On Sunday 3rd June next year, as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, a flotilla of 1,000 ships, seven-and-a-half miles long, will sail down the River Thames in the world's greatest city with the Queen at its head in a gold-encrusted royal barge, as the bells of London's many churches near to the river chime out and fireworks light up the evening sky. It will be the biggest flotilla to sail down the Thames in around 350 years.

The event will not only bring to mind earlier historical spectacles but will also demonstrate how the historic river has been miraculously brought back to life.

For centuries the river was filthy and polluted, with the disgusting and stinking waste products from the many businesses such as butchers and tanneries along its banks being dumped into the river. Not to mention the fact that people used it as a toilet - but it didn't stop Londoners of centuries ago using the Thames as a source of drinking water. No wonder diseases such as cholera became commonplace.

Even as late as the 19th Century, the corpses of dead cats and dogs floating down the river were a common sight. The Great Stink of 1858, caused by the polluted river, meant Parliament had to be suspended because of the stink, despite great sheets coated with chlorine being hung from the windows.

Things came to a peak in the 1960s when the river became so filthy and polluted it was officially declared dead.

Now, Old Father Thames is in a much healthier state, Not only have its old disused docks been transformed – with great gleaming towers of silver and glass now standing where once were dour warehouses – but all sorts of species of fish, including pike and salmon, once more swim and spawn happily in the river, for the first time in well over a century, if not longer.

At 215 miles long, the Thames is the longest river wholly in England. The Severn is slightly longer - 220 miles - put that also flows through Wales as well as England.

The reborn River Thames, by Royal Appointment

The Queen’s jubilee pageant next year will be the crowning glory for a waterway with a murky past, says Sinclair McKay.

Today's Thames, with an artist's impression of Western Europe's tallest skyscraper, the Shard of Glass, on the left, which will be completed in 2012 and, inset, girls playing near Tower Bridge in 1955 Photo: GETTY

Tower Bridge in 1894, the year of its opening Photo: ALAMY

By Sinclair McKay
06 Apr 2011
The Telegraph

June 2012 is to see a 1,000-strong, seven-and-a-half mile long flotilla of ships sailing down a reborn River Thames as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

A royal barge, glittering with gold, sails down the Thames in a dazzling flotilla of 1,000 ships, while on the banks of the river, the air is filled with the rich melodic peals of old church bells and the evening sky blazes with fireworks… These, of course, are the plans being drawn up for next year’s Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty. But they would have sounded extremely familiar to the first Queen Elizabeth, too. She was quite an expert when it came to turning the river into grand theatre.

The idea of this Thames pageant, an “avenue of sail”, is not only an inspiring echo of earlier historical spectacle, it confirms the fact that the Thames – not so long ago a filthy, technically “dead” river – has now been miraculously restored to life in every sense. When the Queen makes this voyage from Putney to Greenwich in 2012 she will be sailing on waters that ripple with vivid history and surprising new vitality.

Not only have the Thames’s old disused docks been transformed – with great gleaming towers of silver and glass now standing where once were dour warehouses – but all sorts of species of fish, including pike and salmon, once more swim and spawn happily in the river, for the first time in well over a century, if not longer.

Meanwhile, in the summer months, try walking from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge, past the London Eye, the National Theatre, the Oxo Tower, Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre, Southwark Cathedral and City Hall: in places, you will be pushing through tightly packed crowds. Forget the Olympics – in terms of lucrative tourism, the river and its jolly banks are one of the capital’s greatest assets. This is one of the greatest urban waterfronts in the world.

The Great Stink of the summer of 1858. The smell emanating from the Thames was so vile that Parliament had to be suspended, despite great sheets coated with chlorine being hung from the windows of the Houses of Parliament

The notion of grand celebratory royal processions on the Thames began with Henry VIII and continued with Elizabeth I. In the 16th century, jostling on these waters, under the windows of grand Thames-side houses belonging to the gentry, there would be boats festooned with cloths of gold, rich tapestries and flags with tiny bells sewn in so that when they blew in the wind there were hundreds of little chimes.
These were extraordinary displays of beauty and power.

In 1662, Charles II resurrected the idea of the river pageant as he and his new wife, Catherine of Braganza, sailed to Whitehall. In 1717, George I sailed on a barge filled with musicians who played Handel’s Water Music. By legend, they had to play it especially loud in order to drown out the foul-mouthed obscenities being shouted out by the river’s uncouth ferrymen!

