It’s not much of a river by world standards, God knows. It’s little more than two hundred miles long, and its downward slope is no more than 350 feet from its source to its final sluggish spewing into the sea. For much of its length, it maunders and mazes without much incident or drama. And, as one might expect from its shyness and ordinariness, it’s born in obscurity with something of an identity problem. The Rencomb Brook, the river Churn, the river Thames, then the Isis: for miles of its flowing-until it reaches Abingdon, downstream from Oxford-it does not even seem certain of its own name. And neither of its two suggested birthplaces can give it much cause of confidence, since one is in the middle of a traffic intersection near Cheltenham, and the other is no more than a slight staining of water in a field near Cirencester-observable, in the snow, about one winter in three.
Yet it is the river that one sustained and watered the world’s greatest port and was for centuries the most important trade highway in Britain. All around and along its banks were fought the battles that have shaped the national character, for control of the river, of its bridges and fords and reaches, has historically meant control of the land.
Boudica fought the Romans beside it. Edmund Ironside fought the Vikings under King Canute. Alfred held it as defensive line against the Danes attacking from the north. And the Normans, who came conquering from the south, had first to cross it and then secure it with castles at London, Windsor, and Wallingford. A hundred or so years later, Richard I foolishly gave away his rights to the river in return for a small amount of cash from the Corporation of the City of London; his brother John was forced to come to terms with his rebellious barons (the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede) in a meadow beside it. Four and a half centuries after that, it still remained at the heart of the struggle between autocratic king and people, as Royalists and Parlamentarians fought for its fords and cities from Newbridge to Brentford to Kew.
All the way along its wandering course, from Lechlade, where it becomes navigable, down to Teddington and then London, are the ruined monuments of this long battle for power: stone henges and causeway camps, hill forts and fortified abbeys, castles and palaces and Iron Age settlements. It's not for nothing that people are still given to saying thoughtfully of the river, as they look down into its eddies from the gardens of waterside pubs at evening, "Ah, well, that's liquid history, isn't it?"
This is not, I should say, how it appears from the water. The river, in its upper and middle reaches at any rate, is countrified and domesticated, more a leafy rural lane than any arterial highway. Between Lechlade - where Shelley, on an outing, wrote his "A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade, Gloucestershire,"- and the city of Oxford, there are just two villages, seven pubs, eleven locks, and one boatyard. Granted, one of the pubs is the Perch near Godstow, where, one afternoon in 1862, a mathematics lecturer from Oxford first told a young friend the story of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, and granted, one of the village houses is the beautiful Kelmscott, where William and Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti lived in a curious menage between 1871 and 1874. What you will see around you on a day in summer is little more than banks fringed with poplars and aspens, weeping willows, alders, chestnuts, and beds of osiers and floating in and out below them, swans and moorhens, ducks and dabchicks, with an occasional kingfisher or heron thrown in.
You will also, of course, see boats. Since Edward the Confessor first granted the right of public navigation on the river almost a thousand years ago, Thames boats have played an essential part in the life of the English, both at work and at play. The lightermen and watermen of the City of London (the truck and taxi drivers of their age) were organized into guilds by the time of the battle of Agincourt. And it's plain from the old private boathouses that remain upriver from the city (at Syon House, for example) that the possession of a passenger boat was, in its day, as important to the time-pressed, out-of-town executive as is that of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce today.
It wasn't until the nineteenth century -and the arrival of the railroads-that the Thames began to take on its modern boat happy character. When it lost its role as an exclusive watery motorway, it became instead a democratic suburban playground. Country villas began to curl out from London, first to Putney and Hammersmith, then to Staines and Maidenhead, Marlow and Mapledurham. Yacht clubs were founded the world's third oldest is at Surbiton. A yearly regatta was started in 1839 on the first straight stretch of the river at Henley. And a few years later, rowing eights from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge started doing battle in the annual Boat Race between Putney and Mortlake.
The river began to churn with paddle steamers and excursion boats, some of them festooned with bunting and boasting brass bands, like the one that took cockneys from the East End of London to Greenwich every Tuesday after Whitsun, laden to the gunwales with sandwiches and stout. Stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, and members of Parliament took to the river, too, in punt and skiff and motor launch-each group with its favorite inns along the middle reach. And the image of the river as a place for fun and sport developed, as memorialized (in their different ways) by Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat.
The steamers and excursion boats that plied the river have mostly gone now. (The British now take excursions to Calais and Boulogne rather than to Greenwich and Kew.) But the passion for messing about in small boats persists. Today there are more than thirty thousand registered for use along the length of the river. And you can see them every day in summer negotiating one or other of the forty-four locks that control its flow; getting entangled in the lines of anglers fishing sedately for roach and bream; hanging back for the oarsmen and women who swish past them at Oxford and Radley and Putney Hard; or just put-putting idly under the eyes of tourists, through medieval towns like Abingdon and Dorchester, or farther downriver past Cardinal Wolsey's red-brick masterpiece, the old royal palace of Hampton Court.
It is only in London proper that the boats disappear. Indeed, from the last lock at Teddington to the big container port at Tilbury, in the estuary where Elizabeth I once harangued her troops, a curious stillness and silence now seems to inhabit the river, as if it were waItmg for something to happen.
There was a time, of course, when this part of the Thames hummed with activity. The docks of the city were full of Yankee clippers and South Sea schooners, Russian barkentines and Australian packets, mahogany ships from Honduras and whaling barks from the Hudson Bay. There were barges, lighters, and water taxis everywhere on the river, and docks piled high with hides and oakum, spices and wine. But all the hustle and bustle has gone now forever. There are few watermen left even though six of them still race each year from London Bridge to Chelsea in a race set up by actor Thomas Doggett in 1715.
It's as if the Thames in London lost its' meaning with its livelihood; as if Londoners decided to turn their backs on their own local waterway at the time in the 1850s-with the invention of the lavatory-that it became little more than a running sewer. Still, even here there are signs of life. For the lower (London) reach of the Thames, shorn of its port traffic, has at least been made clean again, and today salmon and sea trout are running where the merchant ships once anchored. With the building, too, of the Thames Barrier-out in the estuary-the threat of floods in the city, caused by rising tide levels and subsidence of the land, has been staved off for the immediate future. And there are even suggestions that London's population is beginning to move into new configurations is beginning once again to learn how to live on and with the river.
Many of the old warehouses, custom sheds, and breweries around Tower Bridge have been converted into offices and apartments. A number of the huge old docks were turned into marinas crowned with skyscrapers and high-rise housing blocks. Even the old water taxis have returned, ferrying financiers to the City and newspapermen to their new headquarters away from Fleet Street in Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. There's a new airport in the Docklands, a new railway, a new berthing for cruise ships.
But ... I don't know. It's certainly good that ruined areas of the city have been reclaimed. Still, I'm afraid that, unlike the Thames upriver, riverside London has gradually turned into an amenity only for the rich. The children of the dockers who made the lower reach what it was have been pushed from their neighborhoods, taken over, little by little, by those who can afford the values-property and otherwise-of this modem age. Perhaps this is the only way to revivify Old Father Thames, to make it fit for tourists and I stockbrokers. But I hope not. For it has always been a people's river. And no matter the difficulties, it should remain so.Blissfully floating, Angela & Charles