The Thames by Laurie Lee

In the 1953 book "Portraits of Rivers" edited by Eileen Molony

It seems impossible to write about a river without calling at times on terms of the simplest symbolism. For the river is an archetype covering much that is fundamental in human experience and aspiration. It is the flow of time, the stream of consciousness, the blood of earth, the milk of man, the very cycle of life in its endless motion between land, sea and sky. For hundreds of thousands of years the survival of man depended on the sweet waters of the river; it quenched his thirst, protected him from his enemies, cut him a pathway through the impenetrable forests, was the scene of his earliest settlements, was the fruitful and restless god that dominated his life. Even today there is still a profound magic and mystery about a river, for second only to the related sea it lies nearest to man's heart and imagination.
It is not surprising then that the River Thames, greatest of all rivers in the British islands, has for many generations been called 'Father'. For he has brooded over the south of England since before the days of history, moulding the landscape of nine counties, binding the island's waist with a rich and peaceful valley, and fathering among a string of Cities the greatest seaport in the world. Quite naturally he has been the subject of many books. This short account, therefore, attempts to be neither a history nor a guide (of which there are plenty) but merely the outline of a portrait.
About the birthplace of the Thames there is much controversy. Two Cotswold sources claim the honour, and tradition fights with fact to such an extent that we are almost forced to accord him a twin conception. We must in any case examine both these claims.
In a field near Sapperton, behind the Fosse Way and a few miles west of Cirencester, there stands a venerable ash tree with a cluster of stones at its feet. The stones mark the site of a supposed Roman well, and on the bark of the tree is carved, very roughly, the two initials, "T.H."" This scene, unremarkable enough, is the official source of London's river. Tradition paints a picture of a bubbling spring rising from this tree, and a lake of water with swans and rushes. The truth is that Thames Head today has not so much as a puddle of water to show for all its fame. On the other side of the Fosse Way there are traces of a dry ditch running away from this dead spring, but one must follow the ditch for at least a mile before one encounters anything more river-like than a bed of reeds and some squelching mud. Only very slowly does it gather strength and distinction, collecting gradually a few more rushes, some dock-leaves, a cluster of teazles, and at last some visible water. For two or three miles more the river remains apocryphal. Its arid course winds on among the fields, spanned here and there by an enigmatic bridge or a line of bone-dry stepping stones; yet already it is dignified by the name of Thames, though not until it reaches the village of Ashton Keynes, some six miles from the source, does the first flow of water obviously appear. The Thames, then, has lost its head - at least its official one - and no one knows what has happened to it. Springs can dry up, of course, or shift underground and find other exits, Some say the Thames-Severn Canal, itself now dry, once drained the spring away. In fact, apart from the name on the map, this part of the Thames rises from nowhere. But leaving for a moment its stream at Ashton Keynes - an established brook at last, running merrily among the cottages.
Let us look at that other lustier shoot, the Churn, which, though rising further from the sea, is water from the very beginning. Four roads, coming from Oxford, Swindon, Gloucester and Birmingham, cross at a point in a wooded valley a few miles south of Cheltenham. A little distance from this point, in the direction of Gloucester, the road is shored up by a mossy wall from whose green-whiskered stones seven springs drip musically into a pool. From this pool a bright stream flows away among the trees; and on the face of the wall, carved proudly in the stone, the following challenge reads:
And how can this be disputed? An active stream, not oozing out of interminable dry ditches as does the old Thames Head, but springing ready-made from the ground, and rising, moreover, nine miles further distant from the Nore. What more can be said? I will only add, in passing, that to those of us who come from this part of the world, the River Thames starts here. | It is in a green Cricklade meadow that the Churn and the Thames, putting an end to disputes, at last become one; the Churn coming down strongly from the north, and the infant Thames bringing two weak streams which, when added to the Churn, seem finally to find their positive identity. To reach this point, the Churn has come 20 miles down the long, deep Colesborne-North Cerney valley, tumbled over a weir, broused round the golden walls of Cirencester, dived under the old canal aqueduct near Siddington, and then made its turn to the east.
The life of both streams, till now, has been green and undistinguished. These are their salad days, They have known reeds and willow-herb, water-beetles and dragon-flies, herons and moor-hens, and the drinking mouths of cattle. But no one could call either of them yet a river.
