Thames holds a mirror to 60 years of change

The first bridge across the River Thames was built by the Romans around AD 50. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

At low tide – and there’s a 25ft rise and fall between tides – archaeological research has uncovered pre-Roman temples and burial grounds along the river at Battersea.

Powered by article titled “Thames holds a mirror to 60 years of change” was written by Robert McCrum, for The Observer on Saturday 26th May 2012 23.54 UTC

The Amazon is grander, the Congo infinitely darker, and the Mississippi much mightier, but the river Thames, which runs softly into London out of Celtic mists, remains always “sweet”, in TS Eliot’s words, “till I end my song”. Like the country it inspires and bisects, the longest river in England can be both intimate and splendid, as the affectionate expression “Old Father Thames” suggests. In the words of one commentator, “this great river is liquid history”.

During the next few weeks, from the Queen’s diamond jubilee to the Olympic climax, a pageant of contemporary history and culture will be enacted along the banks of the Thames. Dunkirk will be remembered by survivors from the “Little Ships”. Teams of marine commandos will enforce a ring of steel around the Olympic park. The Royal Navy’s HMS Ocean will be berthed by the Thames Barrier. And next weekend, in the wake of the royal barge, some 1,000 amateur mariners will celebrate our nautical tradition in a strange and compelling armada, ranging from currachs to ketches.

Not since George I became king will so many vessels have floated in convoy down the Thames. Great rivers are peculiarly timeless, sponsoring sober thoughts. Nonetheless, the jubilee of 2012 will go down as a high water mark on many Londoner’s imaginary tidal yardsticks.

Jerry White, who has just published London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing (Random House), a well-received study of the capital, thinks this watery jamboree is appropriate. He believes that “it is impossible to exaggerate the place of the Thames” in British life. Last week, Professor White joined the Observer on a downriver excursion from Westminster pier to Greenwich in search of that elusive majesty.

We are sailing on “the Original Westminster-Greenwich River Boat Cruise” boasting “over 50 years’ experience”. As the Chay Blyth pulls out into the current in the shadow of Westminster Bridge, veteran waterman Steve Pope is our guide. The Thames is tidal all the way to Teddington. Beyond Battersea power station there are pleasure trips that sail down to Chelsea Harbour. But Greenwich is our destination, a journey into the past that will take in the classic scenes of London’s waterside tradition.

In front of Pope’s microphone, the upper deck is half full of tourists with the doubtful but expectant expressions of day trippers who have just forked out 15 quid to sit on an awkward steel bench and make a journey that could probably be completed with much more comfort in half the time.

White, however, has no doubts. He is bursting with the significance of what we are about to witness. “You could say,” he observes, “that the Thames is only now beginning to get the attention it deserves. The untold story of this river is that it has been reinvented during the past generation.”

Go back to the 1960s, and the prospects for the Thames looked bleak. Beyond the Square Mile, the docklands had made a remarkable recovery from the devastation of the blitz, but the container revolution threatened the economy of the East End in a far more destructive and insidious way than anything inflicted by the Luftwaffe.

“This was a desperate moment in London’s history,” says White. “Until the 1960s, the wealth and fortunes of London depended on the Thames.” It was a highway, an artery of global communication and commerce, a source of trade, raw materials and precious human capital.

Thanks to the Thames, in London there was a market for everything, from human hair (Soho) to Siberian mammoth tusks (London Dock). The Port of London Authority was the capital’s biggest employer. On an average day, about 20,000 porters, stevedores, coopers, crane-drivers, tally clerks and lightermen worked at the docks before the first world war. As late as 1937, a man was reportedly crushed to death in the daily scramble for jobs.

London was the Thames, and the Thames was London. “All the Australian knows or even cares for England,” wrote one breathless Edwardian journalist, “lies in his resentment and curiosity concerning London, with the tale of whose size and wonders the crowd of travelling chums for ever troubles him.”

In the words of Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, the Thames connected the inhabitants of “the biggest, and the greatest, town” in the world to “the uttermost ends of the earth”. As recently as the 1960s, London was the trading city it had been for 2,000 years, and the Thames was still central to that. “The river held the key to London’s strength and status,” says White. After 1966 – the year of the seamen’s strike – “the Thames was forced to reinvent itself”. The way it has done this holds up a vivid and enthralling mirror to 50 years of social and cultural change. The Thames transports us, but it also tells us who we are.

Today, in the afternoon sunshine, the waterway seems as timeless as ever. While we head downstream, the evidence of that reinvention unfolds like a tableau along the South Bank, now plausibly the engine of London’s global reputation. There, on the site of the 1951 Festival of Britain, long tourist lines queue patiently for the London Eye. Next door, the former home of the Greater London Council is now an art gallery, a hotel and an aquarium. Further on, we pass the drab, familiar landmarks of the Festival Hall, the BFI and the Hayward Gallery. “London’s economic base,” says White, “became reduced after the collapse of manufacturing in the 1960s. Today, there are just three essentials for its future: finance, tourism and culture.”

Finance is located in the distant skyline of the City. Before we reach the Gherkin and the Shard, London’s bridges begin to suggest the shift towards tourism and culture. Up to 1750, in the days of the Great Frost, when the river froze, there was just one river crossing – London Bridge – a chaotic, ramshackle, medieval thoroughfare crowded with shops, dwellings and the severed heads of traitors. A by-word for imminent ruin, in the words of the song, London Bridge is Falling Down. Not any more: our guide takes pleasure in telling us that the old bridge was relocated to the American west for “a million dollars”.

