Totally Thames River Festival
London probably wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for our beloved, murky river, so the fact that the Totally Thames festival (1-30 Sep) covers an entire month is fitting. Dive in (not literally, or you might get ill) with 30 days of events up and down the river.
The programme includes The Ship of Tolerance (pictured above), a floating sculpture that’s 18m (60ft) long and has sails decorated by hundreds of children. The ship has been sailing around the world to spread a message of universal connectivity through art and is docked at the Millennium Bridge (from 4 Sep).
The fascinating Foragers of the Foreshore exhibition (24-29 Sep) is dedicated to London’s mudlarks, who like to dig around in the River Thames mud in search of long-lost treasures. Head to the Bargehouse at the OXO Tower to see all sorts of artefacts. www.totallythames.org
The Great River Race (14 Sep) is known as London’s marathon on the river. Sailers from all over the western hemisphere are expected, steering anything from a Chinese dragon boat to a Hawaiian war canoe. Starting in the Docklands, the first boat should sail through Tower Bridge at 11.45am; the race ends in Richmond. www.greatriverrace.co.uk
For the rather more sedate sightseer, there’s also Regatta London (29 Sep), where participants take to the water in either a kayak, canoe, rowing boat or paddleboard. www.regatta.london
Elsewhere, Thames Clippers is running Illuminated River Official Boat Tours throughout September, allowing you to sail beneath new light installations adorning the Thames’ bridges. It's also hosting a Heritage Cruise from London Bridge City Pier to Barking and back with the author Iain Sinclair (16 Sep; 7.15pm-9.15pm; booking essential), who will be telling ticketholders all sorts of Thames stories. www.thamesclippers.com/totallythames
The might River Thames stretches 346km (215 miles) from Kemble in Gloucestershire to the English Channel. Read on as we take a look at some of the more surprising moments from the river's history.
THE LORD MAYOR OF LONDON
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 (9 Nov). www.lordmayorsshow.london
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 (29 Mar 2020), watch rowers on a stroll from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge, via Fulham Palace. www.theboatrace.org
HENLEY ROYAL REGATTA
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. www.hrr.co.uk
A WHALE IN THE THAMES
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), or see sharks and jellyfish at SEA LIFE London Aquarium. www.nhm.ac.uk; www.visitsealife.com
SWIMMING THE THAMES
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.
DUCK ON THE WATER
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?
OLYMPICS OPENING CEREMONY
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. www.thamesjet.com
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. www.thamesrockets.com