About The Thames

www.riverthames.co.ukThe River Thames Guide homepage

About The Thames

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

Upper River

The River Thames has something for everyone. If you enjoy peace and natural beauty, then the gentle and remote stretches of the Upper Thames from its source to Lechlade will suit you. From Lechlade to Eynsford the river is full of such unexpected sights and delights, like kingfishers and otters, or families of ducks having their first swimming lesson across the river, or the sight of cows standing in the river water, their tails gently swishing away. . This lovely area of England is bounded by the Cotswolds.

 
The Thames at New Bridge - photo courtesy Jeannette Briggs

At Oxford the river seems to spring into a faster pace. Here you can take a cruise, hire a punt or motor launch, or just sit at one of the many riverside pubs and watch the scullers from the world-famous University Rowing Clubs in training.

Middle River

From Oxford downstream the Thames meanders its way through beautiful countryside reaches and historic settlements, with an enormous and almost inexhaustible variety of places to visit. One of them - Marlow - is a gem of Georgian architecture, for instance.


The Radcliffe Camera Oxford - built to designs by James Gibb in 1737

For the energetic walker there is the Thames Path which stretches from the source at Thames Head down to the Thames Barrier at Woolwich. Alternatively, you can have the magical experience of actually being on the river itself. You will be surprised as I was at how different your experience of the river will be when you are on board a boat, rather than standing on the bank!
 
A sunny day on the River Thames - Photo courtesy Jeannette Briggs

A winter's day on the Thames at Marlow - Photo by John Olney

Passenger boats can be found in many towns up and down this stretch of the river, including Oxford , Abingdon, Reading , Henley , Maidenhead , Windsor , Hampton Court and Kingston.


Photo Maidenhead courtesy David Auckland

Historic sites of compelling interest abound, from tiny hamlets such as Mapledurham with its working watermill to the great castles and royal palaces of Windsor and Hampton Court.


Hampton Court

Lower River and London

Downstream of Teddington (a derivative of Tide-end-town) the River Thames changes its rhythm. Though still 60 miles from Southend and the North Sea the Thames becomes tidal. Twice a day the river flows back up towards its source, as the sea pushes its way up the estuary. With the falling tide the foreshore is revealed – a somewhat neglected part of the river, but whose mud and shingle conceal fascinating clues to the great city of London’s rich past. The river changes its character many times as it flows towards the Nation’s capital. Suburban gardens and green open spaces of stately parks rub shoulders with Georgian mansions, often set alongside new luxurious riverside homes built on former industrial sites. Passenger boats coming upriver from Westminster stop at Richmond, Kew, Chiswick, and Putney en route for Kingston and Hampton Court In Central London you will find a wide choice of passenger boats plying the piers between Westminster and the Thames Barrier. If you prefer to explore on your own, you can choose buses or the underground.


Westminster Bridge and The London Eye photo Southbank Consultancy

In Central London every stretch of the river has a tale to tell of former days. Palaces, docks, cathedrals and churches, great bridges, theatres and museums all jostle for attention. Here one can spend many happy days exploring the city’s rich past, both on foot or by boat, or shopping in the luxurious areas of the West End and the galleria which abound by the Thames. Samuel Boswell recorded that Dr Johnson, the author of the first Dictionary of the English Language, once said that “When one is tired of London one is tired of life itself, for there is in London everything that life affords.”


St Pauls Cathedral - Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece - visit www.st.pauls.co.uk

This section of the Thames contains such iconic images as Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge, to name but a few of the world-famous landmarks sited by the river.


The Tower of London is the next famous building that you see from the river. It has over 1000 years of history and much bloodshed and misery in its long life. However, certain inhabitants of The Tower enjoy their life and are cared for very carefully. They are the huge black Ravens - they are kept in the Tower because an old legend says that if the ravens ever leave the Tower the Tower and the Kingdom will fall. Needless to say they are very well loked after, and they are very popular with the millions of sightseeers who view them daily. A Yeoman Warder (called the Ravenmaster) told me once that the ravens also have one or two flight feathers removed so as to discourage them from trying to leave....



Once past Tower Bridge the river widens at it sweeps inexorably down to Deptford and Greenwich, towns rich in Naval tradition and maritime history. The working wharves here are nearly an extinct species.


