Past the fancy dress shop, over the tram lines, past the pale terraced houses, through the subway and down the alleyway, we caught our first glimpse of the river. The Wandle arrived, alive. Once just a spring, and now richer. The liberal kingdom of Waddon Ponds. Coots lazed on it, willows wept into it, and on the horizon the towers of Croydon’s old power station, branded in Ikea yellow and blue, reminded it of the industrial character it used to be.
It flowed on, escaped us. We lost trace of its tail as it darted ahead and made for its dark, concrete channel, where it could run discreet under the pavements, underneath carpeted living rooms where Saturday sport played out on flat screens. Under the kitchens where washing machines churned whites clean, to the gardens where brothers kicked footballs into miniature goals, and mothers knelt at borders attacking soil with trowels.
Blind, we chased it. Past the car park, metal works and removal companies of the trading estate, and a lady with a tartan trolley who sent us towards our own tunnel. Along a corridor of oaks, we caught sight of the water as it issued back into the light, visible like scattered ponds through the spaces between the nettles that lined the banks. Then the kingfisher, which shot from the undergrowth like an arrow; a brief electric blue flash, and gone. Onwards, we rode with it, as the river skirted the ghost of a medieval mill. Bicycle wheels turning to its rhythm, keeping pace as the Wandle became wider, faster.
No more need for the map in my pocket.
You said you liked this bit the best. The park, on the other side of the terracotta bridge. An expanse. Beddington Park where the Wandle lay low to exhale. Where on warmer days than ours, it let children swing into it on ropes tied to the boughs of stately sycamores, and where it let dogs plough it into a million broken pieces. Where on that day, it paused just long enough for a bride and groom to pose with it, for a picture on a wall that wouldn’t show the river take their wide smiles captive, and carry them somewhere else.
Wilderness Island. Where we heaved our bikes over the gates and searched the crazed vegetation for traces of it, making paths with no footprints. Nobody knew anything of the water; everything being so concerned with itself. The young horse chestnuts focused on their race for the light, the elderly ones wondering how long they had, and the orange-tip butterfly that apologetically hurried by, late for only it knew what.
By the time we reached the water’s edge, whatever we’d been chasing had been and gone. The dragonflies, blue like the kingfisher, hovered over what had been shed: the translucent skin of the river spirit.
On the scent of its tail, on the scent of our instincts, we chased it, past playgrounds where parents talked, as children made the roundabouts go faster. Around the concrete edges of the park, and past the man whose dog we had not seen. Led, down the skinny track where the river waited. Watermeads Nature Reserve, where the Wandle looked at ease again. Where the anglers sat in the long grass with the pink geraniums, and next to the bait they kept in brightly coloured boxes. Where it flirted with the wild, and the wild flirted back.
By then, it was showing us all of its cards. At Ravensbury Park, where we stood on the bridge that strained across its generous body. Where we stared at the giant carp with the white-haired woman, who talked about her circus goldfish. As our words dropped into the water, the water gathered pace, on and on to where it once turned wheels for the mills, and where couples with walking sticks now sip cream teas facing the car park.
We were told not to expect much from now on. But as we headed further into the city, the water became ours. Wheels kept pace as it choked its way past the retail park and under the high street. On it pushed, exhausted, melancholy; not caring what it looked like now.
We were faster than it, speeded ahead while the warehouses on the banks held its arms so we could take a good look. It did not kick, but lay flatter, darker. Concealing its final truth.
We thought that was it. Where the pub that took its name from the river chalked up offers on blackboards, as it limbered up for its Saturday crowd. We assumed it was an epitaph, we assumed completion.
But sensing something, you pushed us on. From behind the rows of neatened terraces, we heard the sound; the gushing, the pushing, of the Wandle reborn. And there on the bridge, by the factory, was the water, stealing its way free. We lent our bikes against the railings and watched, as the Thames pulled the river towards it.
You said we had lost something. I felt it too. There, where the waters met, we stood dumb. As the Wandle ran away with the Thames, and carrying all that it had been.
words © Lucy Scott | illustration © Tina Smith
This is an extract from Lost in London: adventures in the city’s wild outdoors, a collection of creative non-fiction and art celebrating the city’s landscape. Published by Anova and available at all good bookshops.