In praise of Old Father Thames
At the end of last week I was able to take a couple of days off to walk part of the Thames Path with my son, starting in Wandsworth and ending up in Cholsey in Oxfordshire. Blessed with some lovely summer weather it was a thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing break but it also made me reflect on rivers and, in particular, the Thames.
From a modern perspective it is easy to underestimate the significance of rivers in previous ages. While the Thames is at the heart of London’s identity and its most important cultural reference point it is hard today to imagine how completely central it was in the past to all aspects of London life. Since the invention of the railways at the end of the 19th century, we have been used to travelling, with relative comfort, to all parts of the country by land. Before then, however, water was by far the most important means of transporting both people and goods. Even the Romans with their fabled reputation for roads were heavily dependent on river transport.
The Thames has had a particular significance which has been central to the dominance of London, connecting, as it does, the capital both to the agricultural heartland of Southern England and to the sea. The Thames path, largely based on the original towpath, is itself a testament to the importance of the river as an economic highway.
A string of royal palaces: Hampton Court, Richmond, Windsor, to name but those we walked past, are a tribute to its political importance. Now, as in the past, the rich and powerful have chosen the Thames as the place to settle and display their wealth, and in many but not all cases, their taste.
Its economic importance may be diminished but the Thames remains a busy place with the river full of pleasure boats of all shapes and sizes. Our first day included the course of the Boat Race, our fourth that of the Henley Royal Regatta (with its elaborate village of restaurants, bars and other sources of riverside entertainment in the process of being taken down). We passed tens of rowing clubs on our journey and many rowers: the very serious and those just messing about on the river.
The Thames is a now an ecological success story. 50 years ago it was a dead and dirty river but as in other cases where our industrial past, has faded nature has fought back and reasserted itself. As we walked down the river we saw a wealth of birdlife, some of it familiar some more exotic. All sorts of fish now live again in Thames where only too recently nothing could survive. A series of nature reserves along the route such as the London Wetland Centre provide the opportunity to see and learn about some of the rare wildlife which has remerged around the river.
A river makes a brilliant companion for a long walk. It remains beside your side while slowly changing in its own character as it casts off its urban regalia and puts on my comfortable country garb. A particularly attractive discovery of the trip was the succession of aits or eyots (an old anglo-saxon term) small islands which bedeck the river like jewels along its course.
Then there are the bridges, the most obvious landmarks for progress along the river and each with their different character. Some like the bridges at Hammersmith, Richmond and Chertsey provide some of the most elegant viewpoints on the route; others like those which carry the M3 or M25 across the river are a less welcome intrusion of contemporary things onto the more tranquil world of the river. The private toll bridge between Pangbourne and Whitchurch on Thames (in the course of being rebuilt) was a lovely discovery and an interesting reminder that private enterprise has a long track record in the control of means of transport. In the past, as well as bridges, as series of ferries would also ply the river. Few now survive but it was good that our journey included one from Weybridge to Shepperton, a touching reminder of times past.
The river has its literary associations. We followed in the steps of some of Dickens’ characters, ambled along stretches of the river in which Kenneth Grahame set Wind in the Willows and were often reminded of Jerome K Jerome’s hilarious Three Men in the Boat.
I have often thought that a river provides an apt metaphor for the passing of history and one’s own life. Much of the character of England is played out along the Thames . A few days walking along its banks are a good and peaceful way of reflecting on both.