Interesting Facts About the River Thames
- Old Father Thames
- River Isis (traditionally used for the river in Oxford)
The River Thames is perhaps best known as the river that flows through London and indeed perhaps some of the most iconic images of the river are in London. It laps at the ancient walls of the Tower of London, flows past the Palace of Westminster and is spanned by Tower Bridge. Many people are aware that the river runs through Oxford and Windsor. However, there are a great many more interesting facts to learn about England's (not the UK's!) longest river.
The River Thames starts its cross-country journey at its source at Thames Head in Gloucestershire and spills out into the Thames Estuary at Southend-on-Sea.
River Thames vs. Mississippi River
John Burns made his "liquid history" remark when he defended the river after an American belittled it, finding it far inferior to the Mississippi. Burns replied that "The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history".
World War Two
In 1929, John Burns, the London born radical politician and keen historian, brilliantly described the Thames as "liquid history" (see right). Julius Caesar was held up by the river in 54BC, the Magna Carta was signed on its banks and Vikings, pirates, the Dutch navy and the Luftwaffe have all used the Thames to navigate their way into London and threaten the country.
Here are some historical highlights on the Thames.
- In the ninth century Danish Vikings rowed up the Thames and sacked the wealthy Chertsey Abbey.
- The Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215 on an island in the Thames near Runnymede.
- In 1607 London held its first Frost Fair when the Thames froze over.
- The Dutch navy entered the Thames during the Battle of Chatham in 1667, the worst defeat suffered by the Royal Navy.
- An unusually hot summer in 1858 caused "The Great Stink"; the Thames was choked with sewage and in the hot weather this caused an unbearable smell. The stench was so great that Parliament considered moving upstream to Hampton Court.
- The Luftwaffe used the distinctive shape of the Thames to find their London targets in the Blitz; many of the docks are around the great "U" bend in East London.
- In 2012 the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations included a river pageant on the Thames (see video below).
The Tower of London
Traitors' Gate was installed at the Tower of London by Edward I. Prisoners were rowed up the Thames by barge, often passing beneath London Bridge upon which they would be able to see the heads of executed traitors. The barge would pass through Traitors' Gate and the prisoner would be given over to the custody of the Constable of the Tower. Some, like Queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, would never leave. Others, like Anne Boleyn's daughter, Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, were more fortunate.
Facts and Figures
- The river is 215 miles long.
- It has a rise and fall in tide of 7 metres (23 ft).
- It has over 80 islands.
- Five police forces police the river.
- There are four lifeboat stations on the river.
- There are more than 200 hundred bridges across the whole length of the river (not just in London).
- There are six ferry crossings.
- There are more than 20 tunnels.
- The Thames has just one ford.
- There is one cable car crossing (the Emirates Air Line in East London).
The Thames played a very visible role in the 2012 London Olympics. The Olympic Torch was carried by boat along a stretch of the river in Central London, whilst there were a few events taking place either on the river or nearby. However, sport has long been carried out on the Thames.
- There are approximately 37 major rowing clubs along the river, plus more than a dozen university clubs.
- The Boat Race, an annual event between the boat clubs of Oxford University and Cambridge University, began in 1829 (though only annual since 1856 and no races during WW1 or WW2). The course runs from Putney to Mortlake.
- Henley Royal Regatta has been taking place at Henley-on-Thames since 1839. It is held for five days, to include the first weekend in July.
- A Thames meander is a sporting challenge that involved swimming, running and used propelled craft to complete a long-distance journey covering all or part of the distance of the river.
Bridges and Tunnels
A few of the bridges along the River Thames are instantly recognisable. Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge are perhaps two of the most iconic, whilst London Bridge is one of the most celebrated. The majority of the bridges date from the Victorian age but outside of London there are far older structures.
- The oldest bridge is probably Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire, dating from the 13th Century.
- The Thames Tunnel is the world's first underwater tunnel. It was built in 1843 and is still in use today.
- The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge is the last bridge before the North Sea.
- The Reading Festival Bridge is a footbridge only erected during the annual Festival.
- Duxford Ford is the only remaining ford in the Thames.
Earlier this year the Thames was centre stage in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. An armada of boats took to the water and there was music, singing and fireworks. This wasn't the first royal pageant on the Thames; royalty has used the Thames for celebrations for centuries. The river has also inspired poets, writers, painters and composers for centuries.
- Handel's Water Music was first performed on George I's barge on 17 July 1717.
- Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to the Prospect of Whitby pub on the banks of the Thames and featured the river in his book Our Mutual Friend.
- Jerome K Jerome's classic book Three Men in a Boat describes a boating holiday on the Thames.
- Grace Fields recorded Old Father Thames in 1930.
- The Queen's Silver Jubilee was celebrated on the Thames in uproarious style by the Sex Pistols whose performance was interrupted by the Police.
- Tudor poet Edmund Spenser mentions the river in his poem Prothalamion. Each stanza ends with the line "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song."
- The opening sequence of the BBC's long-running soap "EastEnders" features a map of London showing the very recognisable bends of the Thames.
© 2012 Judith Hancock
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