The twin towers of Greenwich Naval College - photo Stephen Worsfold

Further downstream from Greenwich you pass the Millennium Dome - now the O2 Dome - on the Greenwich peninsular , and on to the Thames Barrier whose glittering stainless steel casings (which are to my mind reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House) form a fitting gateway to the sea.

  
Thames Barrier stainless steel caissons - photo by SW


Thames Barrier and park -photo David Auckland

Looking to the future in 7 years’ time the Olympic venues will be mainly located in the areas to the north of the river at this point, and yet another chapter in the Thames’ rich history will be written.

"The Thames is Liquid History"

Many of the key players in the history of England have lived on or around the River Thames. In 1929 the MP John Burns once famously described the river as “liquid history” – the actual quote was “The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history”. The following summary can only give a hint of the wealth of history that is out there for the curious visitor to explore.

Back to the Ice Age

The story of the Thames goes back to over 30 million years ago when the river was once a tributary of the River Rhine, because Britain was not an island. During the Great Ice Age 10,000 years ago, the Thames changed its course and pushed its way through the Chiltern Hills at the place now known as the Goring Gap. The Thames was then 10 times its present size, a high-energy fast flowing river, fuelled by the melting ice sheets. However, this rapid progress slowed down, and by 3,000 years ago the river had settled down into its familiar meandering pattern that – with a few exceptions – we know today.


The Thames near Runnymead - photo courtesy The National Trust and used by kind permission


First Settlers and Invaders

Archaeological finds now suggest that the Thames valley was probably first inhabited 400,000 years ago. (Visit National Ice Age Network Team website http://www.iceage.bham.ac/
Signs of permanent settlements dating back to Neolithic times have been found at Runnymede and Staines. Visit the Spelthorne Museum at Staines to see some recent finds. Farming and fishing were the main occupations. In the Bronze Age men in boats started to trade with Continental ports and the Thames valley became a leading trading area. Later the Romans came to the site of what is now London, and they consolidated the Thames as an international port by constructing wharves mills and, of course, London Bridge, the first man-made crossing of the river. The story of why they selected the site we now see as the place for the bridge is an interesting one. It was where there was the first easy crossing of the river after they sailed upstream from the estuary. The Romans discovered that by using the rising tide their boats could be swept over 50 miles inland up the Thames from the North Sea, with no wind or muscle power needed. Later invaders also made use of this free energy source.

Over the next 1000 years the Thames’ long tradition of farming, fishing, milling and trade with other nations began and has continued right up to the present day. Most of the Thames’ riverside settlements trace their origins back to these very early roots. People from Northern Europe invaded the Thames valley and established many settlements, usually distinguished by the suffix - “ing”. Towns such as Reading owe their origins to these early settlers, who built many water mills and created disputes between those people who wanted to navigate up and down the Thames, and those who wanted to dam the river to build mill streams and fish traps. People fought in dry weather when millers were understandably reluctant to release their precious store of dammed water in order to float off boats below the mills. Navigation remained difficult until the building of pound locks in the 17th and 18th centuries. Conflict over water use and abstraction of water from the Thames for industrial and domestic use and for irrigation continues today.

As the Thames grew in importance successive settlers built castles and forts along the river in order to protect the valley and their possessions against jealous invaders. The Roman town of Dorchester boasted a vast military fortification, and – of course - it was the Romans who built the City walls around London and a large fort on the site of what is now the Tower of London. Later, it was the Anglo-Saxons who built defences at the mouth of the Thames on the Essex and Kent banks.

However, these failed to stop the Vikings in their longboats, who swept up the river on daring raids. Indeed, by AD870 the Vikings had sailed up the Thames as far as Reading creating havoc wherever they could and taking possession of farms and villages by force, as was their tradition. The dreaded Vikings were known for their mighty feats and for the rape and pillage of everyone and everything that stood in their way. Life was hard if you were not a Viking!

In time, when even the Vikings became bored with their traditional way of achieving their ends in the Thames valley over the next few hundred years, and peace was finally restored under the rule of the Danish King, Canute in AD1016. By now most of the place names along the Thames were established as we now know them. The River Thames became a favoured valley for settlement. It provided not only protection but also water for domestic use and for power for mills, also fertile land for the cultivation of crops and livestock and fish for food. It was said that the apprentices of London became tired of being fed salmon so often!

