The Thames is among the most iconic rivers in the entire country – and it’s the longest to be situated, from source to estuary, entirely in England (the longest river in Britain, passes from Wales to England on its way to the Bristol Channel). Over the course of its history, it’s exerted an enormous influence on the shape of the country around it – not only in terms of its physical geography, but in terms of the culture and politics of the people who’ve inhabited these islands. Let’s take a closer look at some of what’s made the Thames the way it is today.
Whilst it’s relatively easy to determine the shape of continents during bygone millennia, guessing exactly where all the rivers were flowing is a great deal trickier. Around 20,000 years ago, Britain and Europe were connected by a large expanse of land known as Doggerland. This wasn’t a result of continental shift, but of falling sea level – at the time, the world was locked in an ice age – and with such a sizeable mass of sea water trapped in ice at the planet’s poles, much of what is now the English Channel was actually over water. The course of the Thames, rather than unfurling out into the sea, instead wound its way around southern essex, where it met a handful of famous European rivers: The Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt, which all combined to form a single river, which is popularly known as the ‘channel river’.
How did the river get its name?
While it was the invading Romans who would first begin to properly exploit the strategic and economic potential of the river, it draws its name from earlier settlers here. The Celts called the river Tamesas. The Romans then called the river ‘Tamesis’ in Latin, then the Middle English Temese, and then eventually Thames. The name is thought to mean ‘dark’, and it’s comparable with other terms meaning the same thing in Welsh, Irish, Russian and Sanskrit.
The first settlement on the banks of the Thames to be made by the Romans in what would later be the port of London. Though there were earlier settlements built along the river before this time, thanks to the fishing and transport opportunities, the Roman invaders were the first to truly capitalise on the resource. They made it possible for trading vessels from the Mediterranean and even further afield to travel to right near to modern-day tower bridge. There, the Romans found shallow water which made the river easy to ford, right next to very deep water in which one could easily sail a sizeable ship. Thusly was birthed one of the world’s most successful ports, which began to export grain and other products to the continent.
In AD55, the Romans constructed a precursor to what would later become London Bridge. It offered the Romans a quick between the north and south of the river. On the north banks of the river, the ground was relatively high and dry, which made it ideal for the construction of a new settlement, focused on trade and shipping. This town swiftly grew into a major settlement called Londinium. On the southern banks of the river grew a different settlement, called Southwark. Neither town would last long – Boudicca’s Icini would commence an uprising in around AD60, and destroy both town and bridge. But the location remained just as attractive, and so the settlement was quickly rebuilt on the same site. London Bridge itself would see three more incarnations, including the current, enormous one. In 1750, a second bridge was added to the city: Westminster bridge, which now sits directly beside the palace of Westminster. In the following century, London Bridge was replaced by John Rennie, a 19th century civil engineer. Today, there are more than half-a-dozen crossings spaced throughout the capital – and the best way to see them all remains from beneath.
If you’re looking to get a close-up look at this mighty river, and perhaps enjoy a spot of the nation’s favourite drink as you do so, then a London afternoon tea cruise is sure to hit the mark. While you’re floating along the waters, you’ll be able to take in all the sights that the capital has to offer: including the Globe Theatre, the London Eye and the aforementioned Palace of Westminster. If you’ve got a spare day in the capital coming up, then why not make the most of it with a Thames cruise?