The River Thames is best known for being the capital's river, but only a small percentage of it runs through London. It begins its 215-mile1 journey at Trewsbury Mead in Gloucestershire, winds its way through and between a further eight English counties, and passes through towns and cities such as Oxford (where it is known as the River Isis), Reading, Henley, Maidenhead, Windsor, Kingston and Teddington before it becomes tidal at Teddington Lock, arrives at London, sweeps past Tilbury and Canvey Island until it meets the sea between Southend in Essex and Sheerness in Kent. The river is joined by many tributaries (some now underground) and canals all the way from beginning to end.
Without the River Thames, there would have been no London. In 43 AD the Romans sailed up the river and chose the first place that was suitable to bridge. A pair of gravel hills divided by a small stream and surrounded by streams and bogs must have appeared to be easily defensible on the north bank, with firm footing on the other side, and a natural narrowing of the river here. It was also easy to get to as, being tidal all the way, boats and ships could follow the tides, saving energy. London (or Londinium as it was known then) was born. Although there had been native settlements here, the Romans really put London on the map.
There are over 100 bridges across the navigable Thames. 19 are footbridges, 22 are for rail and 65 are road bridges. Within the capital itself, the most famous bridges are the instantly recognisable Tower Bridge and the first bridge built across the river, London Bridge. The last bridge on the Thames before the sea is the Queen Elizabeth II, and the first one after the river rises is the Thames Head Bridge which carries the A433, the old Roman road, Fosse Way. The first bridge across the navigable section is Halfpenny Bridge at Lechdale.
The navigable river starts at Inglesham and Lechlade in Oxfordshire, although small craft can get further up to Cricklade. With 125 miles of navigable, non-tidal waters, the Thames is home to many different types of boating. It has 44 locks to navigate, and narrow boats, motor cruisers and even dragon boats can be seen at various times and places. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race is held annually between Putney and Chiswick, and the Henley Royal Regatta is also annual, between Temple Island (Buckinghamshire) and Poplar Point (Oxfordshire).
For many people, the epitome of boating on the Thames is captured by the 19th-Century comic masterpiece, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. Published in 1888, it describes a journey by three ordinary blokes in a rowboat from Kingston to Oxford. Immensely popular, the book sold millions of copies and has never been out of print. For us in the 21st Century it appears to describe a rural idyllic world long past - but, in fact, outside of London the river has not changed a lot. There may be the occasional motorway bridge going overhead, but Jerome, George and Harris would still find the surroundings familiar. The locks, the swans and the pubs are still there. It is still possible to hire a boat for three, fitted with hoops and a raincover, and to spend a week on the Thames.
Unfortunately, it's not all happy holidays and pleasure cruisers on the Thames. In 1878 the paddle steamer SS Princess Alice collided with a coal cargo ship and sank, causing around 600 people to die. This had important repercussions for boating practices, which still stand to this day.
The Thames is home to over 115 species of fish, so fishing is a pastime often seen on the banks of the river. Fish include trout in the westerly chalk streams, and sea fish in the estuary, along with salmon, pike, chub, barbel, perch, and roach, among others.
Like most rivers, the Thames is teeming with wildlife. Insects, amphibians and water-dwelling mammals can all be found on the river, along with visits from birds such as heron and kingfishers. Although it has a reputation for being dirty (in London that's just the mud making it look that dirty colour), it is cleaner now than at any time in its recorded history.
Swans have a special place in royal life, and so on the Thames. In the 12th Century swans were considered a great delicacy and were eaten at banquets and feasts, so were all marked by nicks cut into their beaks to show who they belonged to.
Since then, the Crown has been entitled to own all unmarked swans (in effect the cygnets) in open waters all over the country, but this right is only exercised on certain areas of the Thames and its tributaries. The Vintners' and Dyers' Companies were granted limited rights in the 15th Century, and now no other companies observe the tradition; the majority share still goes to the monarch, who does not mark these swans, and the swans themselves are no longer destined for the table.
Every year 'Swan Upping' takes place to check over the latest generation of swans and ring them to improve conservation efforts on their behalf.
World Heritage Sites
World Heritage is the designation for places on earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.
- UNESCO's World Heritage Centre
There are numerous World Heritage Sites along the path of the Thames which include:
Royals and other influential people often built their homes beside the river. It was easier to travel on the river than on the congested roads, and usually quicker. The view was also much nicer, although Bridewell Palace had been built too close to the Fleet River, and was abandoned by its royal inhabitants due to the stench.
