London’s River Festivals

Totally Thames Festival 
London wouldn’t be what it is without The River Thames, so it’s only right that it’s celebrated once in a while. The annual Totally Thames festival (1-30 Sep) brings more than 150 events to the capital, from underground concerts to illuminated art.

Totally Thames’ director Adrian Evans says: ‘For our 20th birthday, we are exploring the working river and the history of the Thames’ boatyards through spoken word and oral history, film and photography. We’re also celebrating our beautiful river with boat races, barge pulls, rallies, paddleboarding – even a river swim!’

Taking the 300th anniversary of Handel’s Water Music as inspiration, composer Iain Chambers is hosting Bascule Chamber Concerts inside Tower Bridge (22-24 Sep). The concerts feature live recordings of river sounds and performances from clarinettist Kate Romano and spoken word artist Kayo Chingonyi, while the Franco-Cameroonian singer Coco Mbassi performs a piece inspired by boats carrying immigrants.

In keeping with the theme of river stories, Working River: London’s Boatyards (1-30 Sep) brings to life the history of the river’s boatyards through oral history, film and photography, while spoken word artists spend time on boats before performing Boat Poets at the Royal Festival Hall (6, 25 & 28 Sep). Don’t miss the Rivers of the World exhibition at City Hall, either (1-30 Sep).

Another festival theme is plastic pollution. As the World Economic Forum has predicted there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, Maria Arceohas collected a year’s worth of plastic from 40 beaches along the Thames to create Future Dust. The large-scale installation tours the river and is illuminated at night by Dutch light artist Tim Scheffer (1-30 Sep).

Angel Canal Festival 
Canal Festival (3 Sep) on Regent’s Canal in north London.

Originally set up for inner-city children, over time the festival turned into an annual tea party and, later, into Angel Day. Then, in 1986, it developed into the Angel Canal Festival. This year, more than 7,000 people are expected to attend.

The founder, the late Crystal Hale, saved the City Road Basin from being filled in and being built on. You can celebrate her success and love for the water by enjoying boat trips and races, a colourful regatta and kayaking.

Event organiser Beryl Windsor says: ‘The festival is a slice of British life, like a village fete but with boats. We have 60 stalls, including ones selling world food, five acoustic bands including ska and jazz, folk and ukulele music, Morris dancers and a chance for anybody over nine to learn to canoe or sail.’

The Mayor of Islington arrives by boat from the London Canal Museum in King’s Cross, while Pearly Kings and Queens – respected members of the community dressed in suits covered in pearl buttons, as is the East End tradition – roam the festival.

A funfair, donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows and storytellers entertain children, who can also try pottery, hire pedaloes, get up close to hawks and owls and play on a pirate ship.

The Great River Race 
If you’re craving adrenaline, don’t miss The Great River Race (9 Sep). At 21.6 miles (34.7km), the contest is a virtual marathon on water. More than 330 international crews take part as they set sail from the Docklands in east London.

The teams pass under 10 bridges along the way, including Tower Bridge, Chiswick, Kew and Richmond, before a cannon announces the winner at the end of the route in Ham, Surrey.

But the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race this is not – so expect fancy dress, dragon boats and face painting, before joining participants for drinks in The Great River Race marquee by Ham House. It’s a great day out for both participants and spectators.

How To Enjoy The River Thames 

Cruise Control
Tick off the capital’s key sights in one go on a City Cruises tour with live audio commentary. Thames Clippers stretches as far as Putney and Woolwich. Got children? Take to the water on an amphibious van and boat hybrid with London Duck Tours (to 17 Sep), which has James Bond and pirate treasure hunt-themed tours.

For something more sedate, opt for an afternoon tea or lunch cruise with Bateaux London. Its dinner cruise has live entertainment.
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Splash About
See the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge on a four-hour kayaking trip with Kayak London, or paddleboard with Active360, which runs occasional guided tours around Kew Bridge (14 Sep). Or sign up for ThamesJet’s thrilling speedboat ride.

Bird’s Eye View
For a unique perspective of the River Thames, see it from the glass floor of Tower Bridge, 42m above the waves. Alternatively, climb the iconic O2 arena.

Up at The O2, which celebrates its fifth birthday this year, gives thrillseekers the chance to take a 90-minute guided expedition over the roof of the arena. The walkway is 52m above ground level and 380m long. At its steepest point the walkway has an incline of 28° on the way up and 30° on the way back down, and has a slight bounce to it to mirror the surface of the tent.

Riverbank Bars
There are riverside pubs up and down the Thames. Dating from 1520, The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping (closed 19-23 Sep) backs on to the water. In the west, you’ll find The Ship in Mortlake. Built in 1781, its terrace overlooks the finish line of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

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