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Saturday, August 9, 2014


(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.


  1. I loved the stories of the rivers and how they impacted the growth of the areas around them. I could just see some of the event, and I have always loved 'tall ships', I must have been a sailor who drowned in a prior life, for I love water and can't swim worth a lick.
    I grew up on the Mississippi, in the midwest. Oh the stories. However, the Missouri is probably about equal to the Ol Miss in terms of legacy in the expansion of this country. Because is empties into the Miss it is sometimes forgotten, to histories loss.

  2. Thanks for joining me Doris. And You know I am in the same position as you! I love boats and water, and used to do a lot of rowing, but I can't swim either! I once wanted to join a local canoe club, but they wouldn't take me just because I couldn't swim! How mean in that? LOL! Maybe it is down to one of those prior lives then?
    Thanks again.

  3. Loved your post, Jill! I remember Ferry Cross the Mersey when it came out--I was just a little girl, but I loved the tune and the wistful sound of it. My husband still plays and sings it--it's one of his faves, too! (And he was 6 years older and lived halfway across the US!) LOL

    Love learning about the history of these rivers. I can't imagine feeling secure enough to hold a fair on the river. I would live in fear of the ice breaking. LOL

    Thanks so much for a fascinating look into your country's history and geography--I really enjoy how it all ties together, and your sharing it with us.


  4. Jill, I did use a river as a character (sort of) in a couple of my books, now that you mention it. Had forgotten! In Fire Eyes, there is a part where there's been a Union ship sunk in the Arkansas River (this really happened--I saw the spot and that's why I wrote it into the story) and the crazy leader of the outlaws decides he wants his men to dive down and see if they can bring up any sign of gold, etc. that it might have been carrying. In the dark. Nutcase. LOL Another time I used a river is when I had the characters in Ride the Wild Range crossing the Red River, which separates Oklahoma and Texas. There really was a ferry station, owned by a family named Colbert. So I put them in my story. Good question...made me think.

  5. Hello Cheryl thanks for two posts! I'm glad I made you think! And I'm so glad both you and your husband like the song, It was one of my favourites also. Not so much for the Liverpool connection, but the sound of it A wistful tune indeed. I'm with you on the Fros Fairs! I'd be scared of the hog roast fire melying the ice and everyone plunging through! But it seems the ice may have been over six feet thick at the time! Haven't readd Fire eyes yet sorry (There are so may books by all you clever ladies, I'll never get through them all, I'm on with Red Eagle's Revenge just now.) I really want to read Fire eyes soon, and hearing this about the river makes me want to even more. That really is a crazy story, I think I heard about it on tv a while back actually. Wouldn't like to have been one of those poor men! Thanks again.

  6. What a fascinating history! I loved that you included the Mersey. I suspect a lot of people thing it magically sprang into being in 1964! :D A great many people here in the States have Liverpool and Belfast to thank for sending their many-times-great-grandparents over, whether cruelly and unwillingly in the slave trade, or with desperation and some hope of a better life for many Scots-Irish. These great rivers are literally the life blood of the lands they flow through, and as you've written, they've made possible both the best and the worst in human history. Thank you for such an interesting article, Jill!

  7. Hi Lorrie! Thanks for dropping by! I am glad you enjoyed it. The Mersey links to the slave trade were kept hidden for a long time its only in recent years that there has been much written about it, now we have a museum on the waterfront charting Liverpools' history with the slave trade. And I have GGG Grandparent who went from Ireland and Scotland to USA, so we are all connected in some way! Thanks again.

  8. Jill such a great blog. So full of history. As a country ours is still pretty young compared to Europe. I really have no idea what folks were doing around here in say 1115. I suppose in my part of the world it was mainly the Sioux, Omaha and Pottawattamie Indian tribes hunting, fishing and enjoying their lives. As far as rivers in my stories, I have a short sentence or two about my character crossing over the Missouri River in a taxi coming from Omaha to Council Bluffs Iowa. Also in Saigon Moon and Echoes in the Night I use the Mekong Delta area for my troops to walk thru with rifles held high above their heads or riding in little Saipan boats.

  9. Hello Barbara. Nice to see you! Thanks for reading, and for your comments. I like to think that the Indians were leading a natural, peaceful life, the reality is different tho isn't it? They were at war with one another over the land and so on, long before the white settlers arrived. I'm thinking there can't be many stories where water doesn't figure in some way? what do you think? Thanks for dropping by today.

