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

This England - - News - Gilly Pickup

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.



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.

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