The river Thames is probably the most famous in all of Britain – its steadily undulating shape, winding through the heart of London is instantly recognisable, thanks in part to its presence on the ‘EastEnders’ title card. But the Thames also flows outside of London, through Reading, Oxford, Eton and more. At least a little bit of it can be found in more than seven counties – and thus it’s home to a tremendous variety of life, and it’s seen a great deal of history.
The Thames is just over two-hundred miles long, making it the longest river to be found entirely in England. When it comes to sheer length, it’s matched in the UK only by the Severn, which originates in Wales.
The name of the river Thames derives from the middle English word ‘Temese’, which in turn is derived from the Celtic ‘Tamesas’, which the occupying Romans latinised as ‘Tamesis’. The name probably means ‘dark’ – though exactly why such a term should apply to this river in particular is anyone’s guess.
Before the continent of Europe broke apart into its current arrangement, it’s likely that the river Thames was actually part of the Rhine, that mighty river in Germany that’s inspired so many Wagnerian operas. As the continents broke apart, the north sea came to be – and thus both rivers became tributaries of the same stretch of ocean. Thousands of years later, Ancient Britons established what would become the port of London on the northern banks of the river. Their choice of location was informed by a nearby stretch of shallow water which made crossing possible – the stretch is the location of present-day Tower Bridge.
The source of the Thames is popularly thought be found in the aptly-named Thames Head, a site in Gloucestershire. This claim, however, is disputed by several influential bodies, like the Environment Agency and the Ordnance Survey, who place it at Trewsbury Mead. If you’re of another view, and assume that Seven Springs in Gloucestershire is the true source of the river, then it becomes the longest in the UK.
Naturally, the ‘source’ of the river is a tricky thing to determine, as by its very nature a source is a wide area in which water can collect. Those looking to relocate the source are therefore either scientists with a serious interest in determining the river’s actual makeup, or over-zealous Thames enthusiasts with an overactive interest in exaggerating the length of their river-of-choice. What is clear is that there’s a monument underneath an Ash tree at Thames head commemorating the river’s source – and so if you’re planning a visit, that’s the place to go.
Since the river contains both freshwater and saltwater, it’s home to a sizeable diversity of plant and animal life. Depending on precisely where you are along the river, you’ll be able to spot salmon, kingfishers, perch, pike and seahorses. Or, at least, you will if your senses are especially keen. More rarely, other, more exotic creatures have been known to find their way into the Thames. In 2006, a five-metre-long bottlenose whale found its way into the middle of the Thames in central London. Such a creature does not normally venture into the river; its natural habitat being instead found closer to the Arctic Circle. The whale died shortly after being rescued from convulsions.
As well as playing host to a wide and interesting variety of plants and animals, the Thames is also a great place for human recreation. It’s a beautiful river, for one thing, and thus everyone’s keen to catch a glimpse of it. Moreover, since it’s historically offered such an important trade route and source of food, it follows that several major settlements have come to be on its banks. If you’re looking to indulge in a spot of fishing, you’ll be able to do so at one of many site found up and down the river’s banks.
If you’re looking to see a lot of the capital in a short space of time, then Thames river cruises offer an agreeable solution. From the comfort of your boat, you’ll be able to see much of what London has to offer – including the Globe theatre, the O2 Arena, the London Eye and the Palace of Westminster – along, naturally, with all of the bridges that span the river. You might even indulge in the national drink while you take in the sights, by booking a Thames afternoon tea cruise.