The Thames, a river for the future?

Flotilla of more than 1,000 boats along the Thames to mark Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations evoke river's glorious past and highlight how stretch of water should once again be fully utilised.


    Love or loathe the British monarchy, one thing that filled the heart of many a Londoner during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations was the sight of the flotilla in the rain on the capital’s river.  

    Hundreds of boats making way in the murk, following the Royal Barge on this most historic of waterways, the Thames.

    It was not just the tradition but the fact the river was being used. More often than not, a rubbish barge chuntering to and fro is as majestic as it gets.

    This ribbon of water that meanders eastwards from the hills of Gloucestershire, through eight counties and on into the North Sea, is a mere trickle compared to the mighty rivers of the world. No Amazon or Zambezi, but the Thames was for 2,000 years the lifeblood of this island nation.

    Sea to source

    Ten years ago I motored, sailed, hitched and walked from the North Sea to the very source of the Thames, filming a documentary series. 

    On a brilliant June morning, with the expanse of the Estuary shimmering below, I was winched down from a Sea King helicopter to the deck of an old Thames barge for the start of a three-week journey upstream.

    Up past the rusting crumbling World War Two gun towers that stand sentinel in the river mouth. Into the historic port of Margate where the press gangs once roamed, recruiting for the British navy by force. 

    We met the few remaining cocklemen of Leigh-on-Sea. Moored at Tilbury where the first Queen Elizabeth rallied her troops ahead of the Armada with her infamous speech: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king..." 

    Here too, the dock where the HMS Windrush brought the first influx of immigrants from the Caribbean in 1948. 

    We filmed the rickety old ticket halls where so many Brits checked out of the UK for ever, heading for Australia and New Zealand. The turnstiles were still intact, old tickets fluttered amongst the pigeon feathers, goodbyes echoed off the walls.

    We met old dockers who told wonderful stories of the bounty of trade that used to come and go - ostrich feathers, ivory, rags for the paper industry - and the rats! Now that trade is diminished and hidden in great container vessels.

    They used to say you could walk from one side of the river to the other, across the decks of ships moored side to side in the Pool of London, just downstream of Tower Bridge.

    And on the other side of this iconic crossing, was once a beach, where Londoners used to swim and sunbathe as if it was the seaside.

    Tidal history

    We stopped at Queenshythe near St Pauls. Here, below the tide line, you can find evidence of 2,000 years of history, from fragments of Roman roof tiles, to the clay pipes the dockers puffed a hundred years ago and more.

    Still there, alongside the famous bridges of London, lie the ferry steps, worn down by countless Londoners over the centuries, as they journeyed back and forth across the river. Now tidal weed slimes on untrodden stone.

    Yet, where the tidal Thames was once alive with docks, boatyards and ferrymen, with trade, life and the very energy of the Capital, the river now flows mostly unused.

    And what lies either side, and underneath, this former artery of transport? Why, gridlocked roads and jammed trains, of course.

    The generations who depended on the tide of London are nearly gone but their story is all around. It’s everywhere, if you care to look.

    And their legacy is a lesson for the capital today - London needs to USE that empty expanse of liquid history that is the River Thames.



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