It is essential to know something of a London long past if a journey down Thames is not to be dull.
A DAY on the Thames can be delightful, the only drawback being that quite a number of other people will probably have the same idea if the queues that form by Westminster Bridge are any guide. Still, it is possible to miss the congestion by making an early start in a boat loaded with provincial and over-seas visitors. Even before we lose sight of the dome of St. Paul's, it is a good idea to rub up our knowledge of the past history of London's waterway. Not for nothing did John Burns call its sluggish waters "liquid history'*. Its influence has touched almost every part of our national life. The Victory Pageant, for instance, after the last war revived the role the Thames has so often played in national pageantry for the centuries have seen innumerable royal processions by barge, each invested with quiet dignity. One of the most solemn was when Queen Elizabeth's body was taken by water from Richmond to Whitehall. The occasion was commemorated by the familiar lines by William Camden: "The Queen was brought by water to White-hall; At every stroke the oars did tears let fall: More clung about the Barge, fish under water; Wept out their eyes of pearl, and sworn blind after. I think the Barge-men might with easier thighs Have row'd her thither in her peoples eyes. For how so ere, thus much my thoughts have scan'd; She'd come by water, had she come by land."
The impact of the Thames on our pastimes is more marked. Before the Season begins the Boat Race has held the stage as the first important event of the year. From Putney to Mortlake the banks were lined with thousands of partisan spectators, the majority of whom had only the faintest idea what Oxford and Cambridge looked like. But the summer provides a different type of boat race. The course is from London Bridge to Chelsea. It is rowed by Thames watermen. The prize is Doggett's Coat and Badge; an orange-coloured coat and silver badge after the wishes of Thomas Doggett, a comedian of repute who inaugurated the race in 1716. Henley, as described elsewhere, recalls vibrant summer afternoons, velvety lawns, punts sprinkled with colour like living confetti, whilst the Fourth of June has memories for many of Eton in all its youthful seriousness, even during the Fireworks.
Regattas have for long formed one of our quieter national pleasures. The first one held in England took place on the Thames in 1775. The idea, taken from Venice, was received with enthusiasm by Londoners. The record preserved in the Annual Register throws light on details of the occasion: "On Friday, the 23rd of June, preparations were made in the morning for the celebration of this long-expected show. Before noon several of the companies' and great numbers of pleasure-barges were moored in the river, with flags, etc. Half-a-guinea was asked for a seat in a common barge. Early in the afternoon, the whole river from London Bridge to the Ship Tavern, Millbank, was covered with vessels of pleasure, and there seemed to be a general combination to make a gay evening. Scaffolds were erected on the banks and in the vessels; and even on the top of Westminster Hall there was an erection of that kind. Vessels were moored in the river for the sale of liquors and other refreshments. Before six o'clock it was a perfect fair on both sides of the water, and bad liquor, with short measure, was plentifully retailed. The avenues to Westminster-bridge were covered with gaming-tables... Soon after six, drums, fifes, horns, trumpets, etc., formed several little concerts under the several arches of the bridge. At half past seven the Lord Mayor's barge moved, and falling down the stream made a circle towards the bridge, on which 21 cannons were fired as a salute: and just before it reached the bridge the wager boats started, on the signal of firing a single piece of cannon. They were absent nearly fifty minutes and on their return, the whole procession moved in a picturesque irregularity towards Ranelagh."
The aesthetic appeal of the Thames is strong. It has been noted by many famous names of the Arts. It caught the eye of John Ruskin, who often stayed at the Crown and Thistle at Abingdon. Spenser expressed his thoughts in Prothalamon in exquisite fashion. Shelley's vibrating poem described his impressions as he traced the source of the Thames from Windsor.
Macaulay described the Thames as gliding "under woods of beech round the gentle hills of Berkshire". More recently Robert Bridges added his quota of praise from his home at Boar's Hill. When Cowley died in Chertsey, his body was taken to Westminster Abbey on the river that meant so much to him during his life. Two hundred years ago Twickenham was the hub of an artistic community that included Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; Thomson and Gay, the poets; Pope; Walpole; Kitty Clive, the actress, and Dean Swift. The following century saw Tennyson living in Montpellier Road. Dickens introduced the Thames in Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations, whilst Bill Sikes's progress to Chertsey is marked with intimate knowledge of the route. The impressions gained by Peter John Grosley on his visit to London in 1765 drew attention to the difficulty of getting an uninterrupted view of the Thames "unless I entered the houses and manufactories which stand close to the river". He decided that the refusal to widen the vista was due to "the natural bent of the English, and in particular of the people of London, to suicide", which he ascribed to "the melancholy which predominates in their constitutions".
Architecturally, the Thames can more than hold its own. Royal palaces have risen on its banks. During the reign of James I the list included Hampton Court, Windsor, Richmond, Oatlands, Whitehall, Greenwich, Westminster and the Tower of London. Private mansions would include Clivedon, Nuneham Park and Mapledunham House. Defoe's praise is understandable... "from Richmond to London, the river sides are full of villages, and those villages so full of beautiful buildings, charming gardens, and rich habitations of gentlemen of quality that nothing in the world can imitate it".
The bridges that span the Thames are a subject apart. The majority of the London ones are comparatively modern. Waterloo Bridge takes the place of Rennie's elegant structure. His bridge at Southwark has also been replaced. Eighteenth-century architecture concentrated on grace at the expense of strength. Robert Milne built Blackfriars Bridge in pleasing fashion, but the stone was not durable enough to last even a century. Richmond Bridge was erected in 1780, but had to be widened. Westminster Bridge, originally built by the Swiss architect, John Labelye in 1750, like the others, had to be replaced. For antiquity it is necessary to go to the upper Thames where New Bridge can claim to be thirteenth century, likewise Radcot, whilst the most beautiful bridge might be claimed by Magdalen, Oxford.
The tributaries of the Thames flow through many kinds of countryside... Cotswold, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire Downs, Berkshire, Surrey, Kent, Hertfordshire, Chilterns and Essex. The Kennet would be my choice, mainly through its famous trout fishing, but for historic interest I turn to the tributaries that used to flow through London. They are still there, only engulfed by bricks and mortar. The Tyburn can be traced under Oxford Street, Brook Street, Mill Street, Green Park, and eventually finished in the lake of St. James's Park. The Westbourne can be followed from Paddington to the Serpentine. The Fleet rose near Ken Wood and went through Kentish Town, Camden Town, Kings Cross, Clerkenwell, Holborn Bridge and Fleet Street before joining the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge. Originally the river was navigable up to Holborn Bridge, but silt and filth closed it several centuries ago* Dean Swift's comments were doubtless earned: "Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood."
It is essential to know something of a London long past if a journey down Thames is not to be dull. Landmarks seem to be gloomy warehouses and dismal streets, but how many know that Cherry Garden Pier is a link with the days when Pepys knew it as an attractive orchard. Bermondsey is hardly inviting, but in that district we would find Crucifix Lane, which recalls the Holy Rood of the long-departed Abbey, and Jamaica Road, where Pepys used to find entertainment, whilst Spa Road is a link with the tiny spa and its chalybeate spring which Thomas Keyse, the artist, opened about 1770. Looking at the scene it is difficult to realize that crowded boats used to carry people from London to enjoy their tea and firework displays in this little spa. Some associations are less pleasant. The Tunnel Pier at Wapping is the scene of the Execution Dock where pirates went to the gallows. After being hung, the corpses were flung into an iron cage which swung in the river until immersed by three tides. Such was the fate of Captain Kidd after attempts to hang him had failed through the rope being faulty. The Newgate Calendar catties a footnote referring to his death: cc ln cases of this distressing nature and which hath often happened to the miserable sufferer, the sheriff ought to be punished. It is his duty to carry the sentence of law into execution, and there can be no plea for not providing a rope of sufficient strength."
The river folk have their own London, their own traditions, their own superstitions. It is a world quite apart wreathed in the mists that have always cloaked the waterways of London.London Seeason, By Louis T. Stanley | [As Written]