In my mind, once the Thames leaves leafy Kew it enters urban London. The river has already passed through the London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond (see Idling along the Thames – Part II: Entering Greater London), but they sit within the Outer Boroughs and offer a sense of being outside the bounds of the city.
From Kew Bridge to Putney Bridge, the river curves like a sine wave, bottoming out just after Barnes Bridge and peaking near Hammersmith Bridge. Now the Thames moves into the Inner Boroughs – first, Hammersmith & Fulham on the north bank; then, 3km later, the Borough of Wandsworth borders the river to the south. Twenty-two bridges cross the river as it makes its way through nine of London’s 12 Inner Boroughs.
The first ‘true’ Inner Borough bridge for me is Putney Bridge because both north and south banks of the river intersect with an Inner Borough.
Putney Bridge is a ‘memory holder’ for me.
A few metres from the bridge, I once ate a leisurely, al fresco meal with my son at a now closed Carluccio’s restaurant on the final day of a UK holiday. My son’s home was only a few kilometres’ walking distance from the restaurant but, to accommodate a less mobile member of our party, we took a bus for the 3km journey. For some reason now lost to me, we caught the 39 bus – surely the longest possible transport option. The route did, however, have the advantage of passing by the All England Tennis and Croquet Club on a day when the Wimbledon Championships were in full swing. Patrons queued with typical English resignation awaiting admittance to the courts.
On a subsequent visit, my London base was not far from Clapham Junction. On summer evenings, I would cross under the railway line near Wandsworth Station, weave through the always hectic Wandsworth Roundabout, and make my way to the Thames’s southern bank. With Wandsworth Bridge behind me and the heart of London ahead, I would meander past Plantation Wharf Pier and Oyster Pier, and head towards Battersea Bridge, enjoying the balm of a lengthy twilight en route.
After Battersea Bridge comes Albert Bridge, possibly my favourite of all London’s bridges.
Why the favourite? I fell in love with London on my first visit. I generally avoid big cities and crowded places but London felt different. I loved the Tube (even on a rare sweltering day when descending underground felt like entering a blast furnace). I loved the beds of brightly coloured annuals threaded through the orderly royal parks. I loved the backstage tours of theatres in the afternoons, returning at night to see the stage light up.
When I returned home, I missed London. But I discovered a 24-hour web cam positioned on the roof of a building on Chelsea Embankment. It meant that, at any time of the day or night, I could watch live images of Albert Bridge and imagine myself there – following the morning traffic stalled on the bridge, enjoying the changing colours of the seasons, ensuring a cyclist avoided being crushed by the urgent advance of a double-decker bus.
Sadly, that web cam no longer operates. I’m holding out for a future visit when I can return to Albert Bridge in person and see it lit up at night – the first of the 14 bridges comprising the Illuminated River project.
Albert Bridge to Chelsea Bridge
Between Albert Bridge and Chelsea Bridge, the 80-hectare Battersea Park occupies the river’s entire southern bank. The park features a children’s zoo, a boating lake, a sub-tropical garden and a Peace Pagoda. The park is expansive and open to the river.
But on the Thames’s northern bank, nestled discreetly behind brick walls and wrought iron fences, is the Chelsea Physic Garden. Founded in 1673 by The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London to enable its apprentices ‘to study medicinal plants and their uses’, the garden boasts an extraordinary array of plants. Some have healing properties, some are known for domestic uses, some (like deadly nightshade, monkshood and mandrake) taught the apothecaries’ apprentices about poisons.
Equisetum hyemale var. robustum, commonly known as horsetail, caught my attention. Once employed for polishing pots and pans, the stems can also be used to make reeds for clarinets and saxophones. And apparently it’s possible to ‘produce a drink used as a diuretic and to treat venereal disease’ (Wikipedia). I have no personal knowledge of the veracity of any of these claims.
As the Thames draws closer to the heart of London, significant public buildings and structures crowd its banks. From the 11th century Tower of London and the 19th century Palace of Westminster (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) to the more recent Millennium Wheel, many are internationally recognisable.
