And so Krista and I find ourselves at Pearson, Toronto’s international airport, awaiting our flight to London.
It doesn’t matter how much planning goes into a trip of this sort – you still have to pack your bags. For Krista and I, this proved an adventure in itself. If everyone finds life in 2015 to be complicated, Krista’s is more complex than most. As a veterinary surgeon, telephone calls and messages continued through the day, checking on the progress of recent patients, and making plans for upcoming treatments. Did you think that you life was complicated by your dog or cat? Imagining Krista’s life, which she shares with cats and reptiles and myriad birds. The needs of each have to be met before departure for the airport. How much lettuce can a turtle eat? You need how many crickets for the lizard? And then there is the little matter of a bag to carry our canoe paddles. Krista’s bag was suitable for paddles that telescope into themselves, but were a tad short for our beautiful five-foot long wooden paddles.
And as the day unfolded I wondered how much easier we might have made things by simply paddling the River Thames itself. From Kemble to the west end of London. Done! Lots of fun, and lots of adventure, but only one craft to paddle, and only one type of clothing. We might have got away with carry-on luggage.
But that isn’t what adventurers do. They don’t do things by half just because it would be easier. Krista and I arrived at Pearson with our carry-on bags, four large duffel bags full of adventure gear, and our Alfred plush toys to join us on our voyage. Tomorrow morning – London! Think of us.
Krista and I have been planning our big paddling adventure, Falling Down the Thames, for a year-and-a-half. After great strides forward, and a few minor steps backward, we are now poised to begin our voyage along England’s River Thames. We will start paddling next Tuesday.
The first official FDtT activity was this morning. I travelled to William G. Miller Public School in Toronto to make presentations about our journey. Krista was engaged in surgery today, and so I had to make the presentations alone. The first address was to the school’s youngest students, followed by a session with the older students.
The experience was, for me, particularly noteworthy because I attended William G. Miller between 1963 and 1967. Unlike my time there, the student body is now gloriously diverse. I spoke with many students who had recently immigrated to Canada, and with others whose parents were immigrants, as mine were. At the end of the second presentation, several students brought forward one of their classmates who was particularly interested in meeting me. She had recently moved to Toronto from Ethiopia, and I was told that she was now learning the tongue of her adopted country. She seemed pleased that I had shown a photograph of my adventures in her native country.
The school students that I met today were polite and engaged, and the teachers and staff are to be commended for encouraging such enthusiasm and delight. I was asked how much it costs to have a paddling adventure like the one of Krista and I. A few thousand dollars. Was it dangerous to have adventures like these? Sometimes, but the risk is not so high as to keep us from doing it. Had I ever been to Japan? Yes, I have – in search of microscopic soil animals. Do I have a favourite type of bird? Well, there are 12,000 species, and I like them all, but I have a special fondness for Australia’s Pale-headed Rosella. Have I ever met the Queen of England? No, but I have exchanged letters with her husband, Prince Philip.
If Krista and I have more experiences like the one I had today, we are going to have a great time.
photo credit: William G. Miller Public School logo – www.scarboroughhoopers.com; Pale-headed Rosellas - © Geoff Walker, bushpea.com (used with permission)
Falling Down the Thames Blog 54, 8th April 2015
Why the River Thames?
Krista and I are just a couple of weeks from the start of the paddling adventure we are calling Falling Down the Thames. We will propel ourselves the length of England’s great River Thames, from its source near the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire, under countless bridges and through myriad locks, taking in the grand cities of Oxford, Reading and London. We will pass out through the Thames Estuary and along the north and east coasts of Kent, to end at the Roman fort at Richborough. More than four hundred glorious kilometres of paddling, first in a canoe, and later in a kayak.
Plans for our upcoming adventure have attracted a great deal of attention, and a fair few quizzical looks. The single question that I have been asked most frequently is: “How long is this going to take you?” We will be on the water for three weeks. The second most common question has been: “Why the Thames?” I don’t think that Krista and I have a single, simple response to that question. Perhaps the best answer is: “Because of my mum.”
Kathleen Chilton was born in Leicester in 1931. Her family moved to Kent when she was very young, and resided there at the outbreak of WWII. Despite the dangers and privations of those times, Mum frequently described them as some of the best of her life. Hardship persisted in Europe for many years after the war ended, and like so many British families, my mother, her husband and my older brother emigrated in search of a more prosperous life. They moved to Canada in 1954, where I was born four years later.