"String of Pearls"

The banks of the Thames became the favoured location for buildings of all kinds, from monastic abbeys to gorgeous palaces. The huge number of famous buildings along the course of the Thames gave rise to the description of the river as a “string” linking a series of “pearls”. Many of these can still be visited today.

In AD597 St Augustine introduced Christianity to Britain. The Vikings had become assimilated into a peaceable society, and monasteries at Chertsey and Abingdon were founded by the river, along with a huge abbey at Dorchester. In London, King Canute built his palace on the site now occupied by the Houses of Parliament (hence its old name of the Palace of Westminster.) The next King, Edward the Confessor, was responsible for the building Westminster Abbey , next to the Palace of Westminster. The saintly King Edward was buried by his grieving monks before the high altar of his Abbey when he died in January 1066, and it was to the Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 that William the Conqueror rode for his coronation as King of the country he had just subjugated, after the Battle of Hastings.

Norman Invasion, and Foreign Domination of the English
Once King William had fought and won total control of the strategic Thames Valley he went on to invade the rest of England. To facilitate the subjugation of his unwilling new subjects he had built many castles, including those at Wallingford, Rochester and Windsor. Windsor is now the largest inhabited castle in the World.

William the Conqueror also began the construction of the Tower of London, the stern fortress built to guard access to the Pool of London, and destined to be used by successive Monarchs as a State prison and a place of torture and execution. The castles along the Thames guarded strategic crossing places, and enabled the King to keep strong garrisons of knights and fighting men up and down the Thames valley, ready to ride out and beat up the locals whenever they showed signs of rebellion against the harsh Norman rule. Next came the tax collectors, chasing villagers and farmers up and down the Thames valley for monies deemed to be due to the King after the properties were assessed and recorded in William’s famous Domesday book.

Eventually even the great Norman Lords of the manors became disenchanted with the feudal system and the way in which their manors were so heavily taxed. In AD1215 they forced King John to sign the Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) on an island in the Thames at Runnymede.This granted them among a host of other things the right of Navigation under Clause 23 of the Charter.


The American Bar Association's Runnymede Memorial - photo courtesy The National Trust

 The Middle Ages - Mediaeval Kings and The Thames

Following the signing of Magna Carta political stability (and thus increasing prosperity) developed during the Middle Ages, and this led to an increase in trade up and down the Thames valley. Market towns such as Henley, Lechlade and Reading grew up along the river. Wool was – of course – a particularly valuable commodity, and huge flocks of sheep were grazed in the lands near the Thames. English wool was particularly prized in Europe and the monies raised from the sale of wool were often ploughed into the building of churches and houses near the Thames.

The Tudors and the Stuarts

During the period AD 1485 to AD1703 the Thames was possibly seen in its greatest splendour. The Kings and Queens of these times loved the river and lived in their beautiful riverside palaces at Hampton Court, Kew, Richmond, Whitehall and Greenwich.

These were all built during this period and bear witness to the amazing skill of architects and craftsmen working on the buildings. King Henry VIII loved his palaces at Greenwich and Richmond, but once he had sight of Cardinal Wolsley’s own little pad at Hampton Court he did not rest until he “persuaded” Wolsley to “give” it to him. Queen Elizabeth I also loved Greenwich and Richmond, and it was at Richmond Palace in AD1603 that she died. Her body was brought downstream to Westminster for her funeral on a magnificent black barge – the poet William Campden describes the scene as follows:-

“The Queen was brought by water to Whitehall At every stroke of oars did tears fall”.

Less romantic was Henry VIII’s final trip from London to Windsor – he was due to be buried in St George’s Chapel there. During the course of his reign Henry had dissolved the monasteries and turned the monks and nuns out of their buildings. He claimed the monies raised by this action for himself, distributing the spoils among his courtiers and favourites. During the overnight stop between London and Windsor his barge moored at Syon House in Isleworth. His coffin suddenly split open, and dogs were found licking his remains. This fulfilled a prophecy made by a friar at the time when Henry VIII had claimed what was a former convent as his own property.


Kew Palace - photo by JB

During the reign of the Stuart Kings, Hampton Court and Kew Palace were developed, and such famous architects as Sir Christopher Wren were employed to embellish the gorgeous facades – which can still be seen from the river. King William and his Queen Mary particularly loved the view of the Thames from Hampton Court and had the great formal gardens laid out so that they could maintain the view. 