After Cricklade, with the two made one, we can begin to talk truly of the Thames. For here begins its genuine liquid history, which carries us inexorably forward to the widestretched sea, and backward into time. Cricklade was a fording point for early travellers, and for that reason may often have been a place for minor struggles among the tribes. Alfred and Canute both crossed here. The Danes sacked the township twice. But one feels that in those days there was more water in the river; today there is little enough. From Cricklade to Hannington Bridge is about seven miles, and though the river is respectably wide, there are so many shoals and shallows you would be hard put to it to float a hat that distance without running it aground. The Vikings may once have sailed up this river, but the only Thames traffic here today is sticklebacks, moor-hens, frogs and skating spiders.
Inglesham, near Lechlade, however, marks a growing up, a site of old labours and the beginning of new. For here, at the junction of the tributary Coln, comes in that spectral canal which once joined the Thames with the Severn. This canal was perhaps one of the proudest engineering feats of our great-grandfathers, leaving the Severn at Sharpness, climbing up to Sapperton through the Stroud Valley, and then burrowing for 24 miles under Sapperton woods. It was in 1789, under the eye of George III, that the first boat from the Severn passed this way into the Thames. It was an exciting occasion; but also, alas, short-lived. The canal is now disused, a mysterious, almost prehistoric-looking ditch, full of green weeds and rabbits. This junction of Thames, Coln, and old canal is, however, the point where the river first goes to work; here, grown navigable at last, it takes over its honoured burdens of punt, canoe and skiff, and from now on, through its forty-seven locks, there is keel-space to the sea.
The first lock of all is, of course, an occasion on the river. The big bend, where Lechlade lies, takes in two new tributaries, the Cole and the Leach, and St John's Lock stands between them. This point was once the scene of ancient deeds of mercy when the St John Hospitallers brought wounded Crusaders up the river to be nursed in their hospitals at Lechlade and Cricklade. Scorched and sick from the suns of Syria, weary of sea and wounds, how they must have blessed these calm green reaches veiled in fine rains blown up from Wales. Now straightening out from its Lechlade bend, the river flows east for many miles. This long slow gentle valley, once a main thoroughfare through mediaeval forests, now runs happily neglected, a pleasure stream, broadening its way through the ample fields, among poplars and withies that flash with kingfishers, rippling over a ridge of stones, or idling in green pools where sliding pike snap jutty jaws and wild duck dip and dabble. The last grey Cotswold towns slide away behind. Wild flowers tangle the grasses and marigolds drip in the water; there are mare's-tails and thistles on the banks, a hollow willow hums with a bees' nest and cuckoos call through the copses. The Thames in these reaches is a serene and secret river, idle, dreamy, slender and adolescent. And so it pursues its course, steadily east wards, past ancient bridges, locks and weirs - Old Man's, Rushey, Tadpole, Shifford -
until it arrives at the six low spans of New Bridge and a new stage in its life. New Bridge is, of course, one of the oldest on the river. Its graceful structure was built in the thirteenth century, and was once the scene of a rousing battle between the Cavaliers and Roundheads.
The musical Windrush - which is the water on which Bourton stands - comes in here, after passing through Burford and washing Witney's wool. Swollen by this new auxillary, the Thames now reaches a width of almost 100 feet, and a few miles past New Bridge it begins that great turn to the north which will carry it around the heights of Cumnor, through Oxford, and back to Abingdon.
Northmoor Lock, where this turn begins, is only some 5 miles from Abingdon across the fields. Had the river gone this way, instead of wandering off for 20 miles, how much might have been lost to youth and learning, to the very personality of English scholarship, even to the national character itself. As it is, the river turns off into a meditative sweep and enters the scholar's and the poet's country.
First, through blithe and bubbling Bablock Hythe, where Arnold sang, and students sing still on beery summer nights. Then on northwards, among rich fields and grazing cattle,
through Pinkhill Lock
and under Swinford Bridge this last, the fine balustraded edifice built in 1790 as a piece of private enterprise by Lord Abingdon, and from which he earned a small fortune in tolls. Now the shelving heights of Wytham Wood rise thick and melancholy above the right bank of the river as it comes round to the east again
and gathers Belloc's Evenlode in a 'sound of mingling waters'.
Then, at King's Lock, turning south to bear on Oxford, it enters that antique stretch of land once graced by so many beautiful priories, monasteries and nunneries. It was, in fact, the power and magnitude of such old religious foundations that first built up the wealth and greatness of the Thames Valley. Besides decorating its banks with their sonorous buildings they began large drainage schemes and built many of the early locks and weirs. The approach to Oxford now is a place of many waters. Through these slow flat fields, full of pollard willows and towering elms, the river has frequently changed its course, and the beds of the old rivers are still active, so that even the main stream has an air of impermanence.