My mother may have left England, but England never really left my mother. There was, for instance, always a hint of the Queen in her voice, and this was never more true than while I was being scolded for being naughty. I was swept along on this wave of British nostalgia. On birthdays I received toys constructed in the UK, and I devoured copies of The Beano and The Dandy comic books. As a child, I used the word “chesterfield” rather than “couch,” ate Marmite sandwiches for lunch, and often had Bird’s custard for dessert. When I was eleven my first-ever ride in an airplane took me to England, and a month in the cathedral city of Canterbury started my love affair with that community. All told, I have spent about three years in the United Kingdom.
The River Thames is as rich in human history as in natural history. Paddling it, and the coast of Kent, will be a significant challenge for us, without being too dangerous. But the same qualities can be attributed to lots of other rivers. Could it be that Krista and I are about to paddle the Thames because of my mother?
After a happy and productive life, Kathleen Chilton died two weeks ago. At no time in her passing was she in pain, nor was she frightened. She simply came to the end of her life. Perhaps that life can be celebrated in some tiny way by the Falling Down the Thames adventure. Over the past year-and-a-half my mum followed the preparations of Krista and I carefully. She read all of our blogs. Krista gave Mum one of the Alfred Kingfishers that she had made specially for our adventure. Mum was eagerly anticipating our presentation to the students at Reculver Primary School, seventy-five years after she attended classes there. She knew intimately some of the spots that we will be paddling past, including Herne Bay and Broadstairs.
Mum – it is almost time to go Falling Down the Thames.
Falling Down the Thames Blog 53, 18th March 2015
A Few More Perfect Words About the River Thames
I received some very nice feedback about my recent blog detailing poetry that had been inspired by the River Thames. I was asked for more. Who am I to decline polite requests?
Some pieces have been written by poets in a particularly cheerful mood. In Upon Westminster Bridge, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote:
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.
William Blake (1757-1827), by way of contrast, must have been having a really dour day when he wrote London:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
Another contrasting pair is fronted by the poem Battersea Park by George Barker (1913-1991). Never a chuckle-a-minute sort of fellow, Barker contemplates the way in which “in the fog of failure and distress,” things seen at a glance can:
Makes a man afraid of the ghost of a man…
What I saw was Sorrow loitering along by
The Thames near the tall bridge by Battersea Park.
Compare Barker’s take on life with the rather more up-tempo song entitled Meet me at Battersea Park. Written by Leslie Clark, Joe Henderson and David Valentine, and recorded by Petulia Clark in 1954, we are told:
We’ll stroll along by the riverside,
In sunshine or after it’s dark,
There’s music and dancing, a place for romancing,
So meet me in Battersea Park.
Still on the theme of songs about the River Thames, I have found three additional pieces that commemorate the waterway. Old Father Thames was written by Raymond Wallace and recorded by Peter Dawson in 1933. In what I imagine to be intended as a moral-boosting march for interwar Britain, Wallace wrote:
High in the hills, down in the dales, happy and fancy free,
Old Father Thames keeps rolling along, down to the mighty sea.
To me, The Kinks recording of Waterloo Sunset is the embodiment of mid-1960s popular music. The piece, written in 1967 by Ray Davies, tells of young lovers Terry and Julie who meet each Friday evening at London’s Waterloo Station, and describes the emotions of the person who watches them from a distance. Davies wrote:
Millions of people swarming like flies ’round Waterloo underground,
But Terry and Julie cross over the river,
Where they feel safe and sound.
I suspect that the weekly river crossing was made at Westminster Bridge, after which the couple probably carried on past Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster.
In 2006, Elton John and Bernie Taupin teamed up for the album The Captain and the Kid. Included as a bonus track on the UK edition of the album, the song Across the River Thames addresses issues concerning change and constancy. Music, fashion, hairstyles, and governments all change, but Admiral Nelson remains perched on his monument, Big Ben continues to chime the hour…
And the fog still rolls off the River Thames.
In a few short weeks, Krista and I will paddle the length of the River Thames, from its source near the community of Kemble, and on to the sea. We will be engaged in a landscape that has inspired writers for centuries.
Photo credits: “Reflection on the Thames” by John Atkinson Grimshaw – hopeeternal.wordpress.com; Japanese Buddha Peace Pagoda at Battersea Park – www.natureflip.com; fog across the Thames by Westminster Bridge by Derrick J Knight – derrickjknight.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 52, 11th March 2015
The Chemistry of the River Thames
At the dawn of the 1970s, as I was struggling to understand my place in the big wide world, it seemed that my residency in the world might be rather brief. The covers of newsmagazines all shouted about the harm humankind was doing to Earth’s soil, air and water. The claim was made, again and again, that if we didn’t reduce our release of pollutants, we could all expect to be poisoned to death in reasonably short order. Something had to be done.
And something was done. We cleaned up the world. Much of the credit is due to youngsters who insisted that they be handed a planet with a future.
