The estuaries of rivers appeal strongly to an adventurous imagination.
Joseph Conrad, the Mirror of the Sea
You wouldn’t think it, but the Thames is a secret river. Great sandbanks which stretch roughly North-East–South-West defend its mouth from anything of much greater draft than a Viking longship. Those banks have hard names that sailors fear: Galloper and Shipwash and Long Sand and Sunk Sand and Kentish Knock and Margate Hook and Shivering Sand … Separated by narrow swatchways and gats, and with ferocious tides made worse in particular wind directions, those sandbanks are the real secret of London’s wealth. There’s something like a 24-foot rise of the tide at springs at London Bridge. Bretons can deal with that, but not many others can. There are few higher tidal differences in the world. If jingoist British historians used to boast that no-one had successfully invaded England since 1066 (barring such trifling visits as that of 1688, for which they could find easier names than invasion), it is really those shoals they had to thank. For a low-lying harbour in a broad estuary, the Thames is ferociously well defended.
That estuary, by the way, is ill defined. Take a sensible view on a large-scale map and the greater Thames mouth stretches from the North Foreland, where the Kent coast bends sharply south, to Bradwell-on-Sea, where the Blackwater curls out around the Dengie Marshes or even to Walton on the Naze beyond Colchester. That larger Thames includes vast areas of marshland: at Tollesbury, for example, or around Canvey Island, which gives perspective to a landscape today populated with out-of-town industrial development of all kinds. It’s not properly a secret landscape, since so many people live and work there. Yet enterprising film makers keep on finding that people don’t really recognize large parts of it. Go for a walk around Dengie and you aren’t in the familiar suburban outer London at all. I imagined for years that Dengie was so wet and wild that it had given its name to its own virulent form of temperate-country malaria, but the fever is spelt Dengue. Although it is certainly true that there were fierce malaria-like agues in the Essex marshes, it seems implausible that the two words are in any way connected. Yet the very real wildness of the marshes remains another of the defences at the mouth of the Thames, and another of the secrets it holds from those who go no further east than the Tower.
Of course, men added to those defences: you can still go and spend a windswept hour on the boulevards of the fort at Tilbury, a wonderful Vauban-like design of pointed bastions more romantic by far than its unpromising location in the flat riverside Essex marsh. The present fort was built in bolt-the-stable-door reaction to a humiliating Dutch invasion of the Medway by a fleet led by Cornelis De Witt in 1667. John Evelyn called that “a dreadful spectacle as ever Englishman saw and a dishonour never to be wiped off”. It was at the earlier fort on the same site that Queen Elizabeth, in the press of the alarum of the announcement of the Armada, gave one of the lauded speeches in the language:
“I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.
I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King — and of a King of England too — and think foul scorn that Parma of Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm. I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.“
How many modern readers know what stories lies concealed in the three words there – Parma of Spain? Parma’s not in Spain; we still know that much. Parma was in fact Alessandro Farnese, the greatest of a great condottiere family, who made his career in the service of Spain. It was Farnese’s campaigns that secured the Southern provinces of the Netherlands for His most Catholic and Hapsburg Majesty, Philip II (Grand Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece, King of the Two Sicilies, Archduke of Austria, Count Palatine of Burgundy…). You could certainly say that it was thanks mainly to Farnese that Belgium remains a separate and Catholic country today. As a historical figure, he’s extraordinary: as a young man he fought at Lepanto; and as an old one was the nominal commander–in-chief of the Armada.
The Armada didn’t do its work; thanks more to those winds and tides and sandbanks than to any great sailoring. The great fleet was scattered: a wreck from it is one of the attractions of Tobermory, on the island of Mull, and there are others dotted around Ireland. England remained Protestant.
Various other invasions have been thwarted by the skin of English teeth. As late as 1939, a chain was stretched from Shoeburyness to Sheerness across the estuary to rip the keel off unwelcome visitors – and that chain was seriously considered for replacement in the 1950s to deter any Cold War visitors by submarine.
It may be odd to start thinking about the Thames in military terms. It’s a great trading river, one of the great ones of them all. The John Company ships, the Australia clippers, the cogs of the Hansa…those are the ships one should really think about on the Thames. But the trade relied on its military strength. The great warehouses of the Pool are all inland from the great shipyards, at Chatham and Deptford, with the huge arsenal at Woolwich: the Thames has its defensive ring, all right.
