“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames, they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” – Margaret Thatcher
The Thames, the longest river that flows entirely in England, is 215 miles in length, moves 4.5 billion gallons of water a day, drains 4,994 square miles and is fed by more than 20 tributaries. It begins at a spring – hardly more than a puddle – called Thames Head in a field near Kemble, Gloucestershire.
From its source until Dorchester, the Thames is correctly called the Isis. No one knows whether this a classical nod towards the Egyptian fertility goddess or an abbreviation of the Latin name, Tamesis. Ordnance Survey maps label it “River Thames or Isis” until Dorchester, but this distinction is only used in Oxford. The “h” in Thames was added in 1649 by scholars who incorrectly assumed the word to have a Greek, rather than Latin, origin (this also happened with “author” and “Anthony”).
In fact, the Latin itself was only an approximation of the Celtic name Tamesa, which meant “dark” or “still”. Many etymologists point out the extraordinary concentration of Celtic river names beginning with T in Britain: Thame, Teme, Team, Tamar, Tay, Tave, Tavy, Tove, Tas, Ter, Taw, Tees, Teign, Tyne, Tone, Tun and Trent.
In 1611, James I appointed John Wood as Master of the Cormorant to catch and train the birds to fish for him on the Thames, in the Chinese fashion. Wood was paid the handsome annual fee of £30 (about £5,000 in today’s money) for the training and another £30 to scour “some of the furthest parts of realm” to procure young birds.
In 1618, the king built an expensive aquarium at Westminster consisting of nine ponds stocked with river fish, where Wood could train cormorants, otters and ospreys.
Eel Pie Island
The Thames contains more than 80 islands and aits (or eyots), small islands created by an accumulation of silt. Eel Pie Island is one of the most famous. The Eel Pie Hotel was home to ballroom dancing in the Twenties, jazz in the Fifties and rock’n’roll in the Sixties, when Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Yardbirds all recorded there. Later renamed Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden, the hotel burnt down in mysterious circumstances in 1971.
The river downstream from Teddington Lock, the longest lock (650ft) on the Thames, is known as the Tideway. From this point on it is a tidal, salty river. The two waters mix here and the fresh water flows down towards the sea over the denser sea water (which flows upstream).
The largest Frost Fair was held in 1814. The stalls ranged from drinks and games to printing presses for memorabilia. They ran down the middle of the Thames in a line named City Road. A sheep was roasted and sold as “Lapland mutton” and a herd of donkeys gave rides to children. This was the last time the river froze entirely. The reasons are not entirely due to climate change. Work started in 1824 on a replacement for the old London Bridge, which had acted like a dam and slowed the water down. Once the old bridge was gone, the river ran too quickly to freeze.
Isambard Brunel’s father, Marc, built the world’s first submarine tunnel under the Thames at Rotherhithe using a machine called The Giant Shield. This was inspired by the shipworm Teredo navalis (actually a mollusc), which twists through wood, eating splinters and excreting pulp that it uses to line the gnawed-out tunnel behind.
Brunel’s contraption was made of six cast-iron hoops, containing three levels of 12 “cells” each. In these, 36 miners armed with pickaxes and shovels dug their way under the Thames 18 inches at a time.
The Isle of Sheppey
The Isle of Sheppey is the last of the Thames islands. Its name refers to sheep, although it is now home to Europe’s most northerly scorpion population. This community of yellow-tailed scorpions (Euscorpius flavicaudis) has lived there since jumping ship in the 1860s.