How To Explore The River Thames
If the River Thames could talk, what stories would it tell? Chosen by the Romans in 50AD as the ideal spot for a settlement, the river has served as a lifeline to the capital – originally called Londinium – ever since. Over the centuries, the Thames has found itself at the centre of many of the country’s most historic moments, from the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 (on an island near Windsor) to the transportation of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace and Guy Fawkes to the Tower of London by boat. Handel’s Water Music was first performed on George I’s barge, pilots used the river to navigate during the Blitz, and Claude Monet was so enamoured by the Thames, he painted it three times.
‘To walk along the River Thames is to gaze on 2,000 years of liquid history,’ says Adrian Evans, director of Totally Thames (1-30 Sep), the world’s biggest river-based celebration. ‘For a long time,
it had only one crossing: London Bridge. Most of the bridges you see were added in Victorian times.’ The most famous is Tower Bridge, which allows ships to pass through it when it’s raised. Even Westminster Bridge has its charms, as it matches the green benches in the House of Commons.
If you find yourself a little chilly one night, remember it could be worse: between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Thames often froze over, prompting Londoners to throw Frost Fairs on the ice. ‘The last one, in 1814, had an elephant dancing under Blackfriars Bridge,’ says Evans. By the mid-19th century, the Thames was so polluted. Parliament had to abandon sittings due to the smell, known as the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858. A sewerage system was then introduced to clean up the water, which is still used today.
Take a walk along the River Thames now and you’ll encounter historic buildings, including palaces and monasteries, side-by-side with modern landmarks, from the London Eye to The O2 arena. The South Bank teems with theatres, galleries, food markets, attractions and restaurants, while on the Thames itself, you can enjoy river cruises and high-octane activities, such as a speedboat tour of London.
There’s no better time to explore this majestic waterway than during the Totally Thames festival, which sees the 42-mile stretch of river filled with arts and culture events. This year there are more than 150 events with something for everyone, from art installations to river races. ‘Our major art commission this year is Floating Dreams by Ik-Joong Kang, one of South Korea’s most important artists,’ says Evans. ‘It is based on the memories of people, now in their 80s and 90s, who were displaced by the Korean War. The millions currently on the move from war-torn areas give particular poignancy to Ik-Joong’s remarkable floating island of dreams.’
Other highlights include Light up the Ladies Bridge (22-23 Sep) and The Singing Bridge (9-25 Sep) – two free events exploring the history of Waterloo Bridge, which was predominately rebuilt by a female workforce during World War II. Over at The Brunel Museum’s remarkable Sinking Shaft underground performance space, theatregoers can see Mooring (1-9 Sep; except Sun) – a play about riverside homelessness, inspired by true events.
At Tower Bridge, last year’s sell-out Bascule Chamber Concerts (24-25 Sep) return, with composer Iain Chambers and the award-winning Juice Vocal Ensemble and Ben See Group. Descend into the bridge’s subterranean space and listen to classic and contemporary music while surrounded by the landmark’s extraordinary Victorian engineering. Meanwhile, thrill-seekers should check out the fastest growing watersport in the world during the first ever Stand-Up Paddleboard (SUP) Relay Race on the river (1-25 Sep). Who needs dancing elephants with this tide of entertainment on the Thames?