It’s the topographical feature that both divides and unites Londoners. Famously cabbies won’t cross it, but their predecessors, the watermen made their living crossing this dangerous highway . . . . . . . . .
Exclusively for Patrons, here is the start of chapter one – The River – from my travelogue Pootling around London: Manor House to Gibson Square, I hope you find it both amusing and informative.
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Thank you again for becoming a patron to CabbieBlog, your continued support will help to keep London’s oldest blog written by a licensed black cabbie on the road for a further 10 more years.
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I’ve written Pootling around London: Manor House to Gibson Square, a travelogue about riding around London exploring the capital’s traditions, tripe and trivia, broken down into chapters:
The River; Up North; Go West; The Mysterious East; Southern Comfort; and City Slickers.
Under these six chapters, each long-form post will be taken from a ‘run’ on The Knowledge, all of which must be learned along with the surrounding places of interest by aspiring cabbies. These exclusive posts, for ease of access, are categorised as Patreon posts.
For those of you who are new to CabbieBlog, or just not as diligent: What is The Knowledge? And How does it form the basis of this serialised book?
The Knowledge can be summarised no better than in the brilliant screenplay in Jack Rosenthal’s play of the same name:
Dialogue from The Knowledge a play by Jack Rosenthal 1979 Euston Films
He picks up a small booklet.
Now, this . . . is your bible. It’s called the Blue Book . . .
Probably because it’s coloured pink. A bit like Life in a way.
On page one, you’ll find a list – which we call a page – of routes – which we call runs. Run number one on page number one is Manor House Station to Gibson Square. Not that anyone has ever wanted to go from Manor House to Gibson Square. But you’ve got to know now how to. All the one-way systems, traffic lights, roundabouts, streets – what’s on every street. Right?
Everyone stares at him, blank and bemused.
So far – piece of pudding. Except for one little thing. There’s not one page – there’s twenty-six. And there’s not one list on each page – there’s eighteen. So that’s 460 runs altogether . . .
But to kick-off (or, should that be dive-in?), we start with London’s defining feature: The River Thames.
It’s the topographical feature that both divides and unites Londoners. Famously cabbies won’t cross it, but their predecessors, the watermen made their living crossing this dangerous highway. The capital’s meandering river brought early settlers here at its most accessible crossing point, and in so doing established a bridgehead for a fledgling London, near the point where modern-day London Bridge now stands.
There are so much of and so many things in London, but only one river. When, at the start of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, George says, “Let’s go up The River!”, nobody says, “What river?”
Ray Davies felt no need to identify the Thames by name when, at the start of Waterloo Sunset, he declares “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling . . .”
Ask any modern Londoner to name this aquatic barrier to early travellers and they’ll not give the correct title, unlike other countries who’ve affectionate nicknames for their waterways – Old Man River, the Mother of Rivers or Father of Waters, to Londoners it was once Old Father Thames, but now it’s just ‘The River’.
The River was described in 1929 by Member of Parliament, John Burns as:
“The St. Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history”.
According to the London Wildlife Trust, there are now 125 types of fish to be found in the Tidal Thames, which stretches from the estuary mouth to Teddington Lock. This barrier was controversial when constructed in 1811 for it threatened the livelihoods of locals who fished the river. The lock-keeper was armed with a blunderbuss and a brace of pistols.
The old lock-keeper might have been threatening in his day, but today’s imminent danger is on a grander scale. In August 1944, just after D-Day a United States cargo ship, the SS Richard Montgomery loaded with more than 6,000 lbs of munitions, dragged its anchor and ran aground. It now remains semi-submerged on Sheerness Sands – a time bomb. When anyone now suggests we build a new London airport at the mouth of the estuary they’re reminded of the trivial fact that, should these munitions explode, passengers might find themselves flying without the inconvenience of boarding of a plane.
It is upon these waters that many notable persons have taken their final journey.
Queen Elizabeth I loved Greenwich and Richmond, and it was at Richmond Palace in 1603 that she died. Her body was brought downstream to Westminster for her funeral on a magnificent black barge; the poet William Campden described the scene as follows:
“The Queen was brought by water to Whitehall. At every stroke of oars did tears fall”.
Less romantic was Henry VIII’s final trip from London to Windsor – he was due to be buried in St. George’s Chapel there. During the overnight stop between London and Windsor, his barge moored at Syon House in Isleworth. His coffin suddenly split open, and dogs were found licking his remains.The problem with having this west-east barrier means map reading tends to use The River as a reference; to the north, every road is a certain distance above The River. For southerners The River is at the map’s top edge, so the temptation is to turn the page around so it appears at the bottom.