Thirty million years ago, before Britain was a small isalnd to the west of Europe, the Thames river was a tributory of the Rhine.|
By A.D. 50 it had changed direction and it gave Britain its capital after the invading Romans established Londinium as a port at the highest point of the tide. (it now reaches farther inland due to rising sea levels and the fact that Britain is sinking into the ocean at a rate of 15 cm every 100 years.)
The Romans consolidated the river as an international port (trade with the Continent had started in the Bronze Age), constructing mills, wharves, and bridges. The iconic London Bridge was the first water crossing, lined with houses and shops; it has been replaced several times, most recently in the 1960s when the previous one was taken apart and shipped to the USA. There are now 14 bridges in central London, the most recent being the Golden Jubilee footbridges built in 2002.
About 100km (60 miles) from the sea, the Thames becomes tidal, flowing "the wrong way" toward its source twice a day as the sea pushes up the estuary. As the tide falls, the foreshore is disclosed, and in the mud and slush you can discover fascinating clues to London's past, including clay tobacco pipes and pottery fragments.
The Thames was most splendid under the Tudors and Stuarts, when the river-loving Kings and Queens lived in lovely waterside residences at Hampton Court, Kew, Richmond, Whitehall, and Greenwich, using the waters as a "royal highway." Fittingly, the Thames saw many monarchs' final journeys in the form of stately funeral processions, including that of Elizabeth I in 1605, and that of Henry VIII in 1547. Its said that during the overnight stop at Syon House his coffin came apart and dogs licked at his body.
Today you can travel the same waters on passenger ferries or tourist vessels from Westminster upriver to Hampton Court via Richmond and Kew, or downriver to the glittering stainless-steel Thames Barrier via Greenwich. Alternatively, you can walk all or part of the Thames Path from the river's source at Thames Head down to the Thames Barrier, or meander along the South Bank with its riverside attractions, restaurants, English pubs, and shopping malls. (Note that a walk along the Embankment on the other side can be frustrating for little kids because of its high walls.)
When you're on the Thames, try to picture in your mind's eye the Lord Mayor's processions that took place from the 15th century to the middle of the 19th, in barges covered with gold, some rowed with silver oars. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Frost Fairs were held on the river during winter freeze-overs, complete with fairground amusements and stalls, performing animals, and ox roasts.
Today, The Mayor's Thames Festival is a spectacular family-oriented celebration of the Thames, including the transformation of part of the shore on the South Bank into a temporary urban beach. The river also hosts a variety of annual regattas, including the famous Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.
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Article Added on Sunday, December 7, 2008
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