on April 8, 2002
The River Thames is central to London’s history and development. London was a major port for its whole life – starting with the Romans who established the city of Londinium. When the Romans settled in the area in about 20BC, the Thames was a wide, shallow, marshy river, far from the deep, neatly channelled beast that flows fast through the city today. They laid out their city on the north side of the Thames, and built a bridge across the river (near to the current London Bridge), which led to a large, relatively solid and high island, the centre of modern-day Southwark.
The river continued as an important port for medieval England, and the City grew rich on the proceeds of ships from all over the world up until the late 20th century. Many of the roads along the river are named after the parts of the world ships came from to dock there, or after the produce they brought with them. Jamaica Road, East Indies Docks, and Sugar Wharf are just a few examples of this. From the 1960s onwards, though, container shipping developed and these vessels were much too large to enter the River Thames and its docks, and the shipping industry moved downstream, leaving the docks derelict. From the 1980s onwards, many of these became housing and leisure areas, close to the centre of town and filled with Georgian and Victorian warehouses ripe for conversion.
The river today is used more than a few decades ago, for transport and for leisure. The tourist might take a boat trip upstream to Greenwich, or downstream to Kew or Richmond, or go sailing in the docks. The river is also cleaner – having failed to support life for many decades (before the sewage system was built in the 1860s onwards the river was one big sewer that forced London life to a halt in hot summers; the sewers were built after the "Big Stink" forced Parliament out of town in the 1850s), fish and other animals are returning to the river.
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