The 16th and 17th Centuries - War and Trade

In the great City of London (link) settlements grew to support shipbuilding , a consequence of expanding naval power and world trade. Henry VIII established the Royal Dockyards at Deptford, and the wharves of London were thronged with sea-going vessels. The wars with Spain and France kept local shipbuilders busy, and as did the great voyages of exploration. Sir Francis Drake was knighted in Deptford by Queen Elizabeth I after his round the world voyage, and Sir Walter Raleigh set sail from here in 1589 to be the scourge of the Spanish Navy and to discover the potato and tobacco plants in the New World.


Tilbury Fort - photo courtesy English Heritage Photo Library and reproduced by kind permission

 The Tudor Kings were responsible for the building of Tilbury Fort on the banks of the Thames, as a response to the threat of invasion, and it can still be visited today. Queen Elizabeth famously rode to Tilbury Fort to review her troops and to give her speech about “being a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Spain shall seek to conquer England”. Further forts along the Thames were built during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Tilbury Fort like so many other historical treasures in Englnad is cared for by English Heritage - visit www.english-heritage.org.uk for more details.

Trade continued to flourish, not only with Europe but also with the newly discovered lands in other continents. London monopolised half of the Nation’s trade. Quays were established between London Bridge and the Tower of London to handle cargoes and to collect Customs dues. Because London’s population increased greatly it needed to be fed, and this led to towns and villages up and down the Thames valley expanding to keep up with the demands for basic essentials of daily life, like bread and milk, meat and vegetables. Barges travelled daily from Oxford to London carrying timber and wool, foodstuffs and livestock. The timber was used to build merchant and war ships. Lower downstream the Thames was used by barges travelling up to London from the sea, laden with Portland stone to rebuild London after the Great Fire in 1666. St Paul’s Cathedral and many other Wren churches bear testimony to this. Visit www.stpauls.co.uk .


St Paul's Dome - photo by SW 

River Pageants and Events

However, life for Londoners was not all “War” and “Work”! In the 17th and 18th centuries during the hard winter freezes, Frost Fairs were held on the River Thames, complete with ox-roasting, groups of musicians playing, stalls selling a variety of popular novelties and food, like mutton pies (the forerunner of our mince pies), fairground amusements and performing animals. The last fair to be held on the Thames was in February 1814. In 1831 the old London Bridge was replaced, and – with the removal of the “starlings” or piers upon which the old bridge rested – the river no longer slowed down sufficiently for it to freeze over sufficiently to support public events. Navigation was however vastly improved all year round, and the boat skippers were no longer prevented by ice from moving their boats up and down the river. Formerly they were forced to remain with their precious cargoes because they could not afford to leave them unattended to find other work during the freeze-up.

The River Thames also provided some of the greatest “shows” seen on water. In AD1422 the Lord Mayor’s Show took to the water. The participating barges of the City Livery companies became ever more ornate. Barges were covered in gold leaf and some rowed with oars of silver. In the 17 century the Lord Mayor’s procession included dramas and pageants. However, these came to an end in 1856 by which time the river had become overcrowded with steamships and was horribly polluted…..

 
Shakespeare's Globe on Bankside - re-created thanks to the vision of Sam Wanamaker
the American actor.

It was an actor who established one of the most enduring of the traditions of the River Thames. In AD 1715 Thomas Doggett was so grateful to a local waterman for his efforts to ferry him home on a bad night, pulling against the tide, that he set up a rowing race for professional watermen. The winner receives prize money and also the coveted scarlet coat and badge, made of silver – hence the name of the race “Doggett’s Coat and Badge”. The race is still held on August 1st each year when professional watermen row from London Bridge to Chelsea.

The 18th Century – Boom and Competition

During the 18th century there was an enormous expansion in trade, and London became the World’s busiest port, dealing with commodities from all over the huge areas of the British Empire. The building of London’s Docks commenced to cope with the increase in trade.

Upriver the scene was the same – Reading received 95% of its goods by river. The construction of toll roads in the mid-18th century started to attract passenger traffic away from the River Thames. The Industrial Revolution led to rapid expansion of the canal system towards the end of the century and this linked the south of England and the Thames with the industrial North and Midlands. This gave rapid rise to growth of towns and settlements at the junction of the canals with the Thames, such as at Brentford and Limehouse. (see the section on the Thames and The Canal Connection).These new settlements needed supplies of food and perishable commodities and these too were carried up and down the Thames.