I said it was a secret river. Fairly recently, a sensitive and leisured generation has opened up the Thames path, not only down the length of the rural stream through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, but right through London, too. The river bank is now accessible, perambulable. Bikes and baby-buggies can take the air along it. Londoners can lean on a wall and watch baulks of timber racing down the tide. Until recently, that was unthinkable, certainly in the great port city itself. Every inch of frontage was a warehouse; with only the narrowest alleys between down to the foreshore. You can still get a hint of what it must have been like in some relict streets of Wapping and of Rotherhithe and of Bermondsey. The Thames was a filthy stream, and crowded beyond anything that we know of it today. Only on exceptional occasions (the waterborne jubilee of the present Queen Elizabeth, the celebrations for the millennium…) has the river anything like the press of shipping it had every day until recently.
The Thames had the peculiarity – because of those same tides – of not being a city of quaysides. Only in the nineteenth century, when the great docks were dug out (bigger and deeper and more recent, in proportion as they are further downstream from the city) did quays come to be a London thing as they are almost everywhere else. The London docks were industrial spaces, working areas, and even had they not been hedged about with tall walls to keep goods in and pilferers out, they were neither respectable nor safe; no flâneurs there, and because there were no quays, no flâneurs closer to town, either. Until containerization and a series of dock strikes closed the inner docks and moved the trade to Tilbury (where the container port is on private land and therefore protected by laws of trespass as much against unsanctioned union activity as against theft) dockers used sometimes to walk from one side of the Pool to the other across the decks of ships: quicker than walking around by the bridge if there was work to be had. But ordinary Londoners knew nothing of that, as they knew nothing of the lanes of Dockhead or Pierhead.
When Conan Doyle wanted to hide a Londoner in plain sight, as Poe hid his letter upon the mantle, he hid him as a beggar. In The Man with the Twisted Lip, a seemingly respectable gentleman from Lee, in Kent, hides his true occupation from his family by going up to town every day and getting changed and made up into the appearance of a disfigured beggar, in which guise he makes more than £700 a year – a lot of money, then. Where else to make his transformation but in the secret alleys of the riverside, less known to respectable persons than many places thousands of miles away?
Upper Swandam Lane is a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge. Between a slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search. Ordering my cab to wait, I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering oil-lamp above the door I found the latch and made my way into a long, low room, thick and heavy with the brown opium smoke, and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship.
One odd consequence of all this this secrecy is that every Londoner has his or her own private gazetteer of the Thames. It has opened up a great deal. The Clean Air Acts have blown away the smoke and smog which used to be its daily cover and the water itself is much cleaner than it was. Seals are regularly seen at least as far as the Isle of Dogs in London, although the attempt to restock salmon seems to have failed so far. Salmon were once abundant in the Thames: eighteenth-century London apprentices went on strike demanding they be fed salmon no more than five times a week. Yet the Thames is still hardly a place of great public water frontages or promenades. For every great palace on the river, for each of Greenwich and Somerset House and the South Bank opposite it and Hampton Court and the mother of Parliaments, there are miles and miles of undistinguished workaday frontage, still today. Brentford Dock is a very Thames-typical place, to me. The canal comes out there, quite far upstream of the twin cities of London and Westminster, through an untidy copse of boatyards and boatsheds, under a main road. The towpath of the Grand Union canal, which has run all the way from Birmingham and beyond, stops a few hundred yards short of the Thames: a messy little bit of navigation for the commercial boatmen from the river to the first lock. One of the last regular cargoes, once a week by water until the early 1970s, was the order of Seville oranges for the chocolate factory at Bournville. So Brentford, surprisingly, for it is miles inland, was once a port of disembarkation – and there are still improbable Customs notices on the wharf to greet those touching UK soil for the first time there.
Thames lighters look like huge floating skips, really. There survive a few, docilely towed by engined craft and picturesque enough in their way. But the lighters used to be one of the great menaces of the London river. When carrying down the canal system from inland, it was quicker to continue down the canal to Brentford than to turn at Bull’s Bridge onto the Paddington Branch and the Regent’s Canal through north London. Cargoes were transshipped from canal narrowboats into lighters which drifted down on the tide to the seagoing vessels in the docks or the Pool of London. The lighters had no engine, often had no means of steering beyond a huge steering quant; even when they did have a tiller and a rudder, without an engine they were helpless for anything but the stateliest of changes of course. Going upstream, they were grouped and towed as we know today when they couldn’t ride up on the tide. Downstream, they drifted singly, each bouncing its way through whatever shipping might be in the way. Lightermen acquired a reputation for exceptional toughness and the worst language, and small wonder.
