Yeah, yeah, I know, a total cheat. How can a river be a place? It cuts through many places. It just happens to be both fabulous and something I’ve been walking along with the Textiliste and two friends for the last two years or so as we journey from sea to source.
The Thames bubbles to the surface in Gloucestershire nearer the west coast than the east and pitter-patters along for 20 miles or so until a towpath emerges. After that real traffic begins to appear and from Lechlade to the sea it is navigable.
In the 1980s four of us hired a narrow boat for a week, which was blissful until I crushed my hand in a rope (dithering – I seem to recall I was listening to Craig Stadler miss a two foot putt in the Ryder Cup, not that sport is important to me, you understand) and ended up in A&E.
Once on the towpath you criss cross locks and bridges, journeying through beautiful countryside, past the dreaming spires in Oxford, alongside the industry and prison in Reading before the houses get closer and bigger as you enter affluent West London. The path becomes a road and the scenery becomes as familiar as a film set.
Officially the Long Distance Path is 180 miles and ends at the Thames Barrier, close to Woolwich. The river is now tidal and barely estuarine any more. But there are still many miles hugging the Kent and Essex coastlines before you can look left and right (port and starboard – I learnt not that long ago that the word ‘Posh’ is in fact an acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home being the best cabins for going to and from India back in Victorian times – neat, huh?) and only see open sea.
Where was I? Oh yes, out into the North Sea. Here the land is wild and bleak and beloved of migrating birds. Our blond pillock of a mayor wanted to put an airport on a man-made island hereabouts. Dick head.
The Thames, as it passes Teddington lock becomes more and more deadly. In yesteryear that was the pollution from London’s industry but don’t be misled into thinking the Thames is deadly for its water quality today. Yes it is deadly but that is for the tidal race as it hurtles between the embankment walls. Ok, I admit that, until the Tideway tunnel is finished (a huge new sewer that follows the line of the Thames) there will be days when Joseph Bazelgette’s brilliant Victorian sewage system can’t cope and the only current overspill is still the river. But those days are going to end soon and the blue nosed dolphin and the porpoises and the salmon that have been found in the Thames in the last decade will be increasingly common. The London Wildlife Trust estimates there are 125 species of fish that inhabit the tidal Thames – essentially the bit through the city. Not bad for a murky old stream.
If you visit London you see the Thames from all angles. It is almost impossible to appreciate how severe is the meander through the city from ground level. But look at an aerial photo and be amazed at the north-south, east-west configuration.
These days it is pretty empty of traffic, though still Tower Bridge goes up daily (causing some traffic chaos).
When I worked at the Olympics I became utterly disillusioned with my commute to Canary Wharf where the administrative offices were situate. One day the tube entrance at London Bridge had shut and the crowds spilled onto the pavement. Someone near me said he was going to catch the river bus. I’d never thought of that so followed him on the two-minute walk away from the Hieronymus Bosch like nightmare to the river bank. As we waited for the boat a gannet dived into the water and came out, fish in beak. I weighed up the options: a ten minute crush on the tube with my nose pressed into someone’s armpit or twenty minutes on the boat watching the sea birds dip and dive in the murky water?
Difficult decision eh?
The best way to see the Thames? Try this from the bog-mindingly brilliant Olympic Opening Ceremony.