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Father Thames

The beauty of the River Thames springs from its human scale

Unpublished, 1998

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 in England.

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 it.

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.