As London and Britannia flourished in the 18th century, the river became an open sewer. New bridges – Westminster, Blackfriars – opened up trading possibilities into the home counties of the south. Later, the railway inspired the Cannon Street bridge, perhaps the ugliest across the Thames. Today, as we approach Tate Modern, the Globe and the rejuvenated, Shakespearean borough of Southwark, another symbol of the sweet contemporary Thames comes into view: Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge. This celebrated “wobbly bridge” has none of the commercial consequence of the river’s traditional bridges. As a pedestrian crossing between St Paul’s and the Globe, it is integral only to the creative economy of Thameside.

This stretch of the Thames becomes a palimpsest of London’s violent past: the Tower and its Traitor’s Gate, the Monument (to the Great Fire of 1666), HMS Belfast and the memories of two world wars, the replica of Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, the site of the Clink, the debtor’s prison, Nelson’s HQ, and finally the Edwardian self-confidence of Tower Bridge.

As we sail towards Docklands, White points towards the futuristic megalopolis of Canary Wharf. This, for him, marks the apex of another, equally neglected, aspect of the river’s renewal: the residential revolution east of Wapping and St Katherine’s Dock. The Isle of Dogs will always be associated with Thatcher’s Britain. As significant are the extraordinary property transformations of Limehouse Reach, Free Trade Wharf and Cuckold’s Point.

Future historians will find in these reconditioned wharves and renovated rookeries the bricks-and-mortar symbolic of the Long Boom that led up to 2008. Our river guide seems to share this view. Rarely has the phrase “luxury private apartments” acquired such a corrupt and sinister air as on the lips of Steve Pope, an out-and-out Londoner who could have stepped from act one of My Fair Lady.

There’s a fresh breeze on the prow as we ride round the bend in the river. What is it, precisely, that has lured these tourists out onto the water?

Linda and Steve, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, have been persuaded to come by American friends. “Seemed like a good way to see London,” said Steve. “We can’t believe this weather,” adds his wife. Mr Li and his teenage daughter, visiting from Hong Kong, are unmoved by Canary Wharf. “We have bigger and better at home,” says Mr Li, “but I always want to see Greenwich.” Is that to do with Greenwich Mean Time? He considers the question and utters a gnomic, all-conquering answer, “No, Will-yam Shakes-Speare.”

Christopher Marlowe met his end arguing about the bill in the back room of a Deptford pub, but the Shakespeare who entertained London’s theatregoers is not to be found much outside Southwark or Blackfriars. The cultural dimension of the Thames, however, is probably its main selling point. In art, aspects of the river have been captured by Canaletto, Turner, Monet and Whistler. In fiction and poetry, London and the Thames are woven into the pages of the English literary tradition. Overseas visitors to the capital and its artery come to it through the pages of books such as Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

Later Victorian novels place the Thames in a sunnier, and more humorous light. Both Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame wax dithyrambic about the magic of the Thames at dawn.

But even works of the imagination dwindle before the mind-boggling scope of the Thames’ history, a continuous narrative that reaches back to Julius Caesar and beyond. Jerry White says that the cutting edge of Thames studies “could be the pre-historic story”.

At low tide – and there’s a 25ft rise and fall between tides – archaeological research has uncovered pre-Roman temples and burial grounds along the river at Battersea.

Then there’s music. Handel’s Water Music was premiered on 17 July 1717, performed on a barge for George I. In living memory, the Sex Pistols played a notorious concert on the Queen Elizabeth riverboat on 7 June 1977.

For the jubilee of 2012, the musical side has not been left to the counter-culture. A “River Of Music”, sponsored by BT, will celebrate “a weekend of free music from around the world on stages along the River Thames” on 21-22 July.

Sponsored music aside, Pope and Jack Clark, his fellow captain on the Chay Blyth are not impressed by the jubilee pageant. Their vessel will not be part of the main flotilla, despite their gritty year-round presence. “It’s been badly organised,” says Pope. He doesn’t look to the holiday for much uplift in trade. “The weather’s the only thing that matters,” he says. “Who wants to go on a boat when it’s pissing with rain?”

The Chay Blyth is approaching Greenwich. The newly restored Cutty Sark rests shipshape in dock across the shimmering water ahead. Pope makes a little speech to his passengers, reminding us that his commentary is not sponsored “in any shape, or form” by Transport for London.

“I’ll be standing by the gangplank with the traditional bucket,” he continues. “There’s no obligation to make any contribution to my welfare. But just remember, folks,” he cracks a wicked grin, “it’ll be me what helps you off the boat.”


■ The Thames has been a centre of human habitation for 5,000 years.

■ The first bridge across the river in London was built by the Romans in around AD50.

■ In 1683 the Thames froze for two months, with the ice 11 inches thick.

■ The last “frost fair” on the river was in 1814 after a week-long fog.

■ In 1858 parliament was suspended because the stench from the Thames was too strong.

■ In 1878, 600 people died when the Princess Alice, a Thames passenger paddle steamer, sank after colliding with another boat.

■ Flooding of the Thames claimed 14 lives in January 1928.

■ The river was declared biologically dead in 1957.

■ The Thames flood barrier officially opened in 1984.

■ Today the Thames is home to 125 types of fish and 400 species of invertebrate. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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