By George Rede
The River Thames twists and turns for 210 miles across southern England. It starts as a trickle in the Cotswolds, in the hilly countryside far west of London, meanders eastward through numerous villages, and flows forcefully through the British capital before emptying into the North Sea, just across from continental Europe.
You may think of the river in relation to London Bridge, a very plain, flat bridge that’s often mistaken for the picturesque Tower Bridge seen in postcards and travel brochures. I know I did. But after two visits to the UK, I now have a better sense of the Thames and a newfound appreciation for its tranquil character.
In both of my trips to London, I had the good fortune to take a boat ride on the internationally known waterway. There’s nothing quite like a Sunday morning cruise on the Thames (pronounced “tems”) to awaken your senses as you float past centuries-old buildings, iconic landmarks and modern skyscrapers.
Heading east from the city center, you’ve got Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at your back, and the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel, on your right on the south bank. You pass under the iconic Tower Bridge, built in the late 19th century, and float past the Tower of London on your left. It’s a massive stone fortress built as a prison on the north bank nearly a thousand years ago by William the Conquerer.
Continuing east, you catch sight of the Globe Theatre, a reconstruction of the playhouse where Shakespeare’s most famous works were staged; the Tate Modern, a national museum housing modern and contemporary art; and London City Hall, recognizable as a misshapen egg. Following a bend or two in the river, eventually you come to Greenwich, a borough known for its ties to the maritime industry, and the home of the Royal Observatory and Greenwich Mean Time. There you can cross under the river via the Greenwich foot tunnel, a quarter-mile-long, tile-lined tunnel opened in 1902.
As cool as all of that is — floating the river, seeing the sights, and crossing beneath the river — I was wholly unprepared for the “other” River Thames.
And by that, I mean a stretch of the river in west London, near where I was staying, that more closely resembles placid segments of Portland’s Willamette River.
Little did I know that Londoners in that part of town have access to a pedestrian and bicycle path that passes through a residential neighborhood, past historic homes and businesses, and into a charming park with dog walkers, shade trees, rose gardens and memorial benches. Not to mention an unimpeded view of the Hammersmith Bridge, an elegant structure in its own right.
How did I come upon this stretch of the river?
Well, on the first instructional day of my most recent Media Literacy class, we had a professional guide take us out to see the royal palaces and other tourist sites. However, we began the morning with a walking tour of the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, a vibrant district with a nice mix of old and newer commercial and residential development.
During the walk, our guide mentioned that this part of London was where much of the English Civil Wars were fought between 1642 and 1660 — a period of bloody conflict between supporters of the king and Parliament over control of the English government. It blew my mind to realize we were walking on ground where tens of thousands of people had died about 360 years earlier.
When our guide walked us down to what he called one of his favorite parts of the city, my mind was blown again. He’d brought us to a tranquil section of the Thames that I never imagined even existed within a bustling city of 9 million people. We marveled at the sight of the Hammersmith Bridge, a suspension bridge completed in 1887, and made our way down to a footpath that followed the gentle curve of the river.
It was quiet and peaceful as we caught a glimpse of everyday life among the Brits. Along with joggers and bicyclists, there were parents pushing young children in strollers and a team of rowers gliding upriver underneath the bridge. The sense of calm was heightened by the fact that the Hammersmith is presently limited to pedestrians and bicycles. The structure was closed to vehicles for safety reasons in April, and officials say repairs could take up to three years.
I liked what I saw so much that I went back three days later on an early morning run before class. I ran on narrow sidewalks alongside traffic and under elevated roadways, past many of the apartment buildings I’d seen the day before, and back out to the paved trail along the Thames.
With more time to soak in the quiet scene, I paused frequently to appreciate the charming houses and quaint businesses facing the river. I passed by a group of houseboats and took my time jogging through Furnivall Gardens, a small park with dog walkers, flower beds and benches. One of those benches was dedicated to “Tony” and another to “Jonathan.” I imagined these two blokes sitting there with a pint and looking out at the water with friends. Just the sort of thing I’d love to do in retirement.
Several days later, I’d be out on the river itself — the heavily used portion flowing through the city center. On the river cruise, aboard a boat with my students and wife Lori, we passed under Tower Bridge and several others on our way from Big Ben to the Borough of Greenwich.
The boat tour was impressive, for sure. But in my mind, I was still thinking about how much more I enjoyed the “other” River Thames. It was a revelation and downright soothing.
George Rede is a former journalist turned adjunct college professor. A longtime editor and reporter at The Oregonian/OregonLive, he now teaches in the Department of Communication at Portland State University. He’s also the founder and curator of this here Voices of August thing.
Tomorrow: Lynn St. Georges | It is never gone