Thursday, 7 June 2012

A Walk on the Thames

The River Thames runs from its dribbling source near Cirencester to the ten huge steel gates of the Woolwich Flood Barrier. I’ve walked every one of its 184 miles.

Each part of this epic walk has its own character and atmosphere, but the closer the Thames comes to London the more history you encounter. On the final stretch, three periods in the Thames’ life particularly come to mind – and how I would love to have witnessed them first hand!

First, we go back to the seventeenth century. The19 narrow arches of old London Bridge slowed the flow of the river and during severe winters it froze over. This gave rise to the “frost fairs”.

The first proper frost fair came in 1683. The river froze over in December, and stayed solid for two months. Londoners soon took to the ice. The fairs were a great commercial opportunity. Traders set up two parallel rows of stalls between the banks of the river. Some enterprising businessmen cashed in by providing entertainments for the visitors. With so many people eager to buy any souvenir, prices soon went up. As one popular rhyme stated:

'What you can buy for threepence on the shore, will cost your fourpence on the Thames, or more.'

You could prove you had been to a frost fair by buying a certificate from the resourceful merchant who had lugged his printing press onto the ice. A certificate has survived from the visit made by Charles II and his family.

More frost fairs followed. Each time the entertainment became more varied: fairground rides, swings, skittles, dancing and singing, bear baiting and horse racing.

In 1831 John Rennie's bridge replaced the old structure. It had wider arches and improved the flow of the river. Since then London’s Thames has kept moving, even during the harshest winters.

The second period I would like to have witnessed was the golden age of the Port of London. During the late 1700s and the 1800s the Port was the largest and most prosperous in the world. Ships from all around the globe brought exotic cargoes such as spices, rum and luxurious fabrics.

Every ship’s captain had to declare his cargo at Customs House, the spectacular building which still stands on the north bank. Until the captain had paid his tax he was not allowed to unload or sell his cargo. Imagine the spectacle of the 400 ships which could be waiting at any one time outside Customs House.

The cargo of each ship had to be weighed, measured and examined. Once the duty was paid a release certificate was issued. You could circumvent this time-consuming and expensive process by forging the certificate, but those caught faced the death penalty.

 My final period would be during the eighteenth century when the City’s Lord Mayor travelled down the river to Westminster to receive the Monarch’s approval for his tenure of office.  At first a few friends turned up in their barges to accompany the Mayor, but this custom gradually grew into a spectacular event. Probably the most memorable occasion was the one captured by Italian artist, Canaletto. His huge painting depicts an assembly of barges, sloops, pinnaces, skiffs, wherries and bumboats. You can see the puffs of gun salutes and St Paul’s dwarfs the church  towers and spires of the City skyline.

I shall never see the Thames frozen over, and nor will the Port of London ever recapture its glory days. However my third wish was granted on Sunday 3rd June 2012 when over one thousand boats collected on the River Thames to take part in the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant.

The Pageant celebrated Her Majesty's 60 years of service by magnificently bringing the Thames to life; making it joyously full of rowing boats, long boats, steamers and motorised vessels, resounding with clanging bells, tooting horns and piercing whistles. The Pageant recalled the Thames’s royal heritage and its heyday as a working, bustling river.

 Answers to June’s  “Do you know?”

 1 b, 2 a, 3 d, 4 b, 5 c, 6 d, 7 d, 8 a

 How good is your knowledge on the River Thames? Try this month's quiz on

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