The Glorious River Thames
At 215 miles in length the iconic waterway has long been a source of transport, trade and inspiration. It makes its way through five counties — Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire — and into London
Old Father Thames may not be the United Kingdom’s longest river, that accolade belongs to the River Severn, but it is the most significant with a rich vein of historic buildings, cultural connections and landmarks from start to finish.
The story of the Thames started over 30 million years ago when it was a tributary of the River Rhine — Britain was not an island at that time. Then, 10,000 years ago during the Great Ice Age, the Thames changed its course, pushing its eager way through the Chiltern Hills at the place now known as the Goring Gap. At that time, the fast flowing river was 10 times its current size, fuelled by melting ice sheets. Then its rapid progress slowed down and by 3,000 years ago the river had settled into its familiar meandering pattern that we know today.
From the 1600s to the early 1800s frost fairs were held on the river. At that time, it would often freeze over for up to two months at a time because Britain was in the throes of the “Little Ice Age”. The other reason for freezing over was because London Bridge and its piers were so close together that pieces of ice would get lodged between them and dam up the river, so making it easier to freeze.
The frost fairs were the whole colourful shebang, with entertainers, food stalls, coach races, puppet plays and even a pop-up pub or two. The ice was so thick that football matches were held and, quite bizarrely, shopkeepers would light fires inside their tents!
Probably the most famous frost fair was that held in the winter of 1683/1684. It was known as the “Blanket Fair” and was described by diarist John Evelyn: “… horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgement on the land, the trees not onely splitting as if lightning-struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers[e] places, and the very seas so lock’d up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.”
The monarch of the day King Charles II didn’t want to miss out on any fun and came along to this fair. While there, so history tells us, he enjoyed eating roasted ox.
Of course, during the fairs, perhaps not surprisingly there was the occasional disaster when chunks of ice broke and people drowned. The last frost fair, although the largest and starring a parading elephant, only lasted five days. By then climate changes meant winters were becoming far less severe.
There are 45 locks on the river: the first is St. John’s Lock near Lechlade in Gloucestershire and the last is at Teddington in Middlesex. Each lock has one or more adjacent weirs which are used for controlling the flow of water down the river, most notably when there is a flood risk.
Most locks are operated by keepers between 9am and 7pm during the summer months with shorter hours in other seasons. However, Teddington Lock, which separates the long Kingston reach of the non-tidal river from Hampton Court to the
tideway, is manned 24 hours a day. The locks at the upper end of the river, from St. John’s Lock to King’s Lock, are manually operated while all other locks are hydraulically operated.
Locks and weirs break the river up into reaches, some of which host regattas and other events, and in the days when boats were horse-drawn a towpath was needed on the bank side. This formed the basis for the Thames Path which runs between the source and mouth of the river.
Since 1984 the World Poohsticks Championship, a quirky, typically English event, has been held at Day’s Lock near Dorchester-on-thames in Oxfordshire. This game, first mentioned in A. A. Milne’s book The House at Pooh Corner, is where contestants drop a stick from a bridge into the water and whoever’s stick appears on the other side of the bridge first is the winner. Any players who throw their sticks are disqualified. It is all taken very seriously.
Many of the present road bridges over the river are on the sites of earlier fords, ferries and wooden structures. Hampton Court Bridge, the furthest west, is only just within the Greater London boundary while the furthest east, Tower Bridge, is practically in the centre of London. The most recent is the Millennium Bridge which spans the river between the Tate Modern Gallery and St. Paul’s, while the first bridge was built by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago near the spot where London Bridge is now. Waterloo Bridge, which was built mostly by women, is the longest at 1,250 feet.
Several central London bridges were built in the 19th century including Tower Bridge, designed to allow ocean-going
ships to pass beneath it. At Folly Bridge in Oxford the remains of an original Saxon structure can be seen while medieval structures including Newbridge and Abingdon Bridge are still in use. Proposals to build bridges across the river at Lambeth and Putney around 1670 were defeated by the Rulers of the Company of Watermen, since it would have spelled ruin for the 60,000 rivermen who provided a pool of naval reserve.
As for the tunnels, there are eight under the river. The world’s first underwater tunnel was the Thames Tunnel built by Marc Brunel and it was fitted out with lighting, roadways and spiral staircases. An engine house on the Rotherhithe side, which now houses the Brunel Museum, was constructed to house machinery for draining the tunnel which was opened to the public on 25th March 1843. It proved to be a hugely popular tourist attraction and when it opened 50,000 people waited to pay a penny to climb down the stairs and walk through it. By the end of the first three months a million people, or half the population of London, had visited, buying souvenirs and listening to the entertainment in the cross-tunnel arches.
By the 1600s, people began to understand that the pollution of London’s most vital water source was a problem. No one really knew what to do about it and the people of the city continued to use the Thames as both a water source and a rubbish bin, making a bad situation even worse. In essence, the River Thames was an open sewer and had the dubious distinction of being the world’s most unhygienic river.
The matter eventually came to a head in the hot summer of 1858 when the sewage started to ferment and the “Great Stink” had everyone clutching handkerchiefs to their noses. It was so horrible that sittings at the House of Commons had to be abandoned even though they tried blocking the windows with curtains doused in chloride of lime to try to get rid of the smell.
Then Joseph Bazalgette came to the rescue. He was the chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and developed the biggest sewage system the world had ever seen. The new invention pumped the sewage eastwards out to sea and the flow of foul water from old sewers and underground rivers was intercepted and diverted along new, low-level sewers, built behind embankments on the riverfront and taken to new treatment works. The system, instrumental in relieving the city from cholera epidemics while beginning the cleansing of the river, is still in use today.
JIM HELLIER ROY J. WESTLAKE
Opposite page: Boats on the river on a misty autumn day at Pangbourne in the Chilterns.
JIM HELLIER Above: A statue of Old Father Thames at Lechlade in Gloucestershire; the source of the River Thames at Seven Springs in the Cotswolds. Right: The lock-keeper’s cottage at Goring Lock, Oxfordshire. Below: A quiet corner of the river at Mapledurham in Oxfordshire, with the water mill reflected in the water; Chelsea Bridge and Battersea Power Station.
Left: The view over London towards Hungerford Bridge and Waterloo Bridge.
Below: One of the most easily recognisable buildings on the banks of the Thames: the Houses of Parliament. In 2017 the famous chimes of Big Ben will fall silent for several months as much-needed repairs are carried out.