And even for the less exalted classes, the river has always been a draw for entertainment. The raffish atmosphere of the river’s South Bank is also firmly rooted in history. Pleasure-seekers of the 18th century headed for the gaudy lights and sexually free-and-easy atmosphere of Vauxhall Gardens. “Women squeak and men drunk fall/ Sweet enjoyment of Vauxhall ”, as one popular ballad went. A little closer to Tower Bridge, in the 16th century, theatre-goers could go to see Hamlet at the Globe – and then pick up a prostitute. The Globe Theatre now stands again, though the area’s red light has been turned off.

In some ways, the Thames has always been the soul of London. It has always faithfully reflected the life of the city itself. So, in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the city began to expand dramatically to become the largest in the world, and the levels of poverty and filth grew concomitantly, so the river suffered. All noxious waste flowed directly into it.

Come the summer of 1858, Parliament had to be suspended because of the stink, despite great sheets coated with chlorine being hung from the windows. Some time before that, Queen Victoria, with her husband Albert, one day embarked on a Thames pleasure cruise. It lasted minutes. The foul stench from the black, bubbling, almost soupy water, drove the royal party back to the shore.

And the river also suffered from London’s industry. Not just the toxic effluent from the Bermondsey tanneries, but also, into the 20th century, the pollution caused by soap and linoleum works, as well as the pervasive smogs helped on by the great riverside power stations at Battersea, Bankside and Greenwich. There were also the early gasworks, which would discharge ammonia and cyanide and carbolic acid.

The Frost Fair on the frozen Thames in 1814. An elephant was led over the ice near Blackfriars Bridge.

The Thames was always central to the working life of the city; along it came goods from every corner of the world. The river and its vast docks were filled with cargo ships bearing everything from timber to sugar, from meat to the finest silks and wines. There were other avenues of unexpected pleasure and lucrative trade, too. At the frost fairs of the 17th and 18th centuries, held on the frozen river, there were stalls selling coffee, brandy, and cooked meats, as well as offering entertainments such as bear-baiting.

But the Thames does not merely have the potential for spectacle, it has also been viewed as a sacred river. Carvings of pagan deities have been found buried in the river bed, and bronze spear-heads, placed there deliberately as offerings to unknown gods. The Romans built the first bridge, of timber, in around 52 AD, which is roughly where London Bridge now stands, and they, too, would make offerings to the water – “a way of emphasising that their life in the human world was over”, writes Peter Ackroyd in his magisterial history of the river.

Then there is the river’s darker side. We need only remember the opening pages of Our Mutual Friend, where “a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance” carries Gaffer Hexham and his daughter Lizzie on their night-time search for bodies to rob. Those of a certain age will recall the billowing monochrome fogs depicted in the TV police drama Dixon of Dock Green. Dock Green was partly based on Wapping, where the river police were stationed. Even now, it is their grim duty to fish bodies out of the Thames with depressing regularity.

None of this need trouble Her Majesty as she makes her way down the Thames in next year’s pageant, though she will no doubt be aware that, unusually for a river flowing through a city, the Thames can get remarkably choppy. It is a tidal river, and when that tide turns, the waters are notoriously dangerous.

Last year, the political commentator Matthew Parris, who lives in the East End, got it into his head to swim across the river, from Rotherhithe to Limehouse, in the middle of the night. He had consulted tide tables but forgot that the times quoted were Greenwich Mean Time and he was swimming in British Summer Time. High tide was an hour later than he had expected, and he was swept three quarters of a mile upriver from Limehouse.

The docks have gone – they closed in the 1970s – but after a long period of murky ill-use, the river is up and working once more. Where once there were foul-mouthed ferrymen, taking passengers across the river, now sleek catamarans – with impeccably mannered crews – power up and down the waters.

When Her Majesty is cruising past the silvery towers of Canary Wharf, she might also spot the modern-day equivalent of “mudlarks”. In the 19th century, children would scavenge by the water’s edge in the hope of finding coins. These days, adults with metal detectors probe the mud and sand and still discover astonishing quantities of small archaeological finds. Once dead, the London reaches of the Thames are now again, in every conceivable way, alive and thriving.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Apr 7th, 2011 at 02:06 PM..