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Tale of a city: Secrets of a river

Matthew Hollis travels on a boat down the mercurial, magical Thames.

You could be forgiven for believing that your commute to work is governed by powers far beyond your control; but for a few of us it certainly is, or, to be exact, by an object 240,000 miles away. Twice a day, for three years, I have travelled on the passenger boat that operates between Putney and Blackfriars. My journey time is dictated not by overcrowding, cancellations or unseasonal weather, but by the moon. An ebb-tide can cut 15 minutes from my journey, a flood-tide can add about the same, and twice monthly the moon combines with the sun to produce a spring-tide (from OE springan, to leap or bound, rather than the season), which exaggerates the effects still further. A spring-tide of seven metres at Putney Bridge will inundate the streets and bring swans gliding between parked cars; I once put back a threepound bream from the middle of the road where it had been stranded. Low tide can be equally dramatic. The water can become so shallow that even a boat with a modest draft may risk grounding on the riverbed. But this morning it is my favourite tide of all: slack water, where the surge from the estuary has stretched upriver as far as it can go and will lull for a few minutes or more before turning back to sea.

Slack-tide is the river’s most hypnotic moment, an occurrence of such serenity that even the terns become temporarily becalmed. The cormorants and great crested grebes thrive in the still water and will dive for half a minute or more in search of breakfast. But the leggy herons must wait for the waters to drop, and today, a dozen of them linger on the bird-boats below Fulham Rail Bridge, as if queuing for a restaurant to open.

The Putney and Fulham bridges are the first of 13 that span the run down to Blackfriars Pier. Most are Victorian, a handful are modern, a variety of arch, cantilever and suspension. Each conceals something that few Londoners experience: the funnel of sound and light and architectural flourish that informs you that your travelling experience is going to be an unusual one.

With the tide high and still, piloting a vessel of 75 tonnes some hundred feet in length is made to seem effortless, but at low tide the approach to Wandsworth Pier is so shallow that it can beach a skipper who misjudges the “hole”. Few are ever caught out: most who work these boats draw on a lifetime’s experience, tracing lightermen (river hauliers) and watermen (passenger carriers) in their families for generations. They seem to be able to feel the tide through their toes. The Henley and the Viscount – our dignified fleet – are each more than a century old; the latter took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Both are original Thames steamers (now diesel) built for the booming Edwardian holiday trade, though neither would feel out of place in the pages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, navigating up the Congo.

History of the riverbanks

The apartments that rise around Wandsworth Bridge say much about the changing use of the riverbank but little about its history. Far more compelling is the derelict Kops Brewery across at Fulham Wharf, where non-alcoholic beer was produced in days when temperance gripped Victorian tastes. Further downriver, the disused power stations at Lots Road and Battersea will hold the attention in even more spellbinding ways; the bones of old London are alive here, cheek by jowl with the modern.

With the ebb-tide beginning to make, we dock for the financiers at Chelsea Harbour. From here to Cadogan Pier, the modern increasingly ascends over the old. St Mary’s Church, where William Blake married, is dwarfed by the glass mountain of the Montevetro Building; the BT Tower appears to climb over the Albert Bridge. Yet it is not only the skyline that becomes busier. By Chelsea Bridge, the river has become a bustling city afloat with residential homes and hard-working tugs, refuse traps and wastemanagement boats. A graveyard for derelict moorings reminds us of the working life on the river: things grow old here, too.

The Thames is the destination of London’s “lost rivers”, tributaries that the city’s development has forced permanently underground. The Fleet, which empties under Blackfriars Bridge, is rightly famous; but less starry appearances are also made en route: Falcon Brook (at Battersea), Counter’s Creek (Sands End), the Westbourne (Chelsea) and the Tyburn (Westminster). The Effra empties on to the foreshore of the SIS (MI6) building, beside Vauxhall Bridge. At the lowest of spring-tides, with a strong wind, the silt here draws back to expose six wooden pillars that may once have formed part of a Bronze Age bridge.

From the water, the city feels in proportion in ways that it does not from the riverbank. The Houses of Parliament appear too distant from Lambeth, too close from Westminster for a true perspective. The view from the bridges goes some way towards balance (“Earth hath not anything to show more fair”?), but only some way: the bridges elevate you too high above ground level and diminish the sense of scale.

The ebb-tide is now firmly behind us. Westminster Bridge leads rapidly on to Embankment Pier, then Waterloo Bridge and into the drum of the City. The riverfront is turning on its full compass, so busy and swift and iconic that it becomes hard to take in: the old GLC, the Millennium Wheel, the Royal Festival Hall, St Paul’s. At Blackfriars we disembark; beyond it lies the Pool of London where another Thames awaits: wilder and larger and powerful.

To take the boat back in the evening is to make a different journey, for you do not go back the way you came. What in the morning was your portside is now your starboard, the rising sun you followed downriver in the morning is now the setting sun you follow upriver. Each turn provides a view you did not see that morning; the light is utterly new. You no longer need to look at the water to tell the direction of the tide or the wind: you know now that a boat on its fore anchor will face into the tide, while a bird will face into the wind. But I have given away secrets enough; the rest shall be between the river and yourself.

Matthew Hollis is a poet and biographer

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue