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Report on the River Thames Fieldwork

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Published: Fri, 28 Apr 2017

River Thames is a major river flowing through southern England. It is best known because its lower reach flows right through central London. The river also flows through or alongside so many other towns and cities like Oxford, Reading, Henley – on – Thames, Windsor, Kingston upon Thames and Richmond. It got its names from some geographical and political entities like the Thames Valley. This is a region of England that is around the river between oxford and west London.

River Thames is 215 miles long. It is the longest River in England. Its source is at Thames Head about a mile north of the village of Kemble, and then flows into the North Sea at the Thames Estuary. The Thames flows through or alongside Ashton Keynes, Cricklade, Lechlade, Oxford, Abingdon, Wallingford, Goring – on -Thames, Reading, Henley – on – Thames, marlow, wallinford, Windsor, Eton, Stains, Sunbury, Weybridge and Thames Ditton. From here it enters Greater London area. From Greater London area, the Thames crosses through Hampton Court, Kingston, Surbiton, Teddington, Twickenham, Richmond, Syon house and Kew. It then flows through central London where it forms the principal axis of the city. Especially from the Palace of Westminster, to the Tower of London.

The story of River Thames goes back to millions of years ago when it used to be a tributary of the Rhine (River).Back then, Britain was not an Island. During the Ice Age of 10,000 years ago, movement of ice resulted in huge discharge of water and this brought about sedimentation of materials. As a result of this the Thames which normally moved northward now started moving in a southerly path. This sedimentation and flow has given the Thames the shape it has today. As the River changed it course, it pushed its way through the Chiltern Hills at a place now called Goring Gap.

Back then, the Thames was 10 times its current size, it was a high energy fast moving river mostly fuelled by melting ice sheet. By 3,000 years ago the Thames has settled into the current meandering pattern we have today.

Finds by Archaeologists suggest that the Thames valley first settlers came in at around 400,000 years ago. But signs of permanent settlement dating back to Neolithic times were found at Runnymede and stains. Fishing and farming were done by the first settlers.

When the Romans came into London, they solidified the Thames as an international port by building Wharves mills, London Bridge which was as then the first man made crossing of the river.

Over the next 1000 years, the Thames tradition of farming, fishing and milling with other nations continued.

As the Thames became more important different settlers built Castles and Fort along it to protect the valley and what they have against invaders. There was a vast military fortification in the Roman town of Dorchester. They also built large city walls around London. Large fort was also built around the Tower of London. The Thames over the years now became a favoured valley for settlement. It provided protection for settlers and water for domestic use. It also provided power for mills and fertile land for farming and for livestock production. Fish was also caught in the river and used for food.

In the city of London, settlements grew and this resulted into heavy industries like shipbuilding. Then came expansion in naval power and world trade. Wars with nations kept local shipbuilders busy.

As trade increased with the rest of Europe, and with the newly discovered lands. London dominated half of the nation’s trade. Quays was built between London Bridge and the Tower of London to handle cargoes. Customs dues were then collected.

It was not just positive news around the Thames over the years. In 1666 there was a great fire in London which lasted for 4 days. It destroyed two-thirds of the city. The commercial area was burnt to the ground but Westminster was saved. So many things caused the fire. London was experiencing a long drought. “The flow of springs which fed the city’s conduits, was greatly reduced” (Hasan, R.D.www.waterhistory.org). Wells in the city were low. Also, houses were mostly made of wood and were packed closely together. Stores and warehouses were full of oil, pitch, hemp, flax, and other combustible materials. Strong wind spread the fire very quickly than city officials were able to control. London’s water system back them was not good enough to fight fire of such magnitude. The great fire was very significant due to the fact that the damage it caused was so serious that few of the secular building in the older section survived. The fire also destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure.

There was also far reaching environment impact, due to the introduction of flushing water toilets. Sewage was discharged directly into the Thames. This turned the river into an open stinking sewer. The fishing industry was seriously affected by this. Also, thousands of Londoners died of cholera due to the pollution of the main water.

For this report, I will be focusing more on the use of the Thames for Transportation, Canalization, Trade, Industrialization and Recreation.