The Royal Docks at Deptford saw the refurbishment of such ships as Captain Cook’s famous ships HMS Endeavour, Resolution and Discovery. They were originally Whitby coal ships and were specially fitted out ready for Captain Cook’s astounding voyages of discovery around the World and in the Pacific in the period 1759-1778. Following on from this, and other voyages by such famous sailors as Captain William Bligh and Captain George Vancouver trade increased at unprecedented rates, and the foundations of what became the British Empire (and later the Commonwealth) were laid.


HMS Belfast and The Pool of London

The 19th Century - the Victorian Era and the Thames

The Port of London www.portoflondon.co.uk became the central trading post for a vast British Empire. More docks were built, in the face of intense competition from riverside wharves, who built huge warehouses down river from Tower Bridge. (Most of these warehouses now house riverside apartments and shopping malls.)


Tower Bridge and the Pool of London- photo by SW

River and canal trade expanded despite competition from the new railway network. However, it became apparent that those towns with railways expended rapidly, and those without did not. It was a time of transition and change, with steam powered cargo vessels appearing on the river alongside traditional Thames sailing barges and lighters. This was also an era of imaginative engineering. Evidence of the influence of the great Victorian engineers can be found all along the river. The embankments in London house the water supply to homes, plus the sewers, and protect London from flood.

The Great Stink

Some Victorian schemes had very far-reaching and serious environmental impacts – the widespread introduction of the flushing water closet, with sewers discharging straight into the Thames, turned the river into one vast open stinking sewer. The once thriving fishing industry died, as did thousands of Londoners, or cholera, as their main water supply was now polluted. Nothing was done however, until a particularly hot summer which made living near the Thames unbearable. Fumes from the river penetrated the recesses of the Houses of Parliament and made work there unbearable. MP’s decided at last that something had to be done….

In AD1864 Sir Joseph Bazalgette masterminded the laying of two enormous sewers along the Thames to collect and divert the sewage downstream to Beckton and Crossness. Here sewage farms were set up to deal with the effluent. At the same time the Metropolitan Line was installed and the Victoria Embankments were built on top, reducing the width of the Thames and improving the depth and speed of flow of the river.

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Crossness Pumping Station Bexley - photo courtesy London Borough of Bexley


River of Death

The Thames runs through Southern England along a wide low lying valley – its flood plain. Throughout the centuries the Thames has burst its bank, swamping riverside settlements causing death and destruction. Because properties beside the river have always been popular people have often ignored the lessons of the past, and they continue to build on the highly desirable land of the Thames flood plain. High embankments and flood alleviation schemes are all part of man’s constant fight against Nature. The great threat to London comes from the sea. Throughout history high tides and strong winds have pushed the sea up the estuary, flooding low-lying areas. It is recorded that AD 1816 people rowed through the Great Hall of the Palace of Westminster, whose floor was covered in dead and dying fish. As the flood waters receded the Victorians considered that the building of the Embankments would protect against flooding. However, as stated before, this resulted in the narrowing of the river, and increased its depth, thus making it necessary over the years to raise the walls still higher. The Thames is now 3 metres deeper than it was 300 years ago.


A Thames rescue boat

Concerns about flooding led to the design and construction of the Thames Barrier in 1982. It is a magnificent and beautiful feat of engineering, and well worth a visit – the housing of the lifting mechanism is faced with stainless steel tiles that shimmer in the sunlight. The barriers are raised several times a year to ensure that they remain in perfect working order.
 

River of Pleasure

During Victorian times there was an explosion of interest in the Thames as a leisure source, and many of the activities we enjoy on the river today started in this era. The new railways, which reached towns on the river such as Reading, Oxford and Windsor, provided a popular “day out” for those ordinary people who could afford it. Rowing boat firms sprung up with boats for hire. The river filled with small boats during the summer. Rowing in particular became a hugely popular pastime and clubs increased. Regattas became annual events. The world famous Henley Regatta dates from 1839, and still takes place every year at Henley in late June and early July. In AD 1829 the Colleges at Cambridge put out a challenge to those at Oxford, and a rowing race ensued between the two Universities – and so began the most famous rowing race in the World. The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is now the Nation’s favourite rowing race, and it takes place in late March or early April over a course between Putney and Mortlake, as it has done every year since 1845, with the exception of the War Years.


