The morning we arrived in London was glorious – a cloudless June day that banished all thoughts of taking a nap to recover from our red-eye flight. Instead, after dropping off our luggage, we took the Tube to Westminster, joining our fellow tourists surging in great throngs around the Houses of Parliament.
But just across Westminster Bridge, past the curiously sexless stone lion (who was ‘altered’ when he was moved from his former home outside Lion Brewery, which was demolished in 1950 to make way for the Festival of Britain), and then past the gauntlet of ice-cream shops huddled at the base of the London Eye, we came to a more peaceful spot near Waterloo Bridge.
Here is a favored spot for London bibliophiles, the used booksellers beneath the bridge, with neat rows of paperbacks arranged on tables. What could be more congenial than an outdoor book market? Perhaps perusing my bargain purchase, a Penguin edition of a Hardy novel, at the café nearby. That peculiarly disjointed feeling of being at odds with the time zone is soothed by that reliable British restorative, the cup of tea.
Resuming our meanderings, we noticed a large poster announcing the "Diaspora" festival, which (luck was truly with us) was taking place that day. Better yet, the Al Ahmady Group from Yemen was about to perform on a stage set up outside the National Theatre just a few steps away.
We stretched out on the artificial turf in front the stage, and I’d just dozed off when the performance began. There was no sleeping after that, as a soulful oud player serenaded the afternoon crowd and dancers in colorful Yemeni costumes swirled to Middle Eastern rhythms.
Welcome to London, I thought to myself, home to a thousand and one cultures.
It wasn’t so long ago that the south bank of the Thames was given over to the homeless and society’s outcasts. In fact, going back to medieval times, the south bank was the stepchild of the city, a place that provided the goods and services that Londoners found too noisome or noxious to have on their doorsteps.
All the vices were catered to here: bull baiting, prostitution, gambling, drinking, not to mention that not entirely respectable pastime, theatre-going. Industries that created a stink or smoke were sited here, such as dyeing, brewing, and making gunpowder and ink. In the 19th century, the pollution-spewing power stations were chiefly built here. And at one point, some thirty tanneries were centered around a vast leather market in Bermondsey. This has long disappeared, but the street names remain: Leathermarket Street, Tanner Street, Morocco Street. Alongside the tanneries, a vinegar factory was set up, "perhaps on the principle that one strong-smelling industrial process will blot out another," in the words of Michael Leapman.
Indeed, there was a time when it was said that Bermondsey residents could find their way around the area purely by sense of smell:
"In one street strawberry jam is borne in on you in whiffs, hot and strong; in another, raw hides and tanning; in another, glue; while in some streets the nose encounters an unhappy combination of all three." (Stephen Inwood, A History of London)
But the most memorable smell, by far, was that of the Great Stink of 1858, brought on by a combination of an extremely dry summer and a very large increase in the amount of sewage going directly into the river. London’s population soared in the 19th century; in 1800 there were some one million residents, but by 1881, there were 4.5 million. Sanitary conditions were appalling, and there were devastating outbreaks of cholera, especially in riverside communities.
Add to the smell of the river the raucous shouts of that clamorous clan, the Thames watermen. The watermen were notorious for their uncouth language, cut-throat tactics, and arrogant treatment of passengers. Daniel Defoe, for example, complained of the "abusive watermen" and of the "insolences and exactions they daily commit on the river Thames."
Dr. Johnson, on the other hand, fell in with the watermen’s habit of hurling insults as they passed by rival boatmen. He recounted with some pride a barb he hurled at a passenger in another boat: "Sir, your wife, under the pretence of keeping a bawdy house, is a receiver of stolen goods." Good old Samuel Johnson, never at a loss for words.
All this to- and fro-ing across the Thames was necessary because, as mentioned above, any number of diversions (however frowned upon) and necessary commodities were located on the south bank of the river. However, for an almost incomprehensibly long time - up until the mid-18th century, in fact - there was but one bridge spanning the Thames in London. And the reason why that was the case goes back to those bullying watermen.
The watermen formed a powerful guild which, much like the NRA in today’s United States, exerted an undue influence on the nation’s governing body that worked entirely against the general public’s welfare. They lobbied vigorously against any plan to build bridges, for example, and complained bitterly when improved roads and the increase of coaching began to cut into their profits. In 1614 they sponsored a bill in Parliament to have the ‘outrageous coaches’ banned, but to little avail. They were initially successful, however, in thwarting an attempt to allow theatres to be built on the north side of the river, as ferrying theatre-goers was, of course, one of their great sources of income.
Today, looking at the Thames, it’s hard to imagine there was once so much activity on the river. However, when London Bridge was the only bridge spanning the Thames, the river was very different than it is today. In fact, the river was twice as wide and nearly fourteen feet shallower in Roman times than it is today.
The Romans, of course, were the first to build a bridge across the Thames, one of several successive wooden bridges built at the same spot. One of these was destroyed in 1014 when the Vikings attacked London, and a Norse saga details the event:
London Bridge is broken down,
Gold is won, and bright renown.
This poem was the basis of the well-known nursery rhyme, "London Bridge is fallen down."
The stone bridge that spanned the river, built in 1209 and lasting until the 18th century, also acted as a partial dam. The massive piers of the bridge affected the flow of the river, the tidal action so impeded that during exceptionally cold winters the river froze over, allowing ‘frost fairs’ to be held on the Thames.
The river became narrower as progressive generations reclaimed land from the mud flats, and particularly after the building of the three Thames embankments, those magnificent feats of Victorian engineering that solved the metropolis’ sewage problem and gave it a new underground line, all in one fell swoop.
When Parliament finally overcame the lobbying efforts of the watermen and yielded to public pressure to relieve traffic by building a bridge at Westminster, it set off a great epoch of bridge building. Westminster Bridge, originally built in 1750, was followed quickly by Blackfriars Bridge (1769) and Battersea Bridge (1772). The age of the railways saw a virtual explosion of bridge building, many to accommodate trains or situated near railway stations. Then in the mid-19th century, the inventive father and son team of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel succeeded in building the first tunnel under the Thames after a harrowing construction process fraught with numerous setbacks.
By the time the "Mad Major," RAF pilot Christopher Draper, attempted to fly under all the Thames bridges in 1953 to protest the government’s treatment of war veterans, there were 18 of them. (He succeeded in flying under 15 and was promptly arrested and fined ten guineas.)
Today, a pilot would have an even more challenging stunt to attempt. With the construction of the Millennium Bridge and the addition of pedestrian bridges on either side of the Hungerford Railway Bridge, the two sides of the river are connected as never before. Pedestrian traffic flows easily from St. Paul’s to the Tate Modern or from Trafalgar Square to the Royal Festival Hall.
That first jet-lagged afternoon we made our way at a leisurely pace up to London Bridge and back, but we returned each day to stroll different parts of the Thames pathway, exploring places we’d neglected in the past or getting reacquainted with riparian pleasures we’d forgotten. The revitalized waterfront is now one of London’s great public amenities, and visitors and Londoners alike are discovering that the Thames, far from being the "dirty, old river" of the famous Kinks song, is now one of the most congenial and wholesome places in the city.
(Click on the map below right for a diagram of