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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"

To get a feeling for the events, I hired, for £10, a rowing skiff on the waterfront beside the Henley Bridge, brushing off a warning that the winds were picking up and I might have difficulty coming back upstream. I rowed down the Thames with ease, hewing close to the riverbank. At Temple Island, the race’s starting point, I admired a gaudy cupola, erected in 1771. The monument, rising from a forested nature reserve, is embellished with Doric columns and a sculpture of a nymph. Then I set off, sticking to the middle of the stream. Soon the Gothic church at the Henley Bridge came into view. The wind was indeed gathering force, and the wake from motorized pleasure craft nearly capsized me. With concerted effort and intensifying pain in my lower back, I swept past a row of quaint Victorian houses, crossing the finish line at the Henley Bridge after 29 minutes 17 seconds, a mere 21 minutes slower than the record.

Two days later, after stops at Runnymede, Eton and Windsor Castle, I passed massive Teddington Lock, marking the Thames’ transition from a freshwater stream into a tidal river. It was hard to believe that the pastoral creek I had encountered five days earlier at Lechlade was the same waterway as the wide, notably murky river here in London. Yet the “deadly sewer” of Charles Dickens’ day and “biologically dead” stream of the 1950s has undergone a “massive transformation,” says Alastair Driver, national conservation manager for England’s Environment Agency. Improvements in sewage-works technology, more rigorous control of water flow, dilution of low-level pollutants and planting of reed beds on the Greenwich Peninsula have contributed to the river’s recovery. Today’s Thames holds 125 species of fish, according to Driver, and once-absent populations of salmon, otter and sea trout are returning. In 2010, the Thames won the coveted Thiess International Riverprize, awarded by the International River Foundation in Brisbane, Australia, for achievements in river restoration. Environmen- talists say that the river is the cleanest it has been in 150 years, and that nearly 400 natural habitats have been created recently to allow wildlife to return to the river.

Steve Brooker, the Mudlark, spends several days a week on the riverbank pursuing his avocation—although, he tells me, “It’s not just a hobby anymore.” Meriel Jeater, a curator at the Museum of London, confirms that assessment. In the three and a half decades that the Mudlarks have been at it, she says, they’ve made “invaluable contributions to our understanding of London.” It was they who turned up hundreds of mass-produced, pewter pilgrim’s badges, brought back by medieval travelers from shrines of saints in Canterbury, as well as pilgrimage sites in Spain and France. “The sheer volume of what they found shows just how popular these pilgrimages were,” says Jeater, noting that Thomas Becket was by far the saint most commonly depicted on the emblems. Near Billingsgate, once the location of London’s largest fish market, the amateur archaeologists unearthed what she describes as the world’s only “complete 14th-century trumpet,” now displayed at the museum. And their discovery of pewter toy soldiers—knights on horseback—from the medieval period provides insight into childhood then. “Historians in the 1960s thought children in that era were not loved, were not given toys, had no time to play,” adds Jeater. “The Mudlarks proved otherwise.” Brooker, who describes discoveries of this kind as “changing history,” delights in these surprises. The Thames, says Brooker, “is a big lucky-dip bag.”

Another morning, he and I plod along the foreshore in front of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, its buildings completed in the early 1700s on the site where Henry VIII’s Placentia Palace once stood. We’ve been digging for three hours, and Brooker’s yellow pail is filled with bits of treasure—traders’ tokens, Elizabethan pins, medieval shirt buttons—fished out of sand and gravel. Now, he makes a beeline for a swath of riverbank newly exposed by the ebbing tide. “Black mud!” he cries. Half-protruding from the slime lies an anchor, encrusted in algae. “I’ve never seen this before,” he says with amazement. Brooker dates it to the 17th century. Carefully, he scrapes off layers of scum until a mint-condition iron anchor is revealed. “It’s been stuck in anaerobic mud, and it’s been protected,” he tells me. He pauses to take in a view of the river as it bends toward Millennium Dome, the landmark inaugurated in 2000 to mark the thousand-year turning. “It’s brilliant. It’s never-ending,” he says of the Thames’ historical richness. “I can never tell you what I’m going to find.”

Photographer Catherine Karnow travels the world on assignment from her base in Mill Valley, California.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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