Dark River. That is one interpretation of Tamesa, the name (or something approaching it) by which this watercourse was known to its ancient Celtic inhabitants, thereafter called Tamesis by the Romans, Temes by the medieval English, and Thames by the English of today.
The Thames is the longest river entirely in England, whose capital London it birthed and has shaped ever since. And yet, the origin of its name is among the most mysterious in the country. The above is one of numerous possibilities, but it seems perhaps the most fitting. The Thames is very much a dark river: in the obscurity of its name; in the muddiness of its waters; and in the heritage of questionable human deeds committed upon it. ‘And this also,’ says Marlow famously in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ‘has been one of the dark places of the Earth’.
The river itself cares little what people call it, still less weighs the validity of one name against another. It surely recognises that Thames is not its final, settled name, merely its latest in an ongoing story. Indeed, it got a new one just this year on account of the intrepid Ugandan explorer Milton Allimadi:
I discovered the river you see behind me here in London. I don't know what the natives call it but I gave it a proper name -- River Gulu. Like Sir Samuel Baker you can now call me Sir Milton... Who discovered River Gulu in London. 😂😂😂👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/f3ppjcZdeA— Michael (@OwuorMichael) April 27, 2019
The Samuel Baker he references did the same thing in the other direction, travelling from London to what is now Uganda where he ignored local names for geographical features and changed them to colonial things like Lake Albert. There is always a politics to names, which from the perspective of the features themselves – the Thames (or Gulu) is some 40-50 million years old – is mere imagination.
But the water itself is real enough, as is the material relationship it has shared with the people of its watershed for as long as they have crawled upon its banks. It is not a simple relationship. It contains not only water and fish but swords and shields thrown in as sacrificial offerings, flint tools and arrowheads, human and other bones, sewage, cholera, industrial effluents, dead bodies, state-of-the-art engineering and steamships stacked with a planet’s worth of colonial plunder. How many secrets must lurk in its darkness still…
It could be interesting to walk all the way along a river like that, couldn’t it?
|The Thames rises in the Cotswold Hills and carves a path through the chalk escarpments of southern England, then gathers pace on the clay of the London Basin before spilling into the North Sea. (Map from Wikimedia Commons.)|
This series follows an attempt to walk up the Thames and see how far we can go. It might have made sense to begin at its mouth, but its estuarine territory – the Thames Gateway, they call it these days – appears a land of industrial dereliction and crumbling infrastructure not designed for friendliness to walkers and in places dangerous or impassable.
So instead let’s begin near the border with Kent, where the river punches clear of the English capital and rampages on to the sea. The journey opens, then, on the bleak lower reaches outside the city limits. Here, as the warehouses rust and the silos stand empty, the ancient marshes creep round the edges, through the cracks, and know that this was always their land.
Start: Erith (nearest station: Erith)
End: Thames Barrier (nearest station: Charlton)
Length: 12.8km (8 miles)
Region: Greater London – Borough of Bexley, Royal Borough of Greenwich
Topics: Erith; Erith Marshes industries; Crossness sewage treatment works; Thamesmead; Princess Alice disaster; Woolwich Arsenal; the Thames Barrier
|(CORRECTION: ‘BARKING REACH’ should be slightly west of where it is on this map; where it is now should in fact be labelled ‘HALFWAY REACH’.)|
Often the English spell their place names completely different to how they are pronounced, with one providing not a clue as to the other. Erith, on the Thames’s south bank at the edge of Greater London, is a case in point. It is not E as in estuary, nor even E as in eel, but E as in ear. Ear-ith. Don’t ask.
The fossilised remains of a five-thousand-year-old forest have been found on the shores here, but so too signs that humans were here since before recorded history. The name’s origins are clearer than its phonetic misadventures: a hȳth is a landing place in the Old English language of the Anglo-Saxon immigrants, while ēar is not the organ that humans use less than their mouths but rather mud or gravel. A muddy or gravelly landing place: it was surely the river that brought them here, with this likely a convenient site for berthing ships in this area.
