Where the Chartered Thames Does Flow

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Of late I have been enjoying some glorious journeys along the Thames, exploring the stories the buildings on its banks tell about the changing neighbourhoods it passes on its course through London. Just before Christmas, I finally got around to taking the cable car between Royal Victoria Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula, home of the Millennium Dome (or O2 stadium, as it’s now known). It’s a short ride, but a fascinating one. South East London is the most rapidly expanding and gentrifying area of London, and the amount of building going on in areas that were formerly scrubby wastelands is quite overwhelming. The skyline is dotted with the heads of cranes, and the constant emergence of yet more shimmering skyscrapers and executive apartment buildings has invited a distinctly different demographic to the streets. However, when you are up in the air, looking down over the muddy riverbanks that are crowded with warehouses, factories and boats, it is clear to see that South East London is still very much characterised by its industrial roots. Here the Thames remains a working river, exemplified by the silver sails of the Thames Barrier peeking above the surface of the water. All of this industry might be hidden from tourists, but it is vital to the life of the city, and has a certain aesthetic appeal of its own.

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Last weekend, I went to the Tate to catch the Turner exhibition before it closes, and decided to walk along the river from Waterloo rather than catch the tube. I normally walk on the Westminster side of the bridge, but this time I walked along the other side before crossing the river at Lambeth Bridge, and I noticed Lambeth Palace for the first time. This is the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, with much of the building dating back to Tudor times. I stopped and stared at it for ages, completely mesmerised by this wonderful time capsule that is now marooned amongst a tangle of traffic lights and ugly 1980s office buildings. Half way across the bridge, I stopped to turn back, and was amazed at what I could see. The buildings in front of me were a physical map of London’s history. To my right, the Victorian obsession with the medieval exemplified in the Gothic Revival masterpiece that is the Houses of Parliament. To my left, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie and the spindly red heads of cranes building more skyscrapers poking above the skyline, symbols of modern capitalism. In front of them, the red brick Tudor gatehouse of Lambeth Palace, witness to the development of a city that has changed beyond recognition since it was built. This is what I love about London; there is always something new to discover, and every building tells such a fascinating story about how this city has evolved and adapted to the world around it. The past is just as alive as the present.

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By the time I was finished in the Tate, darkness had fallen, and the river had changed now it was being viewed under a different light. My mind filled with pictures of Turner’s amazing depictions of light in his work towards the end of his life, I was extra sensitive to the way the artificial lights from the surrounding buildings reflected on the water and contributed to the shifting sense of purpose of the river as night descends. It becomes a place of romance, of mystery, as the light dances across the surface and its depths become unfathomable. Facing Vauxhall, the hyper-modern buildings set against the black waters made London look sleek and futuristic; I could almost have been in Hong Kong. Facing Westminster, however, the soft glow of the Houses of Parliament in the darkling evening light provided such a quintessential vision of England that it would have been impossible for me to imagine I was anywhere else. As I made my way back to the Southbank to meet a friend for dinner, I found myself walking under a haze of fairy lights and the neon glow of the signs attached to the brutalist structures of the National Theatre and Southbank Centre. This section of the river, built solely for the purpose of entertainment and to regenerate a London destroyed by war, is always filled with crowds of people enjoying themselves and the views the promenade offers. It’s amazing how, within the space of a few miles, the Thames transforms from the industrial wasteland I saw on my cable car ride to a cultural metropolis. Walking along its banks is certainly an education, and a way to see London through fresh eyes.

22 comments

  1. Your fine narrative took me back to my visit to London last summer. I hope to re-visit at some point. This summer my plan is to visit Scotland.

  2. I had the good fortune to live in London for three months in 1988, and to visit again for a week in 2006. Your love letter to the Thames makes me feel like I am overdue for another visit to this vibrant, enduring city.

  3. Beautiful, beautiful post, and once again I sigh from overload of beauty coupled with envy. How was it that in this lifetime I was not able to make London “my” city? Seems like we are only masters of our destiny up to a point…

    I’m always happy whenever I see you’ve done a blog post, Rachel. They don’t have to be every day or week or even every month – as long as you keep sharing your unique perspective, and the treasures you see, triply gilded by your observing eye and thinking mind.

  4. Great photos – I especially like the first two. Walking along the Thames is one of my favorite things to do when I visit London – it never gets old. I love how close to the water you can get, e.g. going down the to foreshore in front of the Tate Modern. I once walked from Liverpool St Station to the Thames Barrier, then walked back to the O2 Stadium and took a boat ride back from there to Bankside. I haven’t been on the cable car – maybe next time!

    1. Yes it’s fantastic isn’t it? I’ve always wanted to treasure hunt down on the mudbanks at the edge of the river – definitely one day! You must take the cable car – it’s short but you see so much.

  5. You walked right past the Garden Museum – in the church next to Lambeth palace. Excellent cake, a lovely tucked away garden where you’ll find the Tradescant tomb – but sadly the exhibitions are often scrappy and not worth the admission charge,
    I love walks like this. You always find something you’ve never noticed before.

  6. Thanks for the post. We come to the UK every year now for two months (from Australia) and usually stay a week in London as my OH and I are both addicted to it. We have also discovered some wonderful facets of the city but I didn’t know about the cable car so that is now on my definite to do list for when we come in late June.

    Have you seen the film ‘Mr Turner’? It was sheer delight and I couldn’t believe it was 180 minutes long. Timothy Spall deserves an Oscar as does the cinematographer for the amazing recreations of Turner’s landscapes. I’ve sen the Turners that he bequeathed to the old Tate but would have loved to see the special exhibition.

    1. You must do the cable car! How lovely that you come for two months – it’s fantastic to have all that time to fit lots in without feeling rushed. No I haven’t seen Mr Turner – I would like to though. The exhibition was fascinating – perhaps it will travel and you’ll be able to catch it somewhere else!

  7. Just over a week ago, Roman and I took the train to Toronto so we could see the film Mr. Turner and both of us absolutely loved it…see it if you can, Rachel. The books I signed out of the library afterwards don’t come close to seeing the real paintings though, you lucky woman!
    It took me five trips to London before I, sort of begrudgingly, added Greenwich to my plans – I so loved it there! The boat ride along the Thames was wonderful (pictured myself in a few condos) and all too short.

    1. I will, Darlene! I know you would have loved the exhibition…it really was an eye opener. I love Greenwich and taking the boat trip – it makes me sad that lots of people never make it south of the river!

  8. Oh, Rachel this was just wonderful. Like a little trip there. I think you put your finger on what I’ve always so loved about London, and England. The old and the new meet and somehow it works. Thank you for a beautiful word and picture glimpse.

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