A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT.
(By The English Rose).
Do rivers feature large in your work? I haven’t written much about rivers as a ‘main character’ in any of my own works as yet, but I was having a conversation last week and the subject came up, so I thought I would give you some information on two of the main rivers here in UK.
The UK can’t possibly compete with USA for huge rivers such as Colorado or Mississippi, but the two I am going to talk about here are known world-wide. The main one people think of when UK comes up in conversation, is of course the River Thames in London. The other is the River Mersey in Liverpool (made world famous in the song ‘Ferry across the Mersey’ by Gerry and the Pacemakers).
Both of these rivers have had a varied and interesting history, so I will give you just a few facts about each in turn. Although the Thames is the ‘main’ UK river, I hope I will be excused for adding the Mersey, as I was born in Liverpool and spent many happy hours ferrying across the Mersey.
The Thames is 215 miles long and 18 metres wide at its widest section.
In 1929 an MP, Mr John Burns wrote (these are his words, not mine, so please don’t send out a lynch mob!) – “ The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history”, and quite a history it has had.
In the Thames valley, archaeological finds suggest that humans inhabited the area around 400,000 years ago (Ice Age). The large flat areas around the river were farmed intensively down the ages, and fishing for salmon and eels was carried out over many centuries. There is a story that the salmon were once so plentiful in the whole river that the apprentices of London complained they were being fed too much of it! The water was also used to power grain mills.
By the Bronze Age, people had learned to make sea-worthy boats and they began trading with the Continent. In 1016, the Danish King, Canute, built his palace in the spot where the Houses of Parliament stand today. The Vikings sailed their long boats up the deep wide waterway, raping and pillaging as they went! When the Romans came, they, with their engineering minds, built the first permanent port and bridge across the river at the site of London Bridge.
Westminster Abbey was one of the first large buildings of note to appear beside the river. It was built on the orders of Edward the Confessor, (who is buried within). After the Battle of Hastings, (1066) William the Conqueror rode to Westminster to be crowned King of England and began the building of the Tower of London to protect ‘The Pool of London’. The Tower was used as a place for imprisonment, torture and execution for centuries. Sir Francis Drake was knighted there, and Sir Walter Raleigh set off for the ‘New World’ from there.
It was on Runnymede Island in the Thames where the Magna Carta was signed. Following that, many castles and forts were built at strategic places all along the river.
The Tudors and Stuarts erected many beautiful buildings along the length of the Thames. In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed a huge swathe of the medieval wooden framed city, and put an end to the ‘Black Death’, (bubonic plague) which had been wiping out the population of London for the previous year. Much of the city was later re-built using stone.
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, winters in UK were so hard that the Thames, a very wide and slow-moving river, froze solid. The ice was thick enough to hold ‘Frost Fairs’ right on top of it, with performing animals, fairgrounds, and even hog roasts! The last Frost Fair was held in 1814.
By the 18th Century, the first London docks had been built to accommodate the influx of trade from abroad. In later years, the canals and railways took much of the heavy traffic from the river.
In 1858, the Thames had become virtually an open sewer, with very little wildlife to be found then. Around this time, ‘Mudlarks’ could be seen at work along the river. These were poor people, who worked from dawn to dusk along the water line; scavenging anything they might be able to sell. Pieces of coal, iron, nails, boat rivets, items other people might have dropped. Many Mudlarks were very young children who worked for cruel masters.
Today, the custom of Mudlarking still goes on along the Thames, but now it is licenced and mostly done by adults with metal detectors. Anything of any real value they find has to be handed over to the Crown. The river is much cleaner now, salmon and eels are making a comeback. There are no Frost Fairs any more, but events such as the Oxford and Cambridge boat race are still run each year.
The Mersey is around 3 miles wide and 43 miles long, it empties into the Irish Sea.
The name is believed to come from an Anglo Saxon word meaning ‘border river’ as it runs along the line between the counties of Lancashire and Cheshire.
In 1115, a Benedictine Priory was established on the banks and the monks charged people a small fee to ferry them across the river. The first permanent ferry crossing was built in medieval times. Today there are three ferry-boats which take thousands of passengers across the river between Liverpool and the Wirral Peninsula. In the 18th Century, Mersey Docks were some of the busiest in Britain at the time.
In 1847, a landing stage was constructed which rose and fell with the tides so that boats could dock at any time. (Walking along that landing stage to get to the ferrys was a very strange feeling, as it moved with the swell of the river as you walked along). In 1886, a railway tunnel was built beneath the Mersey, later a road tunnel was also constructed, which led to a great reduction in the number of ferry passengers.
During WW2, two of the steam ferry boats, ‘Iris’ and ‘Daffodil’ were taken out of operation and re-painted to be used as troop ships. They saw much action at Zeebruge in Belgium, after which their operators were granted permission to use the ‘Royal’ title. (I had many trips on the ‘Royal Iris’ and the Royal Daffodil’ as a youngster).
The saddest part of the Mersey’s history is one which was not very widely spoken about until recently. In the 1700s, Liverpool was a major centre for the slave trade. Around ¾ of all European slave ships left from Liverpool, carrying around 1 ½ million slaves to the USA. A sad and terrible connection of our two countries. The last British slaver left from Liverpool in 1807.
The Mersey used to be almost as dirty as the Thames, but the water is becoming clearer all the time now, seals and bottle nosed dolphins have even been seen swimming up the river. Salmon too, have been found recently in some parts. The annual ‘Tall ships’ race starts from there every year. The sight of all the old sailing ships gathered together as they would once have been, is very moving.
Well, there you have a small insight into the history of these two rivers. There is so much more to them, but I don’t have room for any more. I hope you have enjoyed reading these little snippets?
Why not tell us about your favourite river now? Or a river you have used as a ‘main character’ in one of your books?
Catch you all later.