The Thames: A Beginners Guide
“You can learn more about the human condition in a voyage along the Thames than on any long journey over the oceans of the world” – Peter Ackroyd¹
Whether you’re a Londoner by birth or by inclination (or even not at all), there is no denying that there is something special about the River Thames; something powerful that describes and defines this city (and beyond) in a way that nothing else can.
I was born in a west London suburb not far from the river, and grew into adulthood at various locations along the winding path of the Thames; all of which probably goes a long way towards explaining my continuing fascination with it.
The Thames inspires. Like so many before me, I’m creatively inspired by its sheer size and power and beauty – and by its profoundly ancient presence, a presence that almost borders on a sentience. It comes as no surprise, then, to hear that there have been countless myths, legends and ghost stories associated with the Thames since time immemorial. The river is a place of mystery and natural power.
Like all great rivers, the Thames lives and breathes. It is alive and it gives life – there is, in fact, evidence of settlements beside the river dating back to the prehistoric era. The waters of the Thames provided our ancient ancestors with food, hydration, transport and the ability to successfully irrigate crops, making a site beside the river a logical and sensible place to settle – and these settlements existed long before London was even a glint in the Roman Army’s collective eye.
The map above (click for a larger version) shows what is probably the most famous view of the Thames, a version of which will be familiar to many of you from the opening sequence of what is, in my considered opinion, the world’s most depressing television soap opera, Eastenders. But there is so much more to the Thames than that endlessly repeated overhead CGI view of its waters looping around the Isle of Dogs flickering across your TV screen of an evening.
For a start, the Thames is the longest river in England (although not in Britain; that’s actually the Severn, which meanders through both England and Wales), and is navigable for 191 miles of its 215 mile length – although 215 miles is nothing really; not when compared to other equally famous rivers such as the Amazon (c.4,000 miles) or the Nile (c.4,132 miles), that is.
Every river has a basin, the ground from which rain and other natural sources of moisture drain into it. The Thames basin is pretty huge, having an area of more than 5000 square miles. The amount of water passing through the river itself is massive too. At Teddington, the point where the tidal and non-tidal stretches of the Thames finally meet, the average flow of water per day alone is (at least) a mind-boggling 1,145 million gallons (5,205 million litres).
In the context of this country’s physical size, the Thames is a big river. Its width from bank to bank varies from a couple of feet to over five miles in different places along its course, and it is up to 30 feet (9 metres) deep in places. As it makes its slow, stately journey from source to sea, the river falls at least 600 feet (183 metres), twisting and turning in often unexpected directions but always following gravity…
The sheer physical power and presence of the river is also evident in its tides and currents. In some places, the currents move at anything up to two and half miles an hour, and, in full spate, the tide can rush in and out at up to eight miles an hour – which is a fair bit faster than human walking pace, and can be distinctly dangerous (I certainly wouldn’t recommend going for a dip in the Thames!).
And the tides are rising. During the Roman period, the difference between the high and low tides on the Thames was just over 3 feet (0.9 metres). Today, that difference can be anything up to 24 feet (7.3 metres). Now, I don’t want to panic you if you live in London, but this dramatic change is mainly due to the fact that south east England is slowly sinking, to the tune of round about a foot per century as world sea levels rise.
The tide can also reveal fascinating evidence of how our ancient ancestors lived alongside and utilised the river – indeed, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of bridges, jetties and possible religious or ritual sites on its banks and in the sticky mud of the Thames at low tide. Some of the bridges, for example, have been dated to the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods, making them possibly the oldest structures as yet uncovered with a distinct and definite connection to the river.
Of the 134 bridges currently spanning the Thames, the oldest still in existence appears to be the New Bridge, built during the mid-13th century at the spot where the river encounters one of its many tributaries (in this case, the Windrush) in the depths of Oxfordshire. Conversely, the most recently-built bridge across the river is the infamous ‘wobbly’ Millennium Bridge, which opened with much fanfare in 2002 to connect the City of London with Bankside.
But the most famous of all the Thames bridges is much older than the mid-13th century. London Bridge has a remarkable history that could (and probably will, at some point) merit a post all by itself. An early arched stone bridge was built on the site in around 1209, but there had actually been a well-used bridge there since the Roman conquest and probably even before.
London Bridge was the gateway into and out of the City and a distinctive London landmark in itself, eventually resembling nothing less than an entire street suspended over the river, crammed with overhanging shops, houses and chapels. All of this sounds attractive enough, but the visitor would also be confronted with the decapitated heads of rebels and traitors (including William Wallace and, later, the Gunpowder Plotters), displayed on the bridge as a warning to any potential troublemakers!
The bridge also had a more cheery role to play in the lives of some Londoners, being partly responsible for the phenomenon of frost fairs; entertainments once held on the frozen Thames which were only possible because the narrow arches of the old London Bridge allowed ice to build up between them, meaning the river would further slow and freeze, having effectively been dammed by the bridge. However, all this fun and games on the ice meant that many who earned their livelihood on the river ran the risk of becoming destitute as a result of the frozen conditions.
As the late historian John Morris put it: “London began with a bridge”², a simple statement of fact which reiterates the centrality of the river to the city’s very existence, and to the lives of those who lived and worked on, in or by it. But, although much of this post has looked at the river’s connections to London, it must also be acknowledged and recognised that the power of the Thames was, and remains, crucial to the countless other settlements that have developed over many centuries along its winding path. As it moves through numerous English counties, the Thames defines and sustains both the landscape and the people who live in such close proximity to its waters.
¹ Peter Ackroyd – ‘Thames: Sacred River’ (London; Vintage Books, 2008), p.11
² John Morris – ‘Londinium: London in the Roman Empire’ (London; Phoenix Press, 2005), p.75
(All statistics taken from Ackroyd unless otherwise stated)