The village got its day in the sun, proverbially if not literally (this is England), when Henry VIII installed a naval dockyard at Woolwich to build his monstrous flagship Henry-Grace-à-Dieu, which in 1515 lurched down to Erith to be fitted out but probably never managed to kill anyone. By the Victorian period Erith had grown into a popular riverside resort, supported by the surrounding engineering concerns that serviced the lower Thames’s heavy industries and the Woolwich Arsenal. Thereafter its story is one familiar in this kingdom: crumbling decline, Brutalist apartment blocks, and endless visions of ‘regeneration’ with all the baggage of social cleansing and dismal shopping centres that entails.
|To its charm, Erith does retain a few buildings from an era when English architecture valued character.|
|The old Town Hall, built in the 1930s.|
Apart from residents, most people who know Erith’s name these days will likely be those coming to embark on one of the two long-distance walking trails that start here: the Thames Path (that's us), and the London LOOP.
|The view upriver from Erith. The two wind turbines power the massive Ford car engine factory in Dagenham.|
…cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death – death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here.
So Captain Marlow continues in Heart of Darkness. The truth is probably not far distant. All this was marshland – dense, malarial, unworkable, uncompromising – and the river leaves you in no doubt here that it remembers it. As utterly as the industrial revolution transformed these lower reaches, leave it for a few years and all this will surely sink straight back into the mud.
Much of England’s present Brexit distress arose out of terrible short-term decisions, not least the Cameron Referendum in 2016. But it also cannot be understood outside the influence of particular national phenomena on a far longer scale. This country’s heritage of racism, or at the very least of English or British exceptionalism, is an obvious one, but another of equal stature is its violent decline, after two to three hundred years, as the first industrialised society on Earth.
In London a great deal of that industry was focused east of the city centre, amidst the appalling slums in which they kept the oppressed and impoverished workers who made it work. Access to the river, and with it the worldwide trading and looting networks of the British Empire, drew a great deal of this production and transport to its banks. But after World War II, with the rise of new industrial capitalist powers like the United States and Japan – and now especially China and India – British manufacturing lost its competitive edge. Many sectors which had served as the pillars of the industrial empire, such as mining and docking, were famously and brutally plastered into their deathbeds by the free-market revolution of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The English economy lurched into its present undeath, grounded no longer upon making stuff but rather on imaginary chimeras such as finance and the ‘service sector’, whose benefit to society was always in question and since the financial crisis of 2007-8 has looked downright mendacious. As these elevated sectors rocketed away with the nation’s wealth, entire communities fell into deprivation, a sense of meaninglessness, and a need for someone to blame. England, with a long inheritance of beliefs that arrange the world’s peoples into a hierarchy with themselves at the top, likes to blame foreigners. Hence, perhaps, Brexit.
This is an overarching story whose effects are visible on almost any English landscape. On the Thames it will become toweringly blatant as we approach those primary beneficiaries in London proper, but out here on the Erith marshes it is already in plain view. The clutches of works that sprawl upon them are the not the roaring heart but the wheezing residues of erstwhile industrial power.
|An asphalt plant, with a conveyor carrying in raw materials loaded upon its pier. The English still use roads after all.|
|Many of these conveyors line the stretch of river ahead, feeding these processing facilities with raw materials.|
More numerous still are the fossils of industry gone by. Where a fair few of these jetties still service active berths and conveyor belts, many more are in ruin, sealed off with ‘DANGEROUS STRUCTURE’ signs to ward off the curious as they degenerate into the muddy waters. Others have altogether vanished, leaving only rotted stumps or splintered supports as evidence that they once existed. Every such structure has its story to tell of hard works gone by, if only we could hear them.
|A disused dock in Erith, now no more than a water feature for new housing developments.|
|More new riverside properties look out over these ruined jetties, where a rusting crane once moved stuff around on them. What cargoes once graced these shores?|
|It doesn’t look safe to walk there.|
|Vessels no longer alight on these skeletons of the industrial Thames. The seagulls still like to though.|
|On this one, it looks like the marsh has won.|
The conveyor piers appear to feed many of these facilities with aggregates – sand, gravel, stone – dredged out of the Thames estuary. The construction industry remains active in this country (building houses for speculators to make a killing out of rather than for people to live in), so there is still demand for materials like this and these reaches of the lower Thames continue to bring them in.
