The beauty of the River Thames springs from its human
I've been around a bit, but I've never seen a river
quite like the Thames. True, I've never canoed the length
of the Amazon, or trekked to the source of the Nile,
or rafted the Orinoco on a platform of logs lashed together
with my own bare hands. But in the Thames's homeland
- England, Britain, I've been around a bit. I've walked
the length and breadth of this island, from the east
to the west coast and from Land's End to John O'Groat's.
In between, I've laboured up and down the coastal cliffs
of Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, Northumbria and Sussex.
I've slogged across the South Downs and the Cheviots,
the Yorkshire Moors and the Pennines, the Black Mountains
and the Flowerdale Forest.
And everywhere I go, I am never far from the sight
or the sound of flowing water, for this is a land of
rivers. That's what you get for living on an island,
and a relatively small one at that. Wherever you walk,
you can't avoid the brooks and the becks, the streams
and the straths, the trickles and the torrents. We live
in a kingdom of watersheds.
And yet the Thames is special, and I don't think I
just say this because of my regional bias (I'm a southerner
born and bred). After all, there are many things that
the Thames is not. It's not our 'King of Rivers', for
example, despite what some people may claim - it's not
big, broad or bombastic enough to warrant that title.
It's certainly not the most spectacular river we have:
think of the Severn's annual bore, for example, or the
foaming waterfalls of the upper Tees, or the broad sweep
of the Forth as it slews into the sea. In comparison,
the Thames is sluggish and unassuming. And for sheer
beauty, there are other rivers, or at least stretches
of other rivers, that can easily compete with the Thames.
The broad, shallow trout rivers of the Scottish highlands,
the sparkling, excitable torrents of the Lake District,
even some of the sleepy, winding channels of East Anglia
all hold different attractions for different eyes.
Yet I still hold that the Thames is special; for it
is the most human of all our rivers. There is nothing
wild about the Thames. For centuries, for millennia,
its banks have been cultivated, its power has been harnessed
for every type of agriculture and industry, it has been
harvested for food and commodities, and river craft
of every conceivable kind have ploughed through its
waters. Yet today, most of the Thames still remains
beautiful - testament to the fact that, when we really
think about it, and when we really want to, we can work
with nature instead of against it.
The Thames slides out of the earth in a Gloucestershire
field near Cirencester. Two hundred and fifty miles
and six counties later, it is swallowed by the sea at
Southend. In terms of length, the Thames is not even
one of the world's fifty biggest rivers. In terms of
industrial and economic significance it is now negligible.
Yet those 250 miles flow through the English collective
memory; through our plays, our novels, our poetry, through
our art and our political history. It has a place in
the English collective consciousness that no other river
could achieve. Partly, this must be because of the river's
proximity to London, and its part in the history that
has been made there. But there must be other reasons
too, not least the reflective, almost spiritual peace
that stretches of this slow, sure river provide in the
midst of the busiest, fastest, densest and richest counties
Not that the Thames is idyllic from beginning to end.
It begins to decline as it is hemmed in by the suburbs
of Hampton, and once it reaches Hammersmith Bridge it
is no longer recognisable as the same river that wound
its way through Sutton Courtenay, Lechlade and Dorchester
over a hundred miles before. But the London Thames can
be excused: considering that Europe's biggest city has
squatted darkly around its banks for a thousand years,
it is lucky to still contain fish. No, from Battersea
on down, the Thames ceases to be a human river, and
becomes instead a dark, wide, wet thing that trains
cross and Londoners throw bags of cold chips into on
Saturday nights. It's further upstream that the river's
magic still remains. And that magic is directly tied
to the sense of a human scale - a local, piecemeal,
peoples' scale - that the London Thames lacks.
For essentially the Thames is a small river, with
small ambitions, and the marks of a million small hands
upon it. Though its banks are dotted with vast manor
houses and millionaire's playgrounds, with big yachts
and Royal and Ecclesiastical Palaces, these are nothing
to do with the real Thames. They are gilded and impersonal,
and could be anywhere. It is the locks, the stiles,
the tiny, osier-studded islands, the reedbeds, the bankside
fields and copses that make it what it is. Thousands
of years of English history follow the Thames from source
to sea. From Wittenham Clumps to the Fosse Way, from
the medieval field patterns to the channels and ditches
dug out by forgotten farmers for drainage or diversion:
the Thames has always been a living river, fashioned
by those who lived along it and worked on or beside
Of course, as with most of our countryside, the Thames
is not what it once was. In very few places is it now
a working river - today it is mostly cruised for recreation
by holidaymakers, its banks strolled by Sunday families
or hopefully attended by anglers. In some ways, perhaps,
this has reduced our everyday contact with, and maybe
our understanding of, the river, but it has also vastly
improved parts of it. For example, when the East End
docks were in operation, the London Thames was a dead
river, little more than a poisonous sewer swimming with
oil, bilge wastes and the effluence of industry. Now,
after a twenty-year clean up, there are salmon swimming
again under Tower Bridge.
But there are bigger, newer, more ominous problems
as well. A rash of riverside developments, for housing,
industry and commerce, has succeeded in tidying, urbanising
and suffocating large swathes of the riverbank, and
this can surely only get worse as the government attempts
to foist 4 million redbrick boxes onto the countryside.
Intensive farming has done its worst too. Agricultural
chemicals leaching into the river and killing or poisoning
its wildlife have become almost commonplace in some
areas, and the destruction of bankside vegetation has
led to a massive decline in some species that could
once call the Thames home. The water vole, for example
- that archetypal Thames-dweller - appears to have disappeared
from two thirds of its historical sites along the river
in under ten years, and is now seriously facing extinction
on the river as a whole.
Yet much of the Thames has survived the twentieth
century intact, and lives on not just in the collective
memory, but between the fields and beneath the skies.
Where it has problems, it can surely be rescued, as
it has been before, if enough people can be found with
imagination and commitment, and if enough of us care
about its unassuming beauty to save it from the bricks
and the bank accounts of the developers.
The Thames has changed and grown with us for centuries,
tracking our triumphs and disasters with its own. Its
fate is interlinked with our own, for if the Thames
ever dies, we will have shown ourselves incapable of
understanding who we are, where we came from, and where
we should be going.