The Tower of London and the London Eye (aka Millennium Wheel)
Westminster Bridge, which abuts the House of Commons end of the Palace of Westminster, was painted green in 1970. The bridge now matches the colour of the seats in the Commons. Further upstream, Lambeth Bridge is painted red to match the seats in the House of Lords. (Lambeth Bridge sits alongside Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop is a member of the House of Lords, one of 26 Church of England bishops who together form the ‘Lords Spiritual’.)
I’ve spent many days investigating this stretch of the Thames, taking London Walks around the riverbank or heading indoors to explore the buildings that line the riverbank – the National Theatre, the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum on the south bank; Somerset House, Temple Gardens and the Brunel Museum to the north. But sometimes it’s the accidental discoveries that are the most captivating.
London Bridge and Borough Market
Take, for instance, Borough Market.
Adjacent to the current London Bridge (the 1st century bridge being long since gone and the 19th century one sold to a misguided American), sits Southwark Cathedral. The cathedral is just visible from the river, although probably missed by many tourists whose eyes are drawn to the more imposing Shard behind it. Tucked between these two structures, and shadowed at street level by overhead rail lines, lies Borough Market.
There has been a fresh food market on the south bank of the Thames for centuries but the market that stands there now was established in 1756.
Today, much like yesteryear, vendors and buyers shout for attention, people jostle in the aisles between stalls, and the air is filled with the heady smells of fish, fruit, cheese, breads and pastries.
The market is big and lively and noisy. Until a local told me about it, I’d never heard of it. Left to my own devices, I may have missed this delight for the senses.
Waterloo Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge
Sometimes it’s worth ignoring the public buildings and grand designs and leaving the hustle and bustle behind.
One Sunday morning, I left my Lambeth accommodation and made my way through Waterloo to the Thames’s bank. Unlike a weekday, when it is estimated that about one million people travel into London (Department for Transport), the streets and the embankment were quiet. I was fortunate to strike the river when the tide was low. (The Thames is tidal from Teddington Lock to the North Sea. The Port of London Authority provides tide times.)
Between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge, I descended a set of stairs and stepped blithely across silt and sludge and stones to the water’s edge. At the time, I hadn’t heard the term ‘mudlarking’ in connection with the Thames and I certainly didn’t know about the Port of London Authority (PLA) requirement that foragers must obtain a foreshore permit. The PLA’s website warns allcomers of the foreshore’s ‘potentially hazardous environment’ and the ‘dangers that may not always be immediately apparent’ – the rapid rise and fall of the tide, ‘raw sewage, broken glass, hypodermic needles and wash from vessels’.
Fortunately, I exercised care and did not remove anything from the foreshore during my wanderings. That said, I’ll know better if there’s a next time.
Despite not spying anything of archaeological significance (just as well given my lack of a permit), I liked being close to the lapping edge of the river. Not travelling across its surface by boat, not crossing it via a bridge, not surveying it from the lofty heights of the Sky Garden, not even walking under it as I had done at Greenwich. Simply being alongside it, in that liminal space between solid and liquid.
I have not yet ventured beyond the Thames Barrier. But the river continues on, past Erith and Greenhithe to Tilbury Docks, before flowing into the North Sea between the Isle of Sheppey (in Kent) to the south and Southend-on-Sea (in Essex) to the north.
The water that occasionally surfaces in a nondescript Gloucestershire field descends a mere 110m to sea level while travelling through nine English counties and one of the world’s major cities. During its 340km journey, it is joined by dozens of tributaries, passes through 45 locks, is crossed more than 200 times by bridges, ferries, tunnels and a cable car, and morphs from freshwater to tidal.
There is still much to discover as I idle along the Thames.
Links and sources
- Illuminated River: The Bridges
- Chelsea Physic Garden
- UNESCO World Heritage sites, Great Britain and the ‘4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in London’
- Palace of Westminster
- Tower of London
- Millennium Wheel (London Eye)
- Southwark Cathedral
- The Shard
- Borough Market
- Port of London Authority
- Thames Festival Trust, ‘Foragers of the Foreshore’
- Sky Garden
All photos by the author. This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.