|These silos belong to a seed-oil refinery and bottling site owned by the inevitably dodgy American food company ADM. Hopefully the conveyor is not funnelling stuff off the bed of the estuary into this one.|
|An industry specialist could probably make sense of this. Till then, it’s an assortment of aggregates being feasted on by a ravenous metal hydra, each of whose necks prefers the taste of a different pile.|
|Considering the subject matter at hand, this one has pretty colours. Is it too much to hope that it’s a nice place to work too?|
|The aggregates have their own opinion about all this and are not going to sit idly by as mere objects in other people’s stories. Here they have pushed open the fence when no-one was looking and are making a break back to the river.|
|Set back from the far bank is Rainham, another old industrial village in grumbling retirement, but there too some works linger still. The facility with the silos belongs to the Tilda rice company, of which the final section of the London LOOP provides a close-up view.|
The other significant activity out here is waste disposal and recycling. This has its own history here, namely that much of London’s rubbish got dumped on these marshes before they learnt that that kind of thing has consequences. Nowadays they put more of an effort into sorting it out properly.
|The Rainham landfill site on the far bank is extensive enough to remain in sight. The entire green hill is layered onto a heap of rubbish. On the foreground, prints on the riverbank suggest recent dog activity.|
|The red cranes are in constant action lifting massive containers of waste onto the conveyor, which ferries them into the maw of the hungering furnace.|
|This less glamorous incinerator belongs to the sewage works, of which more in a moment.|
Side by side with all this are protected patches of nature reserve, where necessarily dubious people in charge like Thames Water do their best to convince you that they actually care about the rare migratory birds and fuzzy water voles that live in the marshes. Whether or not they are to be believed, there is no doubt that the marshes are the true power here and the humans build on them only as their guests.
|The marshes in the process of destroying evidence.|
|Anyone know what this is?|
|West of the Ford factory, nervous Dagenham Dock shifts piles of stuff around as the spectre of ‘redevelopment’ raises its scythe above it.|
|A cormorant spreads its wings at the water’s edge.|
The most important installation here is the Crossness sewage treatment works. Though the casual walker might be tempted to avoid such a thing, it in fact represents one of the most impactful dimensions of the human relationship with this river.
Simply put, they used to use it as their sewer. By the industrial nineteenth century a combination of London’s population explosion, inadequate medical understanding and the sheer amount of crap – metaphorical and literal – that they were dumping into it produced a series of politically devastating public health emergencies, in particular the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 and a series of horrific cholera epidemics.
Their eventual response was to set the engineer Joseph Bazalgette on London’s sewage problems. The revolutionary sewer system he designed (and which thousands of exploited labourers or ‘navvies’ actually built) had a lasting global influence both in civil engineering and sewer mythology – every time you play a sewer level in a video game you are in touch with this history. Famously Bazalgette designed it not for the population size of his day but for its forecasted expansion, and despite London growing far in excess even of that, this foresight means his system still serves as the basis for its sewer infrastructure today.
In short, interceptor sewers funnelled the city’s poo into two outfall sewers, one on each side of the river, which took it away to the eastern marshes where it couldn’t bother the urban middle class any more. Gravity did most of the work but was assisted in places by pumping stations like Crossness, built with both state-of-the-art steam technology and magnificent architecture to leave people in awe. As for the excreta whose processing was now so awesome, originally they simply dumped it into the river, but over the decades improvements were made and the modern facility now thoroughly treats it first.
|If you live on the south side of London, there is a good likelihood what you flushed down the toilet this morning is in there.|
|The steam engines were replaced by diesel ones in 1913. Nowadays they do lots of complicated chemical things to it by magic or something.|
|On the corner of the site the original Victorian-era pumping station still stands. Imagine them building a sanitary facility that looks like this today. Bazalgette’s pumping stations were architectural marvels by design, imbuing their task of, well, handling poo, with a virtually spiritual aesthetic majesty. They were nicknamed cathedrals of sewage and are often chosen as filming sites for films and TV dramas. You can see an even more spectacular one at Abbey Mills if you walk Section 14 of the Capital Ring.|
|Drawings by a local artist are displayed on the embankment along here, imagining the riverscape in different periods of history. Notice the name of the large boat.|
|This is Cross Ness itself, a promontory with a little red lighthouse that marks the boundary between the Barking and Halfway reaches.|
Where do the Erith Marshes end and the Plumstead Marshes begin? Well, that too is imaginary, but the land use changes for real west of Cross Ness.