The Thames Have for years been a major means route not just for London but for the entire southeast of England. London’s fame and wealth is due to this River. All through the middle Ages the Thames has been one of London’s main Highways. For thousands of years the Thames have provided transportation, and a means of trade with the rest of the world. This has been possible lately through the ports of London Authority. It has also been a major means of inland transportation in the south east through its connection to the canal system. Barges and River boats brought Agricultural products to the city and into the inlands. Also, hundreds of watermen in row boats and tugs ferried people up and down. By the 1700s, trading ships started to arrive carrying different goods for sale in London. Sugar came from the Caribbean and Timber came from Norway. Boats from the east came with their goods (tea) to dock on Hay’s wharf (Hay’s Galleria today) which had a tea auction house. Tea back then was a high value product. Whoever got the tea back very quickly and distributed them got very high prices for them. Hays wharf then was one of River Thames best known Wharf. Tea Clippers, tugs and Coasters moored in front of Hay’s wharf.

Back then because there was no railway or motor vehicles like we have today. The Thames was so busy that traffic on the river could hardly move. Ships queued for days along the bank waiting to get to the dock to unload.

The 1700s was also a time of canal building in the south east. Initially there was little reason to build canals in London and the south east because there were no coal fields and industries unlike the north. With the roads not suitable for large volumes of traffic. Large boats were better suited to carry large goods. Boats were also good for carrying fragile goods into the inland areas far away from the ports. Agricultural goods from London and other goods like tea, gunpowder got to the interior quicker.

In 1790 London was linked to the national canal network through river Thames and the Oxford canal. Much later in 1805, a more direct link between London and the national canal network which was called the Grand Junction canal opened.

As the industrial revolution continued, the 18th and 19th century saw changes in the way canals were built. The first canals contoured around hills and valleys. More recent ones have been much straighter. With construction of locks canals have been able to go up and down hills. “Canals can also stride across valleys on taller and longer aqueducts. And through hills in longer and deeper tunnels”( Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org).

A Lock is a fixed chamber whose water level can be changed to allow boats move between stretches of water of varying level on rivers and canal water ways. They are constructed mainly to make rivers easily navigable. They are also made to make canals take a direct line across land that are not level.

While on the field work we saw some very good example of Locks in Molesey and Coxes Mill. At Coxes Mill lock we were very lucky to see a practical demonstration of locks being put to use.

A boat moving from the lower part of the canal wanted to go onto the higher part of the canal. To do this the Lock controllers opened the first Lock gate. Water level within the two gates dropped considerably. The boat then moved in within the two locks and the first Lock gate was closed. After which the second lock gate was opened and then water level within the two Locks came back up. The boat now passed through the second gate. The second Lock gate was then locked back up. This is a practical demonstration of the use of Locks in Canals.

Most Canals in the southeast of England were constructed by private companies. They did not own or run the boats that use the Canals. They were not allowed to by law. Tolls were charged from private boat operators to use the canals. These tolls were also regulated by Act of Parliament. From the tolls they get, some money is used in maintaining the Canals. Also, money from Tolls is used to pay back any initial loans that have been taken to build the Canal. The remaining is then kept as profit.

Boats used on Canals were of different makes. On narrow Canals, the 7foot (2.1m) wide narrow boat was more suited. The wider canals had larger boats which are used on rivers also. Boats on canals are horse drawn.

The introduction of railways from the 1840s became a threat to canals. Railways could carry more than canals and could transport people and goods more quickly than the walking pace of canal boats. For canal companies to compete with the railway system, they had to reduce their prices. This seriously affected the profit made by these companies. It also affected the boat men who faced big drop in their wages. By the 1850s as the railway system became well developed, the amount of cargo carried on canals fell sharply. Also, back then struggling canal companies were bought by railway companies.

The 20th century saw the massive decline in the canal network. In the 1920s and 1930s, many canals were abandoned due to fall in traffic. This was due to additional completion from road transport. The major canal link saw rises in use during the first and second world wars and still carried large amount of freight until the 1950s. This was when there was massive technological change in transportation (modern automobiles). With this decline in traffic existing canals were used to deliver coal to waterside factories which had no other suitable access. In the 1960s, some of these factories switched to using other fuels because of government regulation at that time. “Under a government transport act of 1962, canals were then transferred in 1963 to the British Waterways Board (BWB)” ( Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org).

