July 6th, 2002
Stand on the A238 at Collier's Wood, gateway to the glamorous London suburb of Tooting. Look around for what may well qualify as the world's ugliest supermarket (it won't take you long to find it – not even the area's legendary kebab shops extend far enough to conceal it). And as the lorries roar by, try and imagine a river under your feet.
It's down there somewhere, I promise you, but even if you were to catch a glimpse of it ducking and weaving between its concrete banks, you would barely give it a second glance; it's a standard-edition urban trickle, complete with obligatory tyres and hamburger wrappers and broken bottles, hardly worth the time it takes to discover that its grimly decorated bottom is contaminated by everything but fish. Now consider that not much further than a good double-haul from here, Frederic Halford caught his first brown trout on a fly, setting the scene for one of angling's great lives and fuelling the first flames of some of its bitterest arguments and misunderstandings. The river Wandle has a lot to answer for.
Contemplate this as you drive a mile or two north to Wandsworth, where the Wandle empties itself into the great, grey, greasy Thames. Follow it west, upstream to the London Apprentice pub at Isleworth; buy yourself a pint, sit outside by the river and watch; watch as your correspondent arrives armed with a 4-weight and a small box of tiny black flies, fiercely intent on catching some of the river's astonishingly vigorous dace population. If you'd done this one evening last week, you'd have seen me make a reasonable go of this. It's not exactly difficult fishing – flick your tiny fly out into the slack water that forms between the pub and the island in the stream, wait as it lazily drifts around before being suddenly snatched by one of the occasionally dimpling dace, miss the strike four times in five. These fish are fast – not exactly likely to test your tackle to its limits, but more than a match for my reflexes most of the time.
So it was a surprise when after 30 minutes or so of this, I actually hooked something. It was even more of a surprise when it streaked away downstream, doing a reasonable impression of a proper fish. And when it finally came to hand, I got the biggest surprise of all. A brown trout, god help me, perhaps nine inches long, caught on what is probably Halford's most well-known contribution to flyfishing – a size 22 black gnat. Now, for those of you who aren't acquainted with the Thames in its London incarnation, let me tell you just what a surprise this is. This stretch of river is wide, sludgy, sluggish, possessed of that charming effluent smell that characterises urban waterways the world over. Eels now thrive here as salmon once did before the Industrial Revolution, but a salmonid now is a rarity indeed.
This one was definitely one of those 'special' fish – you know, the ones that writers like me can't help but bang on about after that miracle cast, or that otherwise blank day, or caught from a favourite pool or on your first home-tied fly or... well, you get the idea. But I have never been one to shy away from a carefully crafted cliché, and I can tell you that this really was a special fish. Sure, I've seen healthier brownies – this one's spots were dull and its fins ragged, a scarred and battle-weary specimen if ever I saw one. But it had the look of fish that had been in the river a long time, perhaps all its life; and as I slipped it back into the water, I had one of those misty-eyed moments that, if you'll permit me one last cliché, made me wonder what our rivers were like when it was all trees round here.
Back on the Wandle, strange and wonderful things are happening. After a century of abuse and scorn, this river once famed as among the most beautiful and prolific trout streams in these isles is receiving an injection of life. The estimable Wild Trout Trust is attempting to restock it with trout, an exercise that has received a lot of deserved publicity, and while it will never be able to remove the concrete banking or the storm drains or even the all of the shopping trolleys, it may at least remove some of the stigma that blights so many of our rivers. It may never regain the beauty and serenity that left poets and artists breathless two centuries ago, but it should bring a huge grin to the face of anyone who has ever gazed into the water at Carshalton or Mitcham or Tooting and wondered what this apparently unexceptional stream once looked like. I never thought I'd see an evening rise on the Thames, let alone the Wandle; but even there, where the prospect of a hatch seems about as likely as our hapless tennis players ever winning a championship, good old Ma Nature is as unstoppable as ever.
And that's it, really. Sometimes, these columns don't really need a point.