Practising for The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race

Other river races grew up as a result of continuing interest in the Thames as a leisure location. Punting at Oxford was one of these, and so was sailing and canoeing. The first canoes to be used on the Thames were “dug-outs” in pre-historic times, made by our ancestors so that they could fish for food on the river. Early examples of dug-outs have been found in the riverbed, and one example is in the Museum of London. A long-distance canoe race from Devizes to Westminster Bridge also started during this period.

Cruising on the river for private pleasure also developed in the Victorian era. One can recall the iconic painting of pleasure boats at Boulters Lock near Maidenhead, full of well-dressed Victorian ladies and gentlemen in their straw boaters and striped blazers. Today cruises are available up and down the Thames, in chartered vessels and passenger boats, and also in self-drive boats for the more adventurous. http://www.riverthames.co.uk/boat/hire.htm .

The 20th Century and Massive Changes

The 20th Century saw a huge decline in the use of the River Thames for trade, in the Port of London area especially. A combination of factors- including the introduction of container ships needing deepwater anchorage - led to the closure of the London docks. The Isle of Dogs and the Royal Docks were never to be the same. Because of the development of containerisation new docks were built at Tilbury to handle the lorries and containers coming in from all over the World and the emphasis on trade and the Thames shifted downriver from London itself.

Trade declined on the upper River Thames as well, mainly because goods were moved by road. Many older people remember trade on the river at Wandsworth and Lambeth right up to the 1960's. Coal for fire stations was moved in this way. Since this time there has been an unprecedented surge of building programmes, which have changed the character of the London riverside areas from industrial use to residential use. To own an apartment by the riverside with river views is now a treasured (and expensive) aspiration. http://www.riverthames.co.uk/properties.htm

A trip on the new Docklands Light Railway takes you to the Isle of Dogs Docklands area, which has changed out of all recognition over the past 25 years. Luxury flats nestle with huge skyscrapers and glass walls in the Canary Wharf area alongside shops and restaurants and wine bars. Where once busy stevedores wrestled with heavy smelly cargoes, now smartly-dressed City workers, bankers and investment managers scurry to meetings across the footbridges which have been built over the waterways, or crowd the miriad number of shops which have mushroomed in the lower levels of the huge towers.

   

New property in Newham by the River -

photo David Auckland

 

Docklands footbridge - photo by SW

Just so that the memory of what the docks used to look like is not lost forever, the Museum of London has recently built an imaginative new museum in an old warehouse at Canary Wharf, which gives an exciting idea of what life in Docklands was all about. It is called “Museum of Docklands”. Interestingly, there is currently increasing interest in reviving the river as a means of transporting bulky goods (such as household waste) in an environmentally friendly way.


The Museum in Docklands - photo courtesy Museum of Docklands

Further alternative use of the Docklands area has been made with the construction of the London City Airport, which is now linked by the Docklands Light Railway to the City of London. Leisure activities have also grown in the docks themselves. ExCeL exhibition centre situated on one of the docks hosts the International Boat Show every January, and watersports clubs and societies meet to encourage use of the docks for sailing, canoeing and so on. Hotels have also sprung up in this area, which cater for business meetings, weddings and weekend breaks.

New use has also been made of the River Thames by the introduction of a regular commuter service by boat between piers in Docklands and the centre of London. When the bombing attacks hit London in 2005 the Thames boat commuter service kept running. Tourism played a great part in the use of the river for boat trips up and down the Thames in London, and a river trip, accompanied by a running commentary from one of the experienced boat pilots on the history in front of you is a “must-do” for most tourists visiting London. The Tate to Tate boat service by fast catamaran also was introduced to transport people between the Tate Galley on Millbank and the Tate Modern gallery at Bankside. The Tate Modern is itself a success story – formerly the huge Bankside Power Station belching out noxious fumes for more than 100 years, it was completely refurbished in AD2000 and reopened as a showcase for the latest in Modern Art. Connected to the north bank of the Thames at St Pauls, by the Millennium Footbridge, it is yet another example of the River Thames (and its buildings) re-inventing itself.

River of Life Back From the Dead

During the first half of the 20th Century the quality of water in the River Thames declined. A report in the 1950ies stated that there was no fish life between Kew and Gravesend. A determined effort was made from 1960 onwards to clean up the Thames in London, with the result that it is now one of the cleanest rivers in the World.