Hampton Court Palace
The grounds the palace is built on were originally occupied by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, who arrived in 1236. By the 15th Century the buildings were used as a rural retreat and it changed hands a number of times. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey owned it until 1528, when he lost it to King Henry VIII. He had fallen out of favour after failing to acquire Henry's much-desired divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
This began 200 years of Royals living in the palace, before George III was crowned and became more interested in Windsor Castle. The palace was still well-maintained and lived in by various 'favourites' of the Royals until it became a visitor attraction and host to the annual Royal Horticultural Society Flower Show.
Built on the bank of the Thames at Windsor, Windsor Castle is the largest inhabited castle in the world. It is also the oldest in continuous habitation, having been built by William the Conqueror in the 1070s to defend the western approach to London, just one day's march away. Some areas were rebuilt in stone over the years as the original was in timber, but the outer walls are still in the same position that they were nearly 1,000 years ago.
It has a colourful history: Oliver Cromwell used it as a prison during the Civil War, George IV redesigned some areas in the gothic style and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert spent much of their time here. One fifth of the castle was destroyed by fire in 1992, and Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh held their Golden Wedding Anniversary Ball there after it had been repaired in 1997. It is the Queen's official residence.
No description of the River Thames could be complete without some mention of the sights that can be seen when journeying by river through the capital. Here are some of the best that London has to offer.
Battersea Park is one of the many parks in London. It edges onto the Thames between Albert Bridge and Chelsea Bridge, and includes a children's zoo, a lake, a bowling green, a fountain, a deer enclosure, an adventure playground, a 100-feet-high Peace Pagoda built by Buddhist monks and nuns, and an area for boules.
The park was opened in 1858 by Queen Victoria, as a way of keeping the lower classes out of trouble by giving them something to do. Other interesting landmarks in Battersea include Battersea Power Station and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.
The Palace of Westminster is better known as the Houses of Parliament, which are on the site of the palace. It was the principal residence of kings from the 11th Century to the 16th, when it began to be home to more administrative, judicial and parliamentary duties.
Most of the palace burnt down in 1834, and the buildings we see today are the wonderful Victorian gothic architecture that replaced the originals, along with one of the few surviving buildings, the medieval Westminster Hall, one of the largest left standing in Europe. The clock tower houses the bell, Big Ben. The tower itself is simply called the Clock Tower, and has the second largest clock face in the country after the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool.
Westminster Abbey still holds services daily, and is the traditional church for Royalty to marry in. Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer took the unusual step of being married in St Paul's Cathedral in 1981. Prince Andrew and his sister Princess Anne chose the more traditional venue of Westminster Abbey for their first marriages, while Prince Edward chose St George's Chapel at Windsor.
It is also the place where every monarch since William the Conqueror2 was crowned. It was the resting place of the Lia Fail, the Stone of Scone. For 700 years, it rested underneath the throne where monarchs were crowned.
The South Bank
The South Bank is an important cultural area, and is home to such institutions as the London South Bank University, the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the National Theatre, the National Film Theatre, and the British Film Institute. The area is also home to the London Eye, the Tate Modern, and Shakespeare's Globe.
The Thames Path National Trail is a long distance riverside walk from Thames Head (where the Thames rises in Gloucestershire) to Crayford marshes, connecting with the London Loop, another long-distance walk around London. The Thames path is 190 miles long, and takes ramblers through some of the most beautiful countryside that England has to offer. It is one of the longest National Trails in England and Wales and the only one to follow the Thames - it follows the original towpath as much as possible.
One site along the river at Wapping was known as Execution Dock - now the site of the Town of Ramsgate public house. Piracy was rife when the Thames was at its busiest, and convicted criminals were hanged at the side of the river, and left 'until three tides had overflowed them'. The idea was that the sight of hanged and rotting men and women would be a deterrent to others. Bodies were hanged at Wapping, and then moved to gibbets at Bugsby's Hole near Blackwater.
The River Thames boasted the first ever organised police force - the Thames Police. The force was set up in 1798 to prevent and detect crime on the Thames in London. It was absorbed into the Metropolitan Police in 1839 and became known as Thames Division. It is now policed by the Marine Support Unit of the Met.
The Thames in London froze regularly throughout the years. Between 1620 and 1814 it froze 23 times, leading to frost fairs. This was mainly due to London Bridge preventing the Thames from flowing smoothly and, in cold weather, stopping the flow completely.