  10. A very interesting blog about the two major rivers in the UK. I think my favorite part was about the tall ships. I think that would be quite an exciting sight to see. Add some bagpipes to the scene and I would be in heaven. A floating boat landing was certainly an ingenious piece of work and I can just imagine how weird that must feel under foot.
    The United States is a vast country with gazillions of rivers running through it...big ones like the Rio Grande. But my favorite isn't a huge river, but it has much to do with my family history--the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. My sister and I used to go with my Grandmother fishing there. Ordinarily, it's pretty dang shallow. A person could walk across it in many places. But don't be fooled; that river, when it gets filled with snow melt or too much rain, can, and has, taken out towns. Sunbury built a wall in the 1930's after it almost took out the town. Later, in the 1970's, people along the river front wanted it taken down so they could have a nice river view. Plans were in motion to remove it when another flood made the water rise so high it sloshed over the wall. The people of Sunbury were so grateful for the wall that saved them they never spoke of the removal again.
    I have frequently written about rivers and lakes in my work. One whole book in the Legends of Winatuke series is dedicated to the evil Lake of Sorrows. In Fly Away Heart, Robin has to overcome his fear to rescue Lilith from The Wind River in Wyoming (a real river in an imaginary town.) Roaring Creek in Catawissa, PA is where my Uncle John drown when he was 21. I wrote about him and the life I imagined for him in The Violin. There are many others as well. Maybe I should be psychoanalyzed about my love of watery places.
    My ancestors, The Macneills of Bara, were pirates and thieves. They spent an inordinate amount of time in tall ships on the ocean. They did make that little mistake of sinking an English ship back in 1743 and got kicked off their island and sent to Nova Scotia and Wilmington, NC. See--there's a connection to the English, although not particularly a good one I admit.
    I really enjoyed reading your blog, Jill. It's good to hear about places of which I know next to nothing. The tidbits of history were wonderful.

  11. Hello Sarah, Sorry to be late in replying time differences, dontcha know!! I too love the bagpipes, I go all tingly when I hear them, It doesn't hurt that the uniform most pipers wear is so darn sexy too! Thanks for telling me about your rivers too.That Susquehanna sound like a beast! I love water, I feel so relaxed by the sea, and the sound of a stream is sure to send me into another place in my brain. It's great. I like your connection to us. There are a lot of stories like that. and oh my gosh, pirates! Is there a book in there, or have you already written it? I love pirate stories. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I have been wondering if I should continue putting these titbits of and tales of Britain on here or not. I don't want to bore people! Thanks for joining me. hope we speak soon.

    1. I think you should continue posting about all things English-especially if they have some western connection. I don't find them boring at all--rather fascinating actually.
      I know how difficult it can be for those of us who are not living in the west to write about the west, let alone write blogs with specific western interest. At least I have the advantage of having lived in several places in the west--Texas and Nebraska, and I've visited most of it, but you haven't. I like westerns and writing about it even though writing about the south or North Carolina would be a whole lot easier. Just keep doing what you're doing. Good thing I like research. I find out the most interesting things that way. I know you're with me on that.

    2. Sarah, hello again. Nice surprise. I do agree with you about research. But sometimes its a bit difficult to give the actual 'feel' of a place without having experienced it isn't it? I don't like the heat and find it difficult to imagine the feel of a desert area. I just have to read and try to remember what I saw in the films, and hope it works. (Don't know how well it works though?) I'm glad you like the posts, and that you find them 'fascinating' Thank you so much for that. It is hard to know just what to write that will be of interest to those people who might never have been to UK. But I'll keep trying, Sarah! Thanks for the support.

  12. Jill, I'm so sorry I didn't make it over here yesterday. This is fascinating information about the UK's major waterways. I've heard of both the Thames (of course) and the Mersey, but I never knew much about the Mersey and you revealed a WHOLE LOT of things I didn't know about the Thames. (Darn Americans. We're just not that good at looking beyond our own borders, are we? ;-) )

    Several Texas rivers play roles in my work: The Rio Grande, the Nueces, the Guadalupe, and the far. Like the Okie up there (Cheryl), I'll probably incorporate the Red River into a story one of these days. After all, it is the boundary between God's country and those reprobates in Indian Territory. ;-)

  13. Hi Kathleen. Thanks for dropping by, no worries that you came later!! You and Cheryl still fighting like cat and dog then? Until I read Cheryl's post here I had no idea there was a Red River. About five years back I wrote a (long)short story called 'The Red River' about a man who is compelled to be beside the river because of its power ,and the way it changes with the seasons. Maybe it was your river calling to me? LOL!