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Kayakers on the Thames in London go with the flow near Parliament and Big Ben. (Karim Kanoun / Travel-Photo-Souvenir.com)

The Long and Winding History of the Thames

Float down England's longest river, from its origin in the Cotswolds to its ramble through London, a journey through centuries of "liquid history"

Steve Brooker treads through a sea of slime, protected by rubber boots and fisherman’s coveralls, stopping every few feet to probe the soggy ground with his trowel. “We’re looking for pure black mud,” the tall, gaunt 50-year-old marathon runner and commercial window fitter tells me. “The black mud is anaerobic—there’s no air in it. If we chuck your trainer in,” Brooker adds, using a British word for running shoe, “it will survive for 500 years.”

Brooker has taken me to a stretch of the Thames flowing past Greenwich, a district in south London, to inspect a nearly 600-year-old garbage dump at the former site of Placentia Palace—the main residence, demolished in the 17th century, of King Henry VIII and birthplace of Queen Mary I and her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I. Here, members of the royal staff discarded everything from oyster shells to the pins used by the Elizabethans to secure their high frilled circular collars. Now it’s a favorite digging spot for Brooker and his Mudlarks, amateur archaeologists licensed by the city who prowl the banks of the Thames searching for fragments of London’s history.

The Mudlarks take their name from 19th-century street urchins who foraged along the river. “They were the lowest of the low,” says Brooker. “They scavenged for rags, bits and pieces of boats, anything they could sell.” Brooker has made his way along virtually every inch of the Thames as it winds through London, studying the river’s tides and flow. He’s one of the group’s most prolific spotters, as well as a minor celebrity who stars in “Mud Men,” an ongoing History Channel UK documentary series. He calls himself the “Mud God.”

As we walk along the river’s edge, Brooker bends down and plucks from the ooze what looks like a thin copper farthing. He identifies the coin as a 17th-century “traders’ token” distributed by candlemakers, butchers and other shopkeepers during government coin shortages and accepted in lieu of cash. Other recent finds include a finely carved wooden harpoon some 4,000 or 5,000 years old, an iron ball and chain worn by a prisoner from the 17th or 18th century, decorated stoneware from the 1600s and 1700s, and the 200-year-old skeleton of a teenage girl.

At 215 miles, from the Cotswold Hills to the North Sea, the Thames is England’s longest river, and mile for mile has witnessed more than its share of epochal events. Julius Caesar crossed the river he called the “Tamesis”—from a Celtic root word meaning “dark”—in 54 B.C. On June 15, 1215, twenty-five barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede, beside the Thames. Oxford University came into being on the river’s north bank. Conspirators gathered at Henley-on-Thames (now the site of the famous regatta) to plot the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that overthrew Catholic King James II and brought Protestant William and Mary to the throne. Dozens of kings and queens were born, lived and died along the river, at the castles of Hampton Court, Placentia and Windsor. When an American congressman compared the Thames unfavorably with the mighty Mississippi, 2,320 miles long, the trade unionist and M.P. John Burns replied: “The Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history.”

On July 27, a Thames pageant unfolds before hundreds of millions of viewers: the bearing of the Olympic torch on a floating stage from Hampton Court to the Olympic Stadium at Stratford. Although the Thames will not be used in any of the competitions to follow, Dorney Lake, also known as the Eton College Rowing Center, an artificial waterway just beside the river, will be the site of some of the Games’ most popular events: rowing regattas and canoe races.

As Londoners prepared for the Thames festivities (including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration on the river in June), I decided to follow the river by boat and on foot, hiking the Thames Path—a 184-mile trail between the Cotswolds and Teddington Lock just outside London. I was eager to make a pilgrimage to some of the places where England’s kings and queens, literary lions and aristocrats had lived and played. I had also heard that the Thames upriver had barely changed in recent centuries, and I wanted to find out if it was even now a waterway, as the 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe put it, “made glorious by the splendor of its shores.”

I began in Lechlade, a quaint market town 90 miles west of London, where the waterway is a 30-foot-wide creek. I boarded the Bacchanalia, an electric-powered cruiser skippered by Ashley Smith, a former lockkeeper’s assistant and resident of Oxford. (The vessel gets 12 hours on a single battery charge and relies on a handful of charge points between Lechlade and London.) Motoring silently at the maximum permissible speed of five miles per hour—to avoid damaging the Thames’ fragile banks—we passed groves of willow and hawthorn trees and fields covered with Queen Anne’s lace and cow parsley, as swans, mallards and black-headed coots paddled among the reeds.

A few minutes past Lechlade, we reached St. John’s Lock—the first of 47 locks on the Thames, some of which date back nearly 400 years. A lock is a kind of nautical elevator, allowing boats to be lowered or raised at a point where the river level drops sharply; boats enter a narrow chamber, the gates are sealed and water flows through sluices in the gates until the level inside the lock equals that of the river. Today, the ten locks from St. John’s to King’s near Oxford function as they have for centuries, with manually operated gates and lockkeepers who live beside the river.

At Grafton Lock, constructed in 1896, lockkeeper Jon Bowyer greeted Smith warmly; he had once been Smith’s boss. In medieval times, Bowyer told us, there had been no locks on the Thames, only dams, or weirs, controlling the water’s flow and providing power to mills along the banks. Boatmen navigating the river were forced to “shoot the weir,” racing through a slot opened in the dam—“made of turf and wood in those days, really ramshackle affairs,” Bowyer said—or portage their vessels around the obstruction. The first locks appeared on the Thames in the 17th century—based, some say, on a design by Leonardo da Vinci.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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