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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"

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Wearing a sporty orange life vest—the lockkeeper’s standard gear—Bowyer shut the gates behind our boat, sealing us in the chamber. The 15-year Thames veteran then cranked a wheel that opened the downstream sluice. The gray-green water poured out of the lock in bubbling eddies; we could feel our vessel steadily descend. “We have to push and pull a bit,” Bowyer said, opening the downstream gates to let us through, sending us on our way with a cheerful wave.

I spent the night at the Rose Revived, an inn from the 1500s. It sits beside a 12-arched stone span that monks built in the 13th century to improve commerce in southern England’s wool-producing towns. Such inns have captured many a traveler’s fancy. “If ever you have an evening to spare, up the river, I should advise you to drop into one of the little village inns, and take a seat in the tap room,” advises the narrator of Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 comic novel, Three Men in a Boat, an account of a pleasure trip up the Thames to Oxford by a trio of Londoners and their dog.“You will be nearly sure to meet one or two old rodmen, sipping their toddy there, and they will tell you enough fishy stories, in half an hour, to give you indigestion for a month.”

I reached Oxford on my second morning with a new captain, Mark Davies, a scholar of the Thames and writer. He steered the boat beneath one of Oxford’s landmarks, the Folly Bridge, another graceful stone span, built between 1825 and 1827, and which “almost certainly marked the spot of the original ford,” Davies said. First mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in A.D. 910, the town of Oxford was founded at the site of a Thames crossing that served as a defensive position against Viking invaders. Some time later, according to legend, Franciscan friars built a house of studies near the ford, where today alleys still bear names such as Old Greyfriars Street and Friars Wharf. From those modest beginnings, Oxford grew into one of the world’s great centers of higher learning.

The area around the bridge was a fulcrum of activity. Eight-man Oxford crews sliced through the water, as their coaches, on bicycles, shouted instruction from the bank. The terrace at the Head of the River pub adjacent to the bridge was packed. Davies and I docked the boat and followed a path along the River Cherwell, a tributary of the Thames. From Christ Church Meadow, we admired the medieval spires and Gothic towers of Christ Church College, founded in 1524 by Thomas Wolsey, lord chancellor of England, at the height of his power. The college has produced 13 British prime ministers—as well as one of Britain’s most enduring works of literature.

On July 4, 1862, mathematics instructor Charles Dodgson (who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll), his friend Robinson Duckworth, and the three daughters of Christ Church College dean Henry Liddell set out from Oxford by rowboat to picnic near the ruins of Godstow Abbey, three miles upstream. In the 12th century, Rosamond Clifford, or Rosamond the Fair—mistress to King Henry II—was buried there. A grown-up Alice Liddell remembered the picnic at the site: “The beginning of Alice was told one summer afternoon when the sun was so burning that we had landed in the meadows [up] the river,” she wrote, “deserting the boat to take refuge in the only shade to be found, which was under a newmade hayrick. Here from all three came the old petition of, ‘tell us a story,’ and so began the ever delightful tale.” Dodgson’s “delightful tale” drew inspiration from life along the river, according to Davies, author of Alice in Waterland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford.

Aboard the Bacchanalia, we cruised past an ancient shrine dedicated to St. Frideswide, patron saint of the town of Oxford, who was born around A.D. 650. In medieval times, pilgrims trekked to this spot to bathe in a spring whose waters—referred to as “treacle,” derived from a Greek word meaning antidote—were believed to possess healing properties. Dodgson had this spring in mind when he wrote about the “treacle well” mentioned by the Dormouse in Alice’s Adventures. “It seemed like nonsense, but it’s based on sound historical information,” Davies told me.

Dodgson was hardly the only author who took inspiration from the Thames as it flowed past Oxford. Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1935 mystery novel, Gaudy Night, unfolds at an Oxford reunion, where detective Peter Wimsey and his fiancée, Harriet Vane, embark on a romantic river excursion. Ronald Knox’s Footsteps at the Lock, a classic of detective fiction, and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, featuring a dour, Jaguar-driving investigator for the Thames Valley Police, are also steeped in the rich atmospherics of the Thames at Oxford. In Hornblower and the Atropos, by C. S. Forester, Capt. Horatio Hornblower embarks on a canal boat from Lechlade to Lord Nelson’s funeral in London in 1806. As the crew gets roaring drunk, Hornblower must take the tiller, navigating expertly through the locks and weirs to Oxford.

Between Oxford and London, towns along the river grew rich from the inland trade. A network of canals linked the Thames to London beginning in 1790; coal from the Midlands, malt, meal, wool, timber, cement and cheese were transported downriver. “Their chief trade is to and from London,” Daniel Defoe observed of Thames bargemen, “though they necessarily have a great trade into the country, for the consumption of the goods which they bring by their barges from London.” In time, of course, railroads rendered the canals obsolete, and this part of the river was reborn as a playground for the upper classes.

Here lie affluent riverside towns such as Marlow, with a perfectly preserved Georgian High Street and 17th-century riverside hotel, the Compleat Angler, whose guests have included J. M. Barrie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II. The forested banks of the river are lined with handsome manors such as Cliveden House, the former residence of Lady Nancy Astor and a sumptuous retreat for royals and celebrities during the early 20th century.

No place continues to capture that bygone atmosphere better than Henley-on-Thames, site of the annual Royal Regatta. The first match was held on June 10, 1829, when the Oxford eight beat Cambridge by 60 yards in a time of 14 minutes 13 seconds, rowing against the stream, from Hambleden Lock to Henley Bridge, with 20,000 people cheering from the banks. In 1839, the mayor of Henley opened the race to all comers. “No amusement is more harmless or more conducive to health than aquatic exercises, and all who witnessed the grand match between Oxford and Cambridge in 1829 will agree with us that a more beautifully picturesque and animated scene cannot be conceived,” declared the newspaper Bell’s Life in London on the eve of the regatta. Since 1924, participants have followed a course upstream from Temple Island to Poplar Point, a distance of one mile 550 yards.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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