The last few miles are dominated by Port Meadow - 450 acres of rough grass which have been common land for almost a thousand years. It was presented to the freemen of Oxford by Sir Robert d'Oilli, who had it from William the Conqueror, and it is still a popular place for grazing and recreation. Across this breezy stretch of green, herds of young ponies frisk and gallop. Boys fly kites here and shoot their arrows. And in winter it can flood, and freeze, to give the present freemen of Oxford an almost fen-like sweep of ice to skate upon.
In Oxford the maze of waterways increases;
the Cherwell, entering with two streams from the north, adds to the river's several branches, to create among the colleges the still backwaters, the cuts, creeks, eyots and islands, which for so long have pleased the lingering poet, the lusty oarsman, and the brooding student with his books.
It is here that Father Thames, undergoing a brief metamorphosis, becomes again his other feminine self, the river goddess Isis. According to Spencer, it was the marriage of Thame to this virgin Isis that produced Thamesis, our present river. For a while, indeed, within the walls of the University city, the maiden lives again. As for this ancient Oxford, with its spires and bells and grass-grown courts, it must once have been one of the most perfect architectural flowers that ever sprang from the Thames' green branches. Though much that is beautiful still survives. including the Folly and Magdalen Bridges, the city is scarcely that now. Gasworks, factories and iron railway-bridges do not mix well with older styles. In spite of all, the Isis remains triumphant, and leaves Oxford with a flourish. The one and a half mile stretch to Iffley, lined with its carved and painted barges, is the proving ground of the Varsity boat crews; and here, twice a year, during Torpids and Eights Week, the meadows ring loud with cheers, groans, bumps and pistol shots. It is a happy, young, and frivolous stretch of water. But soon it pulls itself together into a broad and dignified stream and heads south for Abingdon, passing through spacious landscapes massed with beeches and weeping willows.
At Abingdon there is a loop in the Thames that does not belong to nature. At the hands of the Benedictine monks, who founded an establishment here in the seventh century, the river suffered an act of surgery 'to serve and purge the offis of the abbey'. The original stream, robbed of its water, became a minor channel; and though little of the abbey remains today, the river still follows the course the abbots gave it. After Abingdon the course sweeps round eastwards into a mood of slow meandering. There are weirs, locks and divisions of water, lilies, kingfishers, and deep green pools where naked boys jump from the islands full smack among the moor-hens. There are broad sweeps that double back on themselves,
past Clifton Hampden and ancient Dorchester whose square golden abbey was one of the few to escape the hammers of the Dissolution - past the twin Clumps of Wittenham whose voluptuous heights dominate the whole district,
on to Shillingford Bridge and the southward turn for Wallingford.
This last diversion may have been made hundreds of thousands of years ago in an effort to breach the high chalk barrier - that of the Chilterns and Berkshire Downs - which lay across the river's path. It is the only barrier of any size between the Cotswolds and the North Sea, but at Goring Gap, that leafy gorge among the beeches, the river at last successfully broke through. It was no doubt lustier in those pioneering days, and the islands that lie off Hart's Woods, two miles down stream, may well have been formed by the debris it tore from the hills in its passage. Indeed, the fact that it could drive its way through this barrier at all seems to suggest the existence of a once greater Thames altogether, an ancestral river which included among its tributaries most of the rivers of the West. BASILDON, PANGBOURNE, TILEHURST
Once through this turbulent gap, the river slows to a new opulence and majesty. There are royal swans on the islands, and bright-canopied river boats go by, smacking the banks with waves. A new classical landscape opens, rich, aristocratic, and leisured; great houses among their parks gaze aptly towards the river; Basildon, Pangbourne, Tilehurst, each in turn, set their high-born stamp upon the scene.
Then the sprawling smoke of Reading reaches out. But Reading is only an incident, a brief moment of toil and trouble,
before the river assumes again its rhapsodic course, turning north through the woods of Sonning into another great curve which follows the fringe of the Chilterns. This stretch of almost dream-like country, centred upon the river, seems to have distilled the very essence of English landscape, the heart of its music, the langorous lyricism of its poets, the very nostalgia that inspires the doggedness of its soldiers.
Henley, Marlow, Bourne End, Cookham - this 1s the Thames in all its primal beauty, a beauty half-wild, half cultivated, where nature, together with the slow hand of English character, have made this region a work of art.
