National Geographic : 1939 Feb
TIME AND TIDE ON THE THAMES BY FREDERICK SIMPICH IKE a "life line" across England's old palm flows the Thames; scenes along its banks reveal the nature of the English people. An ideal English career, it has been said, might be lived wholly on the Thames. Such a good life might begin at Eton or Oxford; triumph in public service in the Houses of Parliament, or gain distinction in the marts of London; enjoy royal honors at Windsor and the final tribute of burial in West minster Abbey. "To run down the Thames is to run one's hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end," wrote H. G. Wells.* Here neolithic man flourished; across Thames fords Romans threw their roads; Danes and Saxons invaded its valley, and Benedictines built their great abbeys, bap tized pagans, and spread civilization. It saw the Civil Wars, and King John signing the Magna Charta at Runnymede. On its banks at Oxford rose that ancient univer sity; it has its boat races (page 243), Tower, its famous bridges, locks and tun nels, Houses of Parliament (page 262), Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court, Read ing's giant biscuit works and seed farms and the Port of London, with all its vast docks, factories, and means of distribution. "Give us this day our daily bread" is a strong line in the Lord's Prayer. That is the chief function now of the Thames-to bring in food for millions. The sea made Britain a world power; the Thames makes London the world's greatest market. BENEDICTINE MONKS DEVELOPED FARMS For centuries the medieval monastic foundations owned and farmed vast estates here, and built abbeys and other structures. In this thumbnail Thames tabloid is no space to discuss all these monastic works; briefly, they stretched from London up stream almost to Thames Head. To this Benedictine Order, in the gap between Roman occupation and the Dark Ages, rou tine farm and market life owes a lasting debt, writes Hilaire Belloc. Chief among such foundations active along the Thames were the abbeys at Abingdon, Chertsey, and Westminster. Co eval with Christian beginnings, civilization spread from these centers of wealth and learning; today only Westminster survives. How others were seized by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, the horseshoer's son, and given to favorites is a highlight in the history of the Dissolution. Except for old walls, or a gate, and their names, little remains of these once-power ful foundations. AROUND THAMES HEADWATERS Exactly where the Thames rises is still debated. Some say in Thames Head Spring in Trewsbury Mead; others insist the true source is in the Seven Springs near Chel tenham. In summer so little water flows in this upper reach that local people call it merely "The Brook" (page 241). Through lush, lovely meadows, past sleepy villages, yet across a region soaked with historic events since the days of Danish raids and Saxon wars, the stream winds on to Cricklade and Lechlade. The stretch between Godstow and Medley is the "Var sity Waters," or upper river. From here down to Oxford, pleasure punts, canoes, and skiffs are numerous in summer weather. Of Oxford it has been said that its build ings have no more to do with its qualities than a glass has to do with the taste of the wine that's in it. The crowd of boys, with all their hopes and follies, who pour through old streets and quads and colleges, make the real Oxford.t Holiday had released all stu dents when we were there, so we lunched at the 700-year-old Mitre Hotel and came on downstream. Below Oxford's Folly Bridge you see long rows of college boat-club barges and houseboats tied to the banks (Plate V). Ride slowly down this river, its history in mind, and you see how it has cut through the main events of English life (map, 244-5). Ancient Abingdon, like Wallingford, is a town that "refused to grow up." When a railway was built up the Thames, these places petitioned against its advent and kept the main line from reaching them. Linked in legend with Roman emperors, Diocletian and Constantine, for centuries Abingdon dominated this region of Eng land. To the Benedictine Order now this * See "Through the Heart of England in a Canadian Canoe," by R. J. Evans, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1922. t See "Oxford, Mother of Anglo-Saxon Learn ing," by E. John Long, in the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1929.