Thamesmead is a new residential area built in the 1960s on marshland formerly held by the Woolwich Arsenal. It was meant to offer more socially connected housing to the working-class people in declining industries being turfed out of London’s inner city slums. It has struggled ever since, with problems including poor transport connections, no nearby river crossing, and issues with rain penetration and flooding that you’d expect from trying to build a town on angry marshland.
|A battery of cannons, likely left over from the Woolwich Arsenal, guards Thamesmead from seaborne invasion.|
|At last, the London Monster comes into view.|
|On the opposite bank is Barking Creek, where one of the Thames’s tributaries, the Roding, arrives. The towering structure is the Barking Creek Flood Barrier, part of London’s extensive flood defence system.|
|The keystone of that flood defence system is the Thames Barrier, the goal of today’s walk. This massive sign warns incoming ships that they are approaching it and need to radio ahead for instruction on which of its gates to pass through.|
At the next headland, Tripcock Ness, the river curves into Gallions Reach. It was here that the worst inland shipping disaster in English history took place in 1878. A passenger steamer, the Princess Alice, was returning from a recreational trip to the Kentish coast when it was hit by a collier (coal transport ship), the Bywell Castle. The Princess Alice was split in half and sank within minutes. Many of its passengers couldn’t swim. Most horrendously of all, Bazalgette’s pumping stations had just done their regular dump of 340,000 cubic metres of raw sewage into the river right where the accident happened. Some 700 people perished, many of them from what they inhaled or ingested; they included some of those who had been rescued, covered in sludge. The calamity led to significant changes in both shipping management and sewage disposal on the Thames.
New housing developments (which few reasonable people can likely afford to live in) now creep up on both sides of the river. On the north side they grow off the corpse of the Royal Docks, part of London’s once-formidable dock system that the next section should offer a look at. On this side, it is the former grounds of the military town of Woolwich that the developers have their sights on.
|Around the corner onto Woolwich Reach, the property sector stakes its claim.|
|Low-flying aircraft roar across the sky every few minutes here, coming into land at London City Airport in the midst of the Royal Docks.|
|Here, too, the scattered remnants of work gone by are re-absorbed into the marshes.|
If its name is to believed, Woolwich was once a wool emporium, likely benefiting from its position on the river for said cargo to be brought in and taken away. Go there now though and you can’t walk ten paces without tripping over one of the cannons they have left lying around, be it a big cannon, or a small cannon, or an in-betweeny cannon. Woolwich found its new destiny in guns.
It was Henry VIII and his bloody flagship that introduced the military here, turning Woolwich into a naval yard in 1512. It was soon joined by a ropeyard, then warehouses, then munitions factories, and by the nineteenth century had blossomed into a full-scale arms production complex known as the Royal Arsenal at the forefront of Britain’s imperial conquest of the world. It encompassed not only the present town but vast swathes of the Plumstead and Rainham marshlands, where firing ranges tested out its instruments of killing.
|The twin white towers are the berths of the Woolwich ferry, one of the only ways to cross the river this far down.|
|For pedestrians there is the Woolwich foot tunnel, built in 1912 and accessible down a spiral staircase or lift in this suitably period-style pavilion.|
For a century and half of the most relentless wars in English history, from the Napoleonic to World War II, this country’s forces were armed and equipped by Woolwich’s work. This included specialist research as well as the mass production of guns and ammunition, and they even got in some of Britain’s nuclear weapons research before the factories started closing down after World War II, when many of them fled Nazi bombing to more remote locations and never came back. All but hollowed out, what was left of the Royal Arsenal closed in the 1990s.
