The ‘liquid history’ of our Old Father Thames

I’VE spent most of my life on, in or around the River Thames and it has never ceased to fascinate me – and occasionally I find myself pondering the question: Why?

Sometimes I’ve heard people say – ‘It’s just a river – what’s so special about that?’ – which simply makes me think they have no soul or no imagination or neither.

I’m not going to try to over-analyse what it is about the Thames that draws me to it – wherever I am – but if there is one phrase that probably comes closest to summing it up it is ‘liquid history.’

Old Father Thames has been winding his way from Lechlade to the sea since prehistoric times.

The river has seen countless changes as man has extended his influence over the surrounding land, from the tentative first steps to tame the Thames by the building of locks and weirs, from the construction of bridges, the development of housing along its banks and the growth of industries, which made use of the river to ship their goods both to other parts of the United Kingdom and much farther afield during the days of empire.

It has watched momentous events – the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215; the building of Hampton Court Palace and the waterborne processions that carried monarchs from the Tower of London to that glorious edifice; the Great Fire of London in 1666; the pounding of the London docks by the Luftwaffe in 1940, the celebration of our current Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012; the list goes on.

The river has provided work for generations – from traditional wooden boat builders, who have used their skills to construct both pleasure craft and ships of war through to the lightermen and tugboat skippers who used to haul cargoes of timber, brick and coal along its length.

And despite our best efforts to abuse the river – by dumping our sewage into its waters, by polluting it with chemicals, diesel oil and all manner of rubbish, it continues to serve us as a source of pleasure, commerce and interest.

It’s true that occasionally, Old Father Thames hits back at those arrogant enough to believe that we have him under our collective thumbs.

The catastrophic floods that devastated the lives of so many riverside dwellers last winter are ample evidence of that. But generally, he is content to go on rolling along, watching our efforts without any kind of judgement.

These days, there is far less industry on the Thames than there used to be and the river is now mainly used for leisure pursuits – fishing, sailing, motor-boating, rowing or even swimming.

But that fact doesn’t diminish the role that the Thames has played in our lives for hundreds of years.

Every time I step aboard a boat or take a walk along the banks of the river, I find myself thinking about others who have done similar things in the past.

Was King John aware of the worldwide significance of that grand charter to which he applied his seal at Runnymede?

Did Henry VIII stand where I am now standing on the riverbank looking at the water while he considered ways to try to resolve some important matter of state? What was great train robber Buster Edwards thinking as he boarded the cabin cruiser at Shepperton which was to whisk him away from the pursuing police and off to South America?

Yes, I think that’s it – it’s the liquid history that has me hooked.

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