When my friend John Cronk got divorced and wanted to stay near his children he bought a workaday houseboat moored by Kew Bridge. It had been a brothel at some point, and had far too many bedrooms, each in cheap pine cladding with a tele on a bracket up near the deckhead. There was a bar, either presumably for the gentlemen to wait until their particular friend was available, or for them to muster up the grim cock-courage of liquor. John got to know a lot of secret Thames people living there, some of them as established as land-dwellers, but many not: a curious shifting population of people unsettled in both senses, restless people, people up one minute and down the next, like the tides.
That great flat–bottomed converted steel barge needed maintenance every year or two; I can’t remember if they actually scraped its bottom, but I think that was the sort of thing. De-rusting and re-waterproofing. To do it, the boat had to be cumbrously unbolted from the side, floated off the steel cradle on a concrete bed that normally kept it level, and towed by a hired tug (or a dragooned friend) across to a Brentford boat-yard. One year, a man working under her was killed when the boat shifted while this work was going on. John, as the owner, seemed plausibly to be technically responsible even though the work was being done by a boatyard he had contracted with. For quite a while he was worried that he might have to face some kind of charges. I don’t know how the story was resolved: an agreement between insurers, most likely.
That’s one of my secret places. Eel Pie Island is another, with the ghost of its Eel Pie Hotel, one of the high places of British rhythm ‘n’ blues. I never went there – it burnt down before I was old enough; but I went often to its less-louche cousin, the Bull’s Head in Barnes. Eel Pie is hardly a great island. Old maps call it an ait, which is more like it. It still has an artist community, not exactly seedy, but definitely on the Bohemian side. As joke-Bohemian places like the mudflat moorings at Cheyne Walk became ridiculous (in price; in pretension; in people), a genuine London Boho would move upstream to Eel Pie if he could. I once ruined the engine in a Volvo 480ES by driving it along the tide-flooded length of Chiswick Mall. I was in a queue of traffic, slowly wading through shallow water behind many other cars doing just the same. Every other car made it just fine; but I didn’t know that the air intake of those cars was very low, between the front wheels. I do, now. So Chiswick Mall became a secret place of mine that day. The Isle of Sheppey is a secret place of a different sort, a curiously beautiful little hill above the mudflats. I used to like the stumpy surviving arm of the Grosvenor canal, under the distinctive chimney of the pumping station by the railway tracks into Victoria. Pimlico Boating Station; the Dove at Hammersmith; the terraces of St. Thomas’ Hospital, Barking Creek and the Bow Back rivers, the Gallions Hotel…
All Londoners have associations of this kind with the river. They may not see it for many weeks on end – because one can cross it on the tube without knowing it’s there. But that sudden catch in the breath from the sheer breadth of sky above the water is familiar to all. It’s not just Wordsworth who found the river startlingly beautiful when the smoke cleared by chance. Monet did, too, and his studies of the light changing over the Houses of Parliament are ‘secret memories’ of many of us. Bill Brandt’s seagull wheeling past the shipping is one of mine, too, and so are the long thin Whistler sketches. Not all secret memories of the river are simply of actual places. Snatches of song count, too. (When Ian Dury died, his family threw his leg-iron and one of his walking sticks into the Thames off Hammersmith Bridge). Books make plenty of memories, too: Magwitch out on the marshes.
Many generations before the canal system was built, the river had always been alive with small craft. Quicker for almost any London journey of any length to go north or south to the river, take boat, and then go south or north from the nearest stair to the destination. Read Pepys and he’s forever leaping into a boat – and not just because of his job. He was a great naval administrator, and probably took a few more rides on the Thames than most, but everybody above the breadline did it from time to time. Now, in addition to the tourist boats, the fast connections to the investment bankers at Canary Wharf signal the reopening of a long history of the Thames as an efficient internal highway as well as the great external highway of the world.
