisher set up home along the River Wandle?... 

A key factor is for the survival of the kingfisher is water quality. The quality of water not only impacts what lives alongside a river, but also what lives in a river. As its name suggests, this regal bird specialises in hunting and eating fish, but it also feeds on a variety of items such as insects, aquatic insects, tadpoles, reptiles and even birds! On a daily basis, a kingfisher needs to eat its body weight in fish and insects. Indeed, a diet or feast fit for a king!

The River Wandle not only offers this varied menu, but also its water is clear enough for the birds to see their small-sized prey. This is particularly valuable considering that once a kingfisher has dived into the water, it is effectively hunting blind because its eyes are protected by a third eyelid. It therefore needs to have an accurate view of its prey from above the surface of the water so as not to miss its target.

The Wandle also offers nesting opportunities for kingfishers to breed. However, this was not always the case. 

Between 1900 and 1935, the London Natural History Society reported kingfishers breeding in the area. Owing to increased pollution levels, no breeding was detected between 1936 and 1971. From the 1980s, although kingfishers were seen in the winter months, they weren’t breeding. Aside from pollution, this partly resulted because the River lacked soft vertical banks into which kingfishers can dig a tunnel leading to a nesting chamber. However, this changed following the storm of 1987 after which the exposed roots plates of fallen tress provided more nesting opportunities.

In more recent years, efforts have been made to clean up waterways in Britain and to create new, man-made places for birds to live. An example of such a man-made nest site is the Spencer Road Wetlands near Hackbridge, which supports pairs of breeding kingfishers.

However, despite such efforts, the kingfisher is listed as ‘amber’ under the RSPCB’s conservation importance categories because of their unfavourable conservation status across Europe more widely. Given that kingfishers are at conservation risk, the fact that they breed and live along the Wandle is very special, and something to be truly treasured.

The Kingfisher in History

During the Victorian era, a popular pastime was collecting kingfisher eggs. With their eye-catching, electric blue plumage, kingfishers often fell victim to their own striking beauty: their feathers were used to produce fishing flies, to adorn the hats and dresses of women in society, and whole birds were stuffed by taxidermists who preserved birds for those keen to decorate their country homes in such a fashion. Yet, not all were in favour of the trends in the treatment of kingfishers: a group of wealthy ladies in Manchester formed a society to take a stand against the plumage trade, protesting against the unnecessary slaughter of such beautiful creatures. By 1889, it had gained enough support and was granted its Royal Charter in 1904 becoming known as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Today, British society continues to be fond of birds, though present-day collectors gather sightings and photographs rather than plumage and stuffed specimens.

According to one of our volunteer-researchers, ‘hearing the high-pitched call and seeing the iridescent blue flash of a kingfisher is always a thrill when walking by the Wandle and never to be expected’.

The Wandle not only holds a rich historical heritage with regard to architecture and significant historical figures; it also offers an escape from the urban wilderness of the city, and an opportunity to get in touch with nature and wildlife right on your doorstep. So why not wander down to the Wandle for yourself – it just might be the perfect way to experience a halcyon day!

* The Wandle Treasure Hunt is a volunteer-led local heritage project where we identify lost treasures along the course of the River Wandle, which spans four London boroughs (Wandsworth, Merton, Sutton and Croydon). The final selection will then be drawn by artist StephanieTheobald and uploaded to a website with an interactive map.

The project is delivered in collaboration with Living Wandle Landscape Partnership Scheme as part of the Industrial Heritage Recording Project  



Friday, 6 March 2015

Visits to Treasures Along the Wandle

As part of our Wandle Treasure Hunt Project, we recently visited a couple of treasures to help inspire and inform our participating volunteer-researchers.    

Our first visit was to the Wandle Industrial Museum – a small, but uniquely fabulous museum detailing the history and heritage along the River. We were treated to a talk and short film screening by the Museum’s friendly staff, a team of  highly dedicated volunteers with extensive knowledge and first-hand experience of the local heritage. 

After learning about the various 90+ mills that were located along the River; the Surrey Iron Railway; the manufacturing of peppermint oil, herb and snuff; and the printing workshops of Liberty’s and William Morris’ Company,  the group had the opportunity to try some block printing in true Morris style! A fun experience, though far less tiresome than it would have been back in the 1800s!  

Our second visit took us to Merton Priory Chapter House – a true treasure buried under the A24 Merantun Way, between the Merton Abbey Mills market and a Sainsbury's/M&S hypermarket.

Entered through a door located in a non-descript underpass, there  is a Alice in Wonderland feel to stepping into the cavernous chamber which houses the foundations of the Chapter House of an Augustinian priory, founded in 1117 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538.

We were fortunate enough to be treated to an inspirational and highly informative guided tour by John Hawks, the vice chair of Merton Priory Trust (MPT). John shared stories about the history of the Priory, including its usage as a royal staging post on journeys to and from London; its role as a venue for royal sports between 1346-49; and as the venue for the Coronation of Henry VI in 1437.


During 17th Century, Merton Priory became commonly known as ‘Merton Abbey’, despite not having abbey status; and from the 1660s, the site of the Priory developed into a textile manufacturing centre, which became the main focus of activity across subsequent decades.

By the 18th Century, the main industry at ‘Merton Abbey’ was calico printing and the area (together with Mitcham) became a major centre for textile printing and dyeing in England. Several printing works, most notably Arthur Liberty: Liberty & Co. and William Morris: Morris & Co, were established on and nearby the site, and production continued until 1940.

Over the years, archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence on medieval architecture and interiors, medical practices, diet and food.  

Fragments of the Priory remain above ground, including a part of the medieval precinct wall, but the foundations of the Chapter House are preserved underground.

Today, at the discretion of the MPT, drama groups can gain special access to the site for performances and workshops; educational opportunities (such as our visit) can be arranged, and children’s activities take place. The site is also open for specific events such as Open House, Archaeology Week and the Wandle Valley Festival.

John also talked about the conservation plans (supported by Heritage Lottery Funding) to open up the south-east side of the Priory, and which are currently waiting planning permission. He mentioned similar developments to increase access (and awareness) to the public through refurbishment, digitalisation and a curatorial programme. 

And so, another chapter in the history of Chapter House begins... 

*The Wandle Treasure Hunt is a volunteer-led local heritage project where we identify lost treasures along the course of the River Wandle, which spans four London boroughs (Wandsworth, Merton, Sutton and Croydon). The final selection will then be drawn by artist Stephanie Theobald and uploaded to a website with an interactive map. 

The project is delivered in collaboration with Living Wandle Landscape Partnership Scheme as part of the Industrial Heritage Recording Project.