The Thames in Autumn at Marlow - photo Jeannette Briggs

The waters look rather murky, but now contain over 115 different species of fish, supporting in turn a growing population of birds such as herons and cormorants. Otters have been sighted between Lechlade and Oxford, and salmon now swim up the Thames to spawn – a sure indicator of how clean the river has become, as wild salmon are fussy about their environment. The Thames is of course a lowland river – its landscape is gentle and the surrounding flood plains contain a diversity of woodlands, water meadows and grassland, together with vast areas of salt marsh in the Thames estuary. All of this encourages the proliferation of wildlife. The main wildlife habitats are in the river itself, on the riverbank, and on the flood plain. The contrasts come between the freshwater habitats in Oxfordshire, the varying conditions on Central London and the salt flats out in the estuary on the Thames, which support a huge variety of birds.

The 21st Century and The Future

Development is still ongoing in the Thames valley. Huge blocks of luxury apartments are springing up all along the riverside down what is now termed the “Thames Gateway between the Thames Barrier and Tilbury, and especially on both banks of the river between Chiswick and Docklands in London.

Where once stood an old powerhouse or factory, warehouse, or gas-holder, there are now trendy luxury apartments which command astronomical prices, particularly if they come complete with a “river view”. This is especially true of London. Even the old Battersea Power Station, which has stood derelict for over 50 years, is now destined to become a housing complex.


Battersea Power Station

 The bombed slums of Deptford, Silvertown and Woolwich have been cleared for redevelopment, and a new future community is being constructed at the Woolwich Royal Arsenal. Life is being injected to this site (the former scene of gun manufacturing), with the refurbishment of the existing buildings, and the creation of a museum about the making of guns, and this is called “Firepower”.

On what has become known as the “Millennium Site” at Greenwich, where the river makes a huge meander beyond the Royal Naval College at Greenwich the Millennium Dome (now known as the O2 Dome) was constructed on the site of an old British Gas power station. The Millennium Exhibition was not a huge success, but the Dome still stands, and had become a bit of an icon. It was used for some of the sports during the Olympic Games.

Further downriver, at Galleons Reach the wastelands of Beckton have been cleansed of their industrial residue, like cadmium deposits and asbestos, and now proudly offer shops, offices and housing, moorings in a new marina and a new student village for the University of East London. A new road bridge across the Thames is planned for this location, and will be built in the next 4 years.


Bluewater Shopping Centre Dartford - photo courtesy Dartford Borough Council

The high-speed rail link between Paris and the rest of Europe and St Pancras in London also crosses the River Thames at this point. It  passes the Olympic Site at Stratford. The centres of population on either side of the Thames such as Bexley Gravesend, Dartford, Tilbury and Newham also continue to develop, with amenities and road and rail connections, plus new shopping venues such as Lakeside at Tilbury and Bluewater in Dartford.


Views of interior of the new Olympic Staduim which was built in Stratford on the north bank of the Thames - photo courtesy London Olympic Committee 2012 Organisation and reproduced with their kind permission.

 
Dartford Bridge and the Thames - photo courtesy Dartford Borough Council

"Old Father Thames Keeps Rolling Along...........Down to the Mighty Sea!"

We can look even further into the future. The north bank of the Thames as far as Stratford saw the building of the Olympic site in AD 2012 – and it is possible that more change will come to this area in the next six years than in the whole of the past 2000 years.

Further example - if any were needed - that the River Thames “keeps rolling along” (to quote from the old song) "footloose and fancy free, down to the mighty sea" - a River of History from the Past to the Future.

Written and Illustrated by Jeannette Briggs


 THAMES FACTS

1) The Thames contains over 80 islands ranging from the large estuarial marshlands of the Isle of Grain  and Canvey Island to small tree covered islets like Rose Isle in Oxfordshire

 

2)In the Great Stink of 1858 the pollution in the River Thames became so bad that sittings in the House of Commons had to be abandoned.

 

3) On average one body a week is retrieved from The River Thames.

 

4) Thames - the movie star. A boat chase on the Thames forms the opening scene in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough.

 

5) The River Thames runs through 9 counties:  Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire,Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Essex , Kent and Greater London.

 

6) There is only 1 remaining working mill on the Thames - Mapledurham Mill.

 

7)There are 44 locks on the River Thames to allow navigation.


8) The River Thames is home to 119 fish species.


9) London's Tower Bridge was first opened for River Traffic in 1894.



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