The decrease in use of the canals for commercial purpose has seen a rise in its use for recreational use. This was because people now had more leisure time and more income.

In the past decade, waterways restoration group have been working hard to return hundreds of miles of abandoned and remaining canals to use. Plans to save more are in progress. Many of the restoration organisations are led by local canal societies or trusts. Nowadays, they work with local authorities and land owners to develope restoration plans.

The 20th century saw a drop in the use of the Thames for trade, especially the Port of London area. The introduction of container ships which needed deep water anchorage resulting in the closing of London’s Ports. The isle of Dogs and the Royal Docks are perfect examples. So was the Hay’s wharf which was one of the best known ports on the Thames. Container docks were built in Tilbury and Gravesend to handle container vessels coming from the entire world and the importance of trade on the Thames shifted down river from London.

Trade also reduced on the upper River Thames because of the use of roads for transportation in the 1950s and 60s. Coal for fire used to be moved from Lambert to Wandsworth on the River. But London’s River side have now become more residential and commercial.

The Thames still remains the busiest Inland waterway in the United Kingdom. It carries about 60% of goods in UK’s waterway system.

The use of this river for passenger movement and freight will expand further with major contracts signed for transportation and movement of waste and building materials to and from the Olympic site in Stradford.

Decline in the use of Port of London facilities in the Dockland Area have resulted in massive changes there over the last 25years. Glass Skyscrapers and Luxury flats are springing up in Canary Wharf (Docklands Area). This has brought about some competition between the Docklands and the City of London as regarding which among them is the most important financial centre of London.

Commercial businesses like the Underground shopping centre, restaurants and wine bar can also be seen in the docklands today. This has changed the look of the Docklands from what it was in the 1980s. Today smartly dressed City investment bankers, managers and workers are seen in the Docklands (Canary Wharf).

Another alternative use of the Dockland was made with the construction of City Airport. The Airport is now linked by the Docklands Light Railway to the City of London.

Development along the Thames is still ongoing. Huge luxury apartment blocks are springing up along the River side (Thames Valley) between the Thames barrier and Tilbury. There is also development between Chiswick and the docklands in London. The old powerhouse factory of the past has been replaced by Luxury apartments which are sold at very high prices. Some good examples can be found close to the Vauxhall Bridge and Battersea here in London. Also the Battersea Power station which have not been used for over 50 years is now been planned to be used as a Leisure Complex in the future.

Places like Deptford, Silvertown and Woolwich that were heavily bombed during the Second World War have been redeveloped. A new community is being constructed at the Woolwich Royal Arsenal. There is also the Millennium Dome now called the O2 Centre built along the Thames on an Old British Gas plant site. The O2 centre today has become successful after it’s been taken over by the mobile phone company O2. Plans have been made to do some sporting activities there during the Olympics games.

As you go further down the Thames cities like Bexley, Gravesend, Dartford and Tilbury have seen lots of development over the years. New Shopping Centres have been built in Tilbury (Lakeside) and Dartford (Bluewater). There have also been modern developments in roads and railways to link the container Ports there.

In future, With the Olympics being hosted in Stradford which is the northern bank of the Thames there will be more changes to the Stradford area in the next couple of years.

The Thames has also been used as a place of Recreation and Leisure. This increased a lot during Victorian times. Rowing boat firms were formed with boats for hire. The River was filled with boats mostly during the summer times. There were annual regatta events on the River. The very famous Henley Regatta which started since 1839 still takes place every year at Henley. River races became popular for example the Oxford and Cambridge boat race which is now the nation’s favourite rowing race.

Cruising on the river for private pleasure also became popular during Victorian times. Today cruises are available for rides up and down the Thames. Cruising companies using the river include City Cruises, Catamaran Cruise, Thames clipper etc. The various pier along the Thames are used for boarding and leaving the Cruise boats.

The River also has much other attraction ranging from leisure parks to cultural venues. Local and foreign tourist visits the river and its various attractions looking to have a good outing. Tourist are attracted to places like the London Eye, Adventure Island, Legoland (Windsor), Thorpe Park, Tate modern, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. These are all located along the Riverside. Royal residence like the Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace are also within reach from the river.


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