The Thames is a river that takes me on imaginative journeys, some of them reflecting my real life and others a dream world that I have inhabited regularly since I left London in the late 1980s. From the Oxfordshire countryside around Abingdon where I used to sit dreaming, gazing upstream through the gently waving branches of willow, down to the murky Dickensian bankside I explored during my brief attempt at nursing in Whitechapel I have always felt the presence of its personality. A great river in a wonderful capital city, it threads its way through the history of rural England, London and out to the seas my wonderful naval ancestor Dominick Addison protected in the early 1800s. There are more than 200 bridges up and down the length of the Thames, but those that span the width of the river in central London have offered their own special perspective on the city. Scenes of love, tragedy and contemplation are crossed every day by thousands of commuters without a thought to the history that flows around them. It isn’t always a beautiful stretch of water, but it is always atmospheric and it has inspired writers, artists and musicians for generations
One of the paintings of London I admire most is Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, completed around 1875. For me, it captures the atmosphere of the river and of London in a unique way. No busy wharves or warehouses, the water not packed with boats. It is a quiet painting dominated by Battersea Bridge, with Chelsea Old Church and the lights of the Albert Bridge in the background. Whistler wrote ‘when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry…tall chimneys become campanili [bell towers] and the warehouses are palaces in the night and the whole city hangs in the heavens and fairy land is before us’.
As you travel from London by train as evening draws on, the reflected light from surrounding buildings and street lamps does indeed seem to ‘hang’ over the water, creating a romantic view of the city that for many on those trains out to the suburbs is the scene of daily drudgery.
However, as the night wears on and the light changes in the early hours the river inspires in a different way. William Wordsworth captures that sense in his sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ written in 1802. It is a surprising description of the city from a poet most closely associated with the joys of natural beauty:
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Wordsworth wrote this poem recalling his view of the river as he crossed the bridge with his sister Dorothy early one morning at the start of a journey to Calais. The scene surprised him, and his response surprises us perhaps until we realise that it is nature that is offering this rare view of the smoky city. The city is asleep, its heart – and all the pumping, lively noise that it creates -is still. There is little doubt that later in the day the poet would not have crossed Westminster Bridge with the same sense of calm, but at this moment the city is personified as something of a benign spirit, not entirely at one with the natural world but not in conflict with it.
Charles Dickens was of course regularly writing about the river and the wharves around the best known of the London bridges. In Oliver Twist Nancy meets Mr Brownlow on the steps of London Bridge, a place frequented by David Copperfield and Dickens himself, who regularly stopped to watch the characters of London pass him by. Southwark Bridge features in Little Dorrit and Vauxhall Bridge in Our Mutual Friend
In Pickwick Papers Sam Weller suggests he may have spent some time living underneath Waterloo Bridge, widely believed to offer the best view of London from the ground. Charles Dickens Jnr in his Dictionary of London 1879 describes it as:
…..the earliest of John Rennie’s three, and beyond measure the cheapest, is also commonly considered the finest. As to this there may perhaps be a question, some critics preferring London Bridge, or even Southwark, as grander if less ornate. The perfect level, too, of the roadway in the case of Waterloo, whilst the first of all merits from a practical point of view, somewhat narrows its artistic opportunities; whilst the uniformity of the arches is considered by some to give it too much the air of “a length out of a via-duct.”
The poet Wendy Cope wrote After the Lunch about finding love on Waterloo Bridge which includes the lovely lines On Waterloo Bridge, where we said our goodbyes/The weather conditions brought tears to my eyes./I wipe them away with a black woolly glove,/And try not to notice I’ve fallen in love. But Waterloo for me is most reminiscent of a song that has been one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’ ever since I first heard it in my teens in the early 1980s. Released years before, in 1967, Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks is one of their most popular songs. The story of Terry and Julie, and the romance as they ‘pass over the river’ has inspired other music, stories and additional work by Ray Davies, The Kinks frontman who wrote and produced it.
This is three minutes that for me sum up the reason why I love London. I was born there, lived there for 25 years, spent three years studying in Holborn and had many happy evenings in central London with my boyfriend (now my husband) when he lived and worked at Guy’s Hospital. For me it was passing over London Bridge that then made me feel ‘safe and sound’ and still today, as the train crosses a bridge and clatters into whichever mainline station I am arriving at it still feels like coming home.