Cliveden Woods, hanging above its islands, is the final masterpiece.
Then the river comes down to the slightly raffish sophistication of Maidenhead. This town, with its house-boats and cocktail-party air, lends the Thames a look of almost unwilling dissolution.
But it soon reasserts its patriarchal role and, turning east, grows ever more royal, till it washes the walls of Windsor. The castle, like a silver crown on its tufted hill, is the climax of this landscape, from which the deep slow curves of the river have been watched by generations of kings - gay, tragic, weak and mighty. It was to this strong refuge that Victoria retired in her grief.
And from here the dissembling John was shuffled on to Runnymede Island to disgorge the first freedoms of Magna Carta.
But after Runnymede the royal look soon fades. We are within motor reach of London now. The river becomes antic, crowded, bungalow-lined; teeming at times with such a river-worshipping multitude as must recall to some the banks of the holy Ganges. The spreading suburbs of London are fast approaching. But somehow, in spite of the nearby factories and the massed settlements of red-bricked villas, the river still preserves an almost pagan mystery. It is a broad 200-foot boundary now, flowing strong, though still winding in loops at times and forming little islands.
It was here, at its southernmost point near Weybridge, that Julius Caesar at last succeeded in crossing with his armies - in spite of the jagged stakes in the river bed set there by the Britons. Hampton Court, Kingston, and the bends at Twickenham still reflect the full-grown majesty of this old green-bearded Thames.
But London is near. The waters darken. And at Teddington, the penultimate lock, they meet, for the first time, the thin tides of the sea.
A little while now to Richmond, and the last lock of all. 150 miles from Thames Head, 158 from Seven Springs, the Thames has fallen some 350 feet, through 47 locks, to reach this moment.
Joined at last with the sea, the real commerce of the river begins; tugs, barges and river-buses mingle, and the brown waters float lilies no longer but instead the debris of the distant docks that shuttles with the tides. There is the final elegance of Kew, Syon and Chiswick Mall,
before Hammersmith, Putney and the great smoke stacks of Wandsworth and Battersea trumpet their gritty plumes over the oily river and call it to harness. From that thin young stream of midge and dragonfly, bubbling around the paddling ankles of Cotswold children, from the adolescent waters of Oxford, the serene but idle beauty of Marlow and Bourne End and the majesty of Windsor, the Thames has now arrived at its moment of greatness, the worldly thunder of London - a city which could never have achieved its gigantic fame but for the qualities of greatness in the river itself.
For the Port of London, through which has poured so much of the world's wealth, was founded upon the excellence of the Thames' mouth - that broad, deep, tidal current which runs fast enough never to silt up, yet not too fast to endanger navigation. Up the estuary, with its shuttling tides, ocean ships are carried as much as 50 miles into the heart of the city. There, among the river's convenient coils, linked by canals and dockways, they have 33 miles of quay to handle them.
There is not time, nor space, to enter here into the history of the London-Thames. It has seen moments of tragic drama, when twice the burning city lit up its waters; of historic pageantry, when kings and queens went forth for coronation in flotillas of barges more sumptuous than those of Venice; of feasts and sports, aquatic tournaments, and frost fairs with oxen roasted whole upon the ice; and also of national jubilation when the fireworks and floodlit firebarges of the 1946 victory celebrations turned the whole river into an incandescent carnival. The Thames has absorbed and reflected all our history; the Roman chariot and German flying-bomb lie together in its mud, as do Cromwell's pikes, and the bones of traitors, Falstaff's sack-bottle, and the coins of 2,000 years. Meanwhile the river runs unchanged through the city, coiling, throbbing, hooting and smoking. Through dockland it broadens, and as it does so bigger and bigger ships appear. At Royal Albert Dock it is 600 feet wide; at Cold Harbour Point, 1000; and at Gravesend, 2000.
At last, just above the Nore, between Sheerness and Shoeburyness, it is five and a half miles wide - five and a half miles of heaving metal-grey water scattered with lightships, buoys and all the paraphernalia of the sea.
So the Thames at last reaches the end of its journey, and mingles with the wide ocean currents, flowing out over that deep submerged valley along which its great ancestor, before the Ice Age, once poured to meet the Rhine. For Tamesine Pater is an old river, has lived long and seen much. In the lusty days of his youth he fathered not only the green valleys of southern England but also those that lie mysteriously submerged beneath the shallows of the North Sea. At that time he had almost the sweep of Amazon. He may be less of a river now, yet also he is greater.

Laurie Lee