Totally Thames River Festival

One of the following sentences is false: an elephant has walked on the River Thames; a 15m-high rubber duck and a giant inflatable hippo have swum on it; and pigs might fly. OK, so the last one is a phrase a Brit might utter when faced with an impossible scenario – but the other two are real events. The River Thames has an almighty past. In fact, London wouldn’t be where it is without it, as settlements started to gather around the water from around 450,000 BC. Stretching 346km (215 miles) from Kemble in Gloucestershire to the English Channel, the river was a lifeline for the local community, which became known as Londinium after the Romans invaded around AD 50, settling near where London Bridge is today. Here we take a look at some of the river’s more surprising moments.


The first Lord Mayor (a ceremonial role not to be confused with the politically powerful Mayor of London) was appointed in 1189, on the condition that he’d travel to Westminster to swear loyalty to the monarch. The journey was made by barge along the Thames – over time, the trip grew into the Lord Mayor’s Show, an annual procession which now sees the Lord Mayor travel in a horse-drawn gilded coach, too. You can get up close to the coach at the Museum of London, or return in autumn to watch this year’s spectacular show (10 November).

In the 17th century, the River Thames would occasionally freeze over. The first frost fair, which took place in 1607, was celebrated with bowling, fairground rides, musical shows and performing animals in tents, and stalls selling roasted ox and mutton pies. Subsequent fairs saw revellers enjoy sledging, skating, bull-baiting, puppet shows and horse races. During the last frost fair of 1814, an elephant walked across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. If you can’t come back to experience London’s winter festivals and outdoor skating, then don’t miss Southwark sculptor Richard Kindersley’s illustrated poem about frost fairs, which he has engraved on slate. You will find it in the pedestrian tunnel under Southwark Bridge, near Shakespeare’s Globe.


The first Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race took place after two students from each competing university set it up in 1829. Oxford won, but Cambridge is now in the lead with 83 wins to Oxford’s 80. The 6.8km race (just over four miles) has taken place annually since 1856 (except during the two world wars). If you’re not here for the next race (7 April), watch rowers on a stroll from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge, via Fulham Palace.

This boating festival, which takes place in July, has grown from a single day with a carnival atmosphere to a competitive five-day event, in which Prince Albert competed in 1851. The race has been held annually since 1839, except during World War I and World War II. The 2.1km course (1.3 miles) has remained the same since 1924: from Temple Island to Poplar Point. If you can’t return in July, visit Henley-on-Thames’ River & Rowing Museum. Children can dress up in Victorian costume and make a cup of tea in Mr Toad’s caravan at the Wind in the Willows exhibition, which has 3D models and music. You can also see the boat that won the first Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and learn how the Thames was used for trading.

Don’t miss this year’s Great River Race (8 September) which, at 33.8km (21 miles), is dubbed London’s river marathon. Since 1988, MPs, TV and sporting stars, and singers such as Sting have fired the cannon that kick-starts the race. Around 2,400 participants – many dressed as pirates, Smurfs or perhaps wearing tutus – row from the Docklands near Canary Wharf to Ham House in Surrey in all manner of boats, so look out for Hawaiian war canoes, Viking long boats and Chinese dragon boats. The route passes under Tower Bridge and past Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Kew Gardens and Syon House.

While most commonly found in deep water off the coast of Scotland, Norway and Greenland, in 2006 a northern bottlenose whale was discovered off course in the Thames. After navigating the Thames Barrier, it ended up near Battersea. The river was closed to traffic for the first time since Winston Churchill’s funeral, to give experts the chance to beach it and assess its health. Sadly, the rescue attempt failed and the whale died. Learn about whales at the Natural History Museum (which displayed the Thames whale’s skeleton earlier this year), or see sharks and jellyfish at SEA LIFE London Aquarium.;

The comedian David Walliams swam 225km (140 miles) along the Thames from Lechlade in Gloucestershire to Big Ben over eight days. The feat involved battling currents, river traffic, illness and angry swans, but it raised £1m for the Big Splash Challenge for Sport Relief, which uses funds raised through sport to help vulnerable people around the world. While we wouldn’t recommend diving in to one of the UK’s busiest shipping lanes, if you fancy a dip, swim in calmer spots around Henley-on-Thames or in the Bathing Ponds on Hampstead Heath.

Visitors and locals alike gawped as a giant yellow rubber duck floated from West India Docks past The O2, Old Royal Naval College, the Tower of London and The Shard to London Bridge in 2012 – Tower Bridge even lifted for it. Weighing half a ton, the 15m-high, 18m-long bird was a publicity stunt by the games company Jackpotjoy, which had launched a bursary granting funds for madcap ideas. Who said Brits are reserved?

Around 900 million people around the world watched as footballer David Beckham captained a speedboat carrying the Olympic torch during the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The boat sped from HMS Belfast and City Hall, then under Tower Bridge – just as fireworks were set off in the colours of the Olympic rings – and all the way to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London. You can relive the sporting glory with ThamesJet’s ThamesRush package, which speeds under Tower Bridge.

Daniel Craig was also spotted shooting along the River Thames in a speedboat, past MI6 headquarters, while filming the James Bond film Spectre. Meanwhile, the opening sequence of The World is Not Enough shows Pierce Brosnan taking part in a spectacular chase scene down the river in a speedboat. If you’re a wannabe spy, then charter a private boat – Thames Rockets’ Licence to Thrill experience hurtles along the water at 30 knots. Incidentally, budding spies can buy cameras disguised as car keys, pens and coffee cups at Bluemoon Spy Shop London in Paddington, or learn to be a private investigator at a Bluemoon College workshop.;;

Since 2014, Totally Thames festival (1-30 September) has brought more than 100 river-themed events to the capital. As well as photography and film, previous events have included boat races, barge pulls, paddleboarding, a river swim and river clean-ups, while last year saw an illuminated installation made of plastic collected from riverside beaches tour the Thames at night. This year, the festival celebrates the river’s heritage, traditions and stories with a return of concerts in the Bascule Chambers beneath Tower Bridge (20-23 Sep). Look out, too, for a poetry boat party (24-29 Sep) and Doggett’s, The World’s Oldest Boat Race exhibition (8-24 Sep). This year’s race (4 Sep) has a giant inflatable hippo, too!

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