There was obvious egregiousness in this weapon manufacturing’s outcomes, the colonial ones especially, but the Arsenal town itself presents a more complex picture. Most of its labourers were poor and worked in hazardous conditions; in time they would organise and play significant parts in the English labour movement’s struggle for something better. The Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society (RACS) emerged from their efforts, as did significant improvements to their working conditions, many of them driven by the large numbers of women who famously came to work in the munitions factories during the world wars. And to crown it all, the workers of Woolwich also produced something whose power to conquer minds has in the long run proven more potent than perhaps all those cannons put together: of course, Arsenal Football Club.
|The Royal Arsenal’s gatehouse. Slightly cheating here – this photo is from last year, when I undertook the Capital Ring walk which starts in Woolwich. The book I’m writing about that route – for which I am currently seek a publisher – goes into much greater detail on Woolwich’s story.|
|The Royal Brass Foundry, also in 2018.|
|Back in the present, cars and lorries queue to board the Woolwich Ferry.|
The Thames Barrier
West of the town the waterfront sneaks past New Charlton. Charlton proper, to the south, was another heavy industrial area (which like many others birthed its own eponymous football club). The New indicates the waves of ‘regeneration’ plans – that is, shopping centres and business parks – that came washing over it from the 1980s onwards as it too languished from the closing of its factories. Perhaps they felt that with the opening of the Thames Barrier here, it at least ought to have surroundings they deemed presentable?
|The Monster hungers.|
|An old dock, once part of the Woolwich naval yard, now adrift in a sea of apartments.|
|Another cannon maintains a wary vigil against the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery across the way, now owned by an American mega-company.|
|All this industrial and military heritage would suggest that Electric- and Steel-type Pokémon are plentiful in this area.|
|A short section of the riverside path is cut off, necessitating a detour through this business park that has occupied a block of Charlton’s derelict factories.|
Then at last, we come to the Barrier itself.
It is shiny, modern and ultra-high-tech, but the story it belongs to is one of the oldest of all. So long as humans have lived alongside the Thames, it has been prone to flood them, and from prehistory to the present day the basic problem has not changed. In fact, the more they gather in their expensive and densely-populated modernity, the more vulnerable, not less, they have become to river’s temperamental changes of mood.
Records abound of disastrous floods that drowned the people of London, ruined their art galleries and forced their politicians to row down the corridors of parliament in boats, such as in 1099, 1236 and 1663. After an especially nasty North Sea fury in 1953 killed thousands between England and the Netherlands, people began to feel that something different had to be done. A detailed review was carried out, which came up with the new idea of a wall of steel across the river, with movable gates for ships. Then that wall of steel took on an unusual shape because the engineer Charles Draper noticed the rotating taps on his gas cooker, took a long hard look and thought well why not. Construction began in 1974. Eight years and 535 million pounds later, Queen Elizabeth II opened the Barrier in a ceremony and congratulated its builders for their ‘vital contribution to the safety of London’.
Funny that. In ancient times, those who lived here threw offerings of weapons and shields to the god(s) of the Thames, presumably in part to request that it not flood their houses and fields. Now they throw in 535 million pounds plus the ongoing funds and labour required to keep this thing operational, which is not even to mention the vast network of supporting flood defences, like the Barking Creek barrier, of which this is only the principal component. The fundamental relationship remains the same, and as the challenges of climate change and rising sea levels threaten to overwhelm even this mighty edifice, it will remain the case that they disrespect the river’s power only at their peril.
|If you go there, you are at least left in no doubt that those directly involved in it understand the gravity of their work. The Thames Barrier Information Centre is a labour of love, with an excellent little museum that not only uncovers the quite stunning technical properties of the Barrier but places it in its context in the history of the human relationship with the river. It also has a delightful little café and attractively maintained grounds and is well worth a visit, but be sure to check its opening times first.|
The Barrier is also a psychological one: it could be said that to pass it is to enter the city proper. Its skyscrapers loom unmissable ahead, and will no doubt attempt to dominate the story. Yet for most of its history, the reaches ahead lay also outside the city, as much the domain of the untamed marshes as the stretch we have opened with today.
That changed with industrialisation, which transformed them into a portal chamber to locations all over the world. They were blue, rectangular portals. The Docks. Through them flowed the riches of all the peoples a roaring colonial empire could plunder; round them festered all the poverty it could inflict upon its own people. Then it all fell apart, and cackling free-market hyper-zombies mushroomed up on its corpse.