The few surviving oarsmen, with their boathouses at Putney and elsewhere, are the last traces of one of the great outdoor leisure crazes, when late-Victorian and Edwardian Londoners flocked to the nicer bits of the river to learn the muscular habits of the watermen. If the Head of the River and the Boat Race are more or less absurd today, it’s peculiar to recall that they once drew crowds in the hundreds of thousands, when the river shed its working clothes and became an animated playground for the day. In the same way, the nearest London ground for the illegal bare-knuckle prize fights was at Moulsey Hurst, south of Hounslow, and Pierce Egan, the great pioneer sportswriter, often describes the crowds pushing their way down there to see Jem Belcher or Tom Cribb. Egan’s long written commentary (‘Key to the Picture of the Fancy Going to a Fight at Moulsey-Hurst‘) on Robert Cruikshank’s twelve-foot caricature of the crowd going down for one such match is a kind of early nineteenth century reality show. It’s there to entertain and to inform, but it is essentially true. The famous Globe theatre within a few yards of the river on Bankside was next to a bear-baiting ground, now less famous. Vauxhall Gardens, like the boxing grounds, was home-from-home to scallywags as well to fine gentry. The Thames ran through the middle of London’s entertainment as well as its trade; and every Londoner to this day has some association there, even if it is only an office party on a rented steamer.
I like the urban myth that the tidal flood alarm rings when the water level goes into the mouths of enough of the decorative lion’s-head mooring rings. When it was originally told me, it was as an actual alarm of some kind. Since then, I find no circuitry but a rhyme:
“When the lions drink, London will sink;
When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains;
When the water is sucked, you can be sure we’re all … in trouble.”
It sounds like an ancient vulgar London nursery rhyme – yet the lions can only have been put there after the Thames was Embanked by Joseph Bazalgette late in the nineteenth century. And the thought of Bazalgette, of course, brings up the thought of the great sewerage system he built, with its magnificent cathedrals of shit at Abbey Mills and Crossness, still there in all their cod-Byzantine glory. Bazalgette built the Embankment, essentially a hollow dam from Tothill Fields downstream. The District Line trains run within it; and when fibre-optic cables were new, a company hired space through the hollow to run speedy connections to the city.
T.S. Eliot knew all about the secrets of the Thames. In the Waste Land he talks of how ‘it sweats oil and tar.’ The Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets, begins with a rich passage about the Mississippi, which Eliot would have known as a child growing up in St. Louis, and which is very Thames-like as he describes it:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of
What men chose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
The river is within us….
Londoners will recognize that. The river is within us. Perhaps the way to describe it as the subconscious of Londoners. You don’t have to know of the buried rivers, the Neckinger and the Effra and Counters’ Creek and the Fleet which flow down to the Thames to understand how the river acts on Londoners as a mix of the individual and the shared. All Fulham fans know about the Thames at their backs; all Millwall and Charlton fans, too — although their bits of the river may not be quite so intimately close. Everybody whose car is lifted high on the giant QEII bridge between Queenhithe and Purfleet gets the view of the skyscrapers far to the west and the tankers moored almost on the mud below. Yet those very public vistas, the obvious ones, are not the ones that make up our own maps.
There is a story I like very much in Conrad. (There are lots of stories I like very much in Conrad, but it’s of this one that I’m thinking.) I’m sorry that it’s long, but Conrad likes to get his pipe well in between his teeth when he tells a story, even such a little one as this.
Behind the growth of the London waterside the docks of London spread out unsuspected, smooth, and placid, lost amongst the buildings like dark lagoons hidden in a thick forest. They lie concealed in the intricate growth of houses with a few stalks of mastheads here and there overtopping the roof of some four-story warehouse.
It is a strange conjunction this of roofs and mastheads, of walls and yard-arms. I remember once having the incongruity of the relation brought home to me in a practical way. I was the chief officer of a fine ship, just docked with a cargo of wool from Sydney, after a ninety days’ passage. In fact, we had not been in more than half an hour and I was still busy making her fast to the stone posts of a very narrow quay in front of a lofty warehouse. An old man with a gray whisker under the chin and brass buttons on his pilot-cloth jacket, hurried up along the quay hailing my ship by name. He was one of those officials called berthing-masters — not the one who had berthed us, but another, who, apparently, had been busy securing a steamer at the other end of the dock. I could see from afar his hard blue eyes staring at us, as if fascinated, with a queer sort of absorption. I wondered what that worthy sea-dog had found to criticise in my ship’s rigging. And I, too, glanced aloft anxiously. I could see nothing wrong there. But perhaps that superannuated fellow-craftsman was simply admiring the ship’s perfect order aloft, I thought, with some secret pride; for the chief officer is responsible for his ship’s appearance, and as to her outward condition, he is the man open to praise or blame. Meantime the old salt (“ex-coasting skipper” was writ large all over his person) had hobbled up alongside in his bumpy, shiny boots, and, waving an arm, short and thick like the flipper of a seal, terminated by a paw red as an uncooked beef-steak, addressed the poop in a muffled, faint, roaring voice, as if a sample of every North-Sea fog of his life had been permanently lodged in his throat: “Haul ’em round, Mr. Mate!” were his words. “If you don’t look sharp, you’ll have your topgallant yards through the windows of that ’ere warehouse presently!” This was the only cause of his interest in the ship’s beautiful spars. I own that for a time I was struck dumb by the bizarre associations of yard-arms and window-panes. To break windows is the last thing one would think of in connection with a ship’s topgallant yard, unless, indeed, one were an experienced berthing-master in one of the London docks. […] I answered him pettishly, I fear, and as if I had known all about it before.
