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The River Thames

The Thames has always been very important to people in the South of England. It is one of the longest rivers in Europe, the longest river in Britain, and it goes through important towns like Oxford, Kingston and Henley. The famous boat race between Oxford and Cambridge is carried out on the river Thames and there is a race called the Royal Regatta, which involves lots of boats, at Henley every year.

It also goes through London - in fact it was the reason that the Celts, Romans and Saxons, all built towns on the site of what is now London. These towns were small - they would have been larger except for the fact that there was a large swamp on the South bank of the Thames that wasn't drained until the Middle Ages.

When the Vikings launched a raid on London in the year 807 A.D. they rowed their longboat up the Thames. When they found a large wooden bridge built by the Saxons in their way, they tied their boat to the wooden bridge by a thick rope and rowed hard the other way - pulling the bridge down. This has been immortalised in the children's nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down".

The bridges that have been built over the Thames after that were a lot stronger. In fact, in the Middle Ages, London Bridge was so wide and strong that houses and shops were built on it! When London Bridge was replaced in the seventies, the old one was sold to an American millionaire who transported it brick by brick to the Arizona desert where he rebuilt it.

In the Tudor era, the Thames was the main way of getting around and certainly the quickest, as roads were dreadful. There were boatmen who acted like modern-day taxi drivers, ferrying people up and down and across the river. The king, of course, had his own royal barge, and that is why all the important buildings from that time, like the Houses of Parliament and Hampton Court Palace, are built right next to the Thames.

In the seventeenth century, the Thames was a very slow moving river and the winters were very cold. This meant that the Thames often froze over in winter and it was possible to walk (or skate) from one side to the other. Huge "frost fairs" were organised and people played games, went to meetings and even camped out on the frozen river. This could never happen now as the Thames has been made much narrower. This means that the water flows much more quickly which stops it freezing in even the coldest winters.

Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, wrote about attending frost fairs in his diary. He also wrote that in 1666, when the Great Fire of London broke out, most of the water to put it out came from the Thames.

The Thames used to be full of fish. In Tudor times, there were three large salmon fisheries on its banks and these appear in the coat of arms for the city of London which has three fish on it. However, people have always polluted the Thames. They threw their rubbish in it and since the Middle Ages, they have emptied their toilets into it. This quickly killed off all the fish and turned the Thames a mucky brown colour. Michael Faraday, the great Victorian scientist, was so disgusted at the colour and smell of the river that he decided to carry out a scientific test. He had someone row him down the river and every time they passed under a bridge, he dropped a small piece of white paper into the river, noting how far it sank before it dropped out of sight. He found that before each piece of paper had sunk an inch into the water, it vanished out of sight thanks to the murkiness of the water.

In Victorian Times, the smell coming off the river was so powerful that the Houses of Commons, which backs straight on to the Thames, had to put up curtains soaked in chloride of lime at the windows to keep the smell out. They couldn't close the windows due to the summer heat. It was in the year 1848, and M.P.s were very proud of their new Houses of Commons. However, during a debate on "The Great Stink", they considered abandoning the building and holding parliamentary debates elsewhere! In fact, at one point M.P.s couldn't stand the smell any more and left. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, was seen running from the building.

In the end, M.P.s solved the problem by voting the magnificent sum of three million pounds for the construction of drains. These were completed fourteen years later and they pumped all the sewage up to a place near the mouth of the river where it could flow into the sea, never to be seen again!

More importantly, the polluted water brought diseases like cholera and typhoid. When cholera hit London in the 1830s, most of the victims lived within a few hundred yards of the river. In this century, the river has been cleaned up, but all attempts to re-introduce fish into the river have failed.

Strange but True!

There is a law dating back well over a hundred years that says whenever a new bridge over the Thames is opened, a bale of straw must be hung from one of the archways of the bridge!


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