London needs a Smetana. The composer wrote the lyrical, heart-lifting symphonic poem Vltava to celebrate the river that winds through Czechoslovakia before emerging, triumphantly, to flow under the Charles Bridge in Prague. I love this piece of music, and it made me wonder why the Thames, London’s equally magnificent river, doesn’t have an equivalent musical tribute.
Nothing lifts my heart like the sight of the river, broad and ancient, serving and bisecting London as it has done for centuries. It’s a glimpse of freedom from the train window, as you chug into Charing Cross or Blackfriars or Victoria. A horizon, a vista opening up when you emerge from the press and noise of the narrow streets of Southwark or Westminster. A promise that there is something beyond.
It seems to me that south Londoners have the best deal when it comes to the Thames. For a start, we get to cross that sparkling expanse twice a day as we commute in and out. Even better, the south bank is the place to go for a stroll next to the river, without a thunderous road cutting you off from the water. You can pick your way down emerald-fringed stone steps to the sandy shore at Greenwich or the South Bank, and walk or cycle the embankment path almost uninterrupted from Bermondsey to Battersea.
My morning bike ride can be the highlight of my day, as I negotiate the river path from Vauxhall to Waterloo, timing myself by Big Ben’s eight thunderous bongs as I pass the Houses of Parliament, then up and over Waterloo Bridge into the heart of Covent Garden. I recently stopped to take photographs of the golden glitter of the rising sun, reflected off the glass windows of Parliament and shimmering on the water (see above and below). Wanting to get closer, at the weekend we took the canoe out for a joyful paddle on the river at Barnes, enjoying the diversity of the wildfowl that throngs the river (and annoying the rowers).
So why no symphony to the Thames? Of course, London is a literary city. The tributes to the Thames have been largely made in words, not music. Poets and novelists as diverse as Blake and Dickens, TS Eliot and Jerome K Jerome have absorbed its silt of history and made it their own. These are just a few pickings of my favourite literary evocations of the river.
William Blake’s London. ‘I wander through each chartered street, near where the chartered Thames does flow, And mark in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe.’ Maybe it was rush hour. Blake’s poem is a reminder that the Thames wasn’t always chartered, bound in by embankments and mapped as a fixed element. You could find the Thames lapping at the foot of your house, rising and falling with the tide.
Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. ‘A boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames between Southwark Bridge, which is of iron, and London Bridge, which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.’ Dickens’ intimate knowledge of the river sets up this chilling story of obsession in which characters seem in constant danger of being sucked down, literally or figuratively, into the mud of the Thames.
TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. ‘The river sweats oil and tar, the barges drift with the turning tide, red sails wide to leeward, swing on the heavy spar…’ Eliot conjures the heavy beauty of the Thames sailing barge, workhorse of the river, as well as the ‘gilded shell’ in which Queen Elizabeth was rowed from Greenwich. The poem plucks fragments from the river’s history, like a mudlark picking up broken crockery and clay pipes from the shore.
Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. ‘We stopped under the willows by Kempton Park and lunched. It is a pretty spot there; a pleasant grass plateau, running along by the water’s edge, and overhung by willows. We had just commenced the third course when a gentleman in shirt sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing.’ Jerome is a happy reminder that the Thames has its cleaner, greener reaches. But as any boater knows, the trouble always comes when you try to stop. While the river may be a thoroughfare, the banks tend to be depressingly owned, by people who want to keep you off them.
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love. ‘It was the prettiest little doll’s house that ever was seen, on that great bend of the river where Whistler had lived. The rooms were full of reflections of water and full of south and west sunlight; it had a vine and a Trafalgar balcony. Linda adored it.’ I’m not really a Chelsea girl, but I hugely envied Linda in Mitford’s novel this gorgeous-sounding house. I’m prepared to believe a Trafalgar balcony is quite the thing. When it was destroyed by bombing with Linda sitting up in bed inside it, I was more upset by the house’s demise than Linda’s fate.
All photos: my own.