“All right, all right! can’t do everything at once.”
It’s a properly London vision. Ninety days out of Australia, presumably with real danger to avoid. Conrad loved ships, and respected that a high spar goes around in a dancing circle of huge diameter on the sea. Half an hour in a London dock, and he’d forgotten. He might have knocked some panes out of a warehouse.
Well, I could go on but I’m warned away. Hilaire Belloc was a wonderful writer about water and the sea. His description in the Cruise of the Nona of sailing through the Portland Race is one of the great passages of descriptive prose that I know. Yet Belloc was dull about the Thames, his book about it no more than a piece of hack-writing. My own unconscious Thames sounds ponderous when dredged like this and brought to light. But what brought about this fit of river-gazing?
Nadav Kander has made a new series on the estuary, and part of it, at least, touches that same collision between private and secret with what appears to all. It is plausible to say that Kander’s greatest series so far is the one that won the Pictet Prize, on the Yangtze. It was a marvellous set of landscape photographs, but that was only its substratum. What the Long River is really about is how the little people are left behind in the new giant China, world power. Picture after picture shows huge infrastructure that the ordinary people cannot reach. A man washes a motorbike under a vast bridge with no possible way for him to ride along the top of it. There’s splendour; but also a fierce contrast between China, connected and powerful on the global scale; and its people, not yet riding the information superhighways even though they themselves are building them. It was a lot to get into a travel series, and not many photographers could have done it. But Kander did; he was already well-known by then, and for many interlinking skills; but his series on the Yangtze took him up another level. Complex thoughtful understanding expressed with great control and great harmony: it was fine photography by any standards.
There’s another picture of Kander’s which carries a weight in this context, too. In 2002 he made a picture of the Mont St Michel which managed the amazing trick of seeing this much-photographed monument freshly. Kander’s St Michel rises in the distance above a flat wet plain, more like an illustration of John Bunyan than anything else. It’s a goal to be reached, almost a mirage. A drain winds toward it that might take us there; but it curls uncomfortably away and might not. It’s a mental vision more than a physical one, shimmering, almost at the edge of sight itself. For most of its history, this is quite precisely how Christianity has been seen. The church was almost always the highest building around, often the only one. It dominated, to be aspired to or feared. Le Corbusier cheekily noticed that grain silos in the US rose above the plain with the same kind of psychic dominance that churches used to have, and since then, buildings of many different sorts have grown far taller than any church.
In the new series, partnered with lower glances into the underbrush and into blurs of motion, Kander has done the same thing again. He has made quite a few pictures in which the vast skies of the outer Thames isolate but don’t quite crush the various buildings of the urban spread at its fringe. If I’m not quite convinced by Kander’s more nearly abstract pictures in this series nor by the companion studies of woodland, nor by his fairly routine studies of the big blocks of erosion protection – they have become fairly standard tropes of ‘accidental sculpture’ and were anyway done much better by Koudelka in panoramic format when he worked on the Transmanche Project all those years ago – then by contrast I find his pictures of buildings just on the edge of perception extraordinary.
You can think of these in the trendy vocabulary of the Anthropocene if you like – the name for the era in which the marks of man’s occupation have been left on the planet, slight at first, but more marked since roughly the start of the Industrial Revolution – but it may be better to think of them in terms of the subconscious of London. These are pictures where the superficial knowledge we have of the places we live – shared and mapped, and apparently perfectly logical – is challenged by a deeper knowledge which is personal and barely articulated: felt rather than thought. That buildings, big buildings on the scale of power stations, can disappear under huge skies is a subtle reminder of something we dare not forget, that for all the urban human history of the place, nature is still strong in the estuary, only a few miles from the city, even if sometimes our awareness of it is no stronger than the cry of a harrier far away on the marsh.