William Cox Bennett (1820-1895) was an English journalist and watchmaker. He composed a poem entitled Thames, the River – The Glories of Our Thames which I find particularly noteworthy in a discussion of the cleanliness of the world. It includes the lines:
O, clear are England’s waters all, her rivers, streams and rills,
Flowing stilly through her valleys lone and winding by her hills;
But river, stream, or rivulet through all her breath who names,
For beauty and for pleasantness with our own pleasant Thames.
Isn’t that nice? Well, things haven’t always been that way.
Over its two thousand year history London has had its share of pollution issues. In a fabulous book entitled The Restoration of the Tidal Thames by Leslie Wood, I learned the history of the problem. Wood wrote that when London was first developing as an urban entity, each home had sufficient land to enable people to bury their waste. But as the city’s population grew denser, this abundance of land was no longer available. Getting rid of waste by burning it wasn’t an option because of the risk of fire in a city built almost entirely of combustible materials. Much of the city’s household garbage and toilet waste was dumped into streets which drain into freshwater rivers that flowed through the city. Some waste went directly into the River Thames, even when laws were enacted to prevent it.
In 1375 Edward III journeyed down the River Thames and found it to be so foul that he asked London administrators to halt the practice of disposing of waste in streets and waterways. It is reported that Charles I was similarly disgusted with the state of city in 1628. Writer Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was so put off by the state of London’s River Fleet that he wrote:
In the first jawes appeared that ugly monster,
Ycleped Mud, which, when their oares did once stirre,
Belch’d forth an ayre as hot as the muster
Of all your night tubs, when the carts doe cluster,
Who shall discharge first his merd-urinous load.
Somehow, despite centuries of abuse, the River Thames remained a comparatively healthy place for aquatic life. In the twelfth century, fish made up a substantial part of the diet of Londoners. If a 1457 report is to believed, whales, walrus, and even narwhals were being harvested from the tidal Thames. Trout, salmon, perch, pike and eels were all taken from the great river until the early 19th century.
But then things went wrong for the River Thames. Really wrong. I will write about that black period in Thames history in a later blog.
Photo credits: The Thames at Horseferry, by Dutch artist Jan Griffier - bjws.blogspot.co.uk; “Father Thames Introducing His Offspring to the Fair City of London.” Punch, or the London Charivari; July 3, 1858; pg. 5 - victoriancontexts.pbworks.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 51, 04th March 2015
The River Thames Using Exactly the Right Words
When I was a student in junior high school, our Language Arts teacher asked us to contemplate the nature of poetry. What is a poem? After struggling for the better part of an hour, which may have been the point of the exercise, the class came up with something along the lines of: “A poem is a composition intended to convey emotions and ideas using exactly the right words in exactly the right order.”
Even at the time this definition seemed to me to put an awful lots of pressure on poets. After all, one word out of place and what you had composed wouldn’t be a poem. It also seemed to be a bit unfair to writers using other styles, implying that they were satisfied with wrong words, or words in the wrong sequence.
Many have chosen to encapsulate their emotions and ideas about the River Thames in the form of poems. Among them were the novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who as a prelude to his work The River’s Tale wrote :
Twenty bridges from Tower to Kew -
(Twenty bridges or twenty-two),
Wanted to know what the River knew,
For they were young and the Thames was old,
And this is the tale that River told:
That is all very well and good, but by my count Krista and I will be paddling under twenty-five bridges from Tower Bridge to Kew Bridge.
Poet Laureate William Wordsworth (1770-1850) composed Lines Written Near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening, in which he was moved to ask of the river:
Glide gently, thus forever glide,
O Thames! that other bards may see,
As lovely visions by thy side
As now, fair river! come to me.
Prothalamion, also known as Sweet Thames Run Softly, by Tudor poet Edmund Spencer (1552-1599) starts off nicely:
Calme was the day, and through the trembling ayre
Sweete-breathing Zephyres did softly play
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
Hot Titan’s beames, which did glyster fayre;
But then it gets a bit weird:
There, in a meadow, by the river’s side,
A flock of nymphs I chanced to espy,
All lovely daughters of the flood nearby,
With goodly greenish locks, all loose untied.
If Krista and I espy green-haired nymphs as we pass down the Thames, it may be time to stop paddling. Not all poems about the River Thames are cozy. Alfred Noyes (1889-1958), a professor of literature at Princeton University, felt the need to compose On the Embankment, in which he said:
Within, it was colour and laughter, warmth and wine,
Without, it was darkness, hunger, bitter cold,
Where those white globes on the wet Embankment shine,
Greasing the Thames with gold…
A woman, a woman whose lips had once been kissed,
(It was Christmas Eve, and the bells began their chime!)
She sank to a seat like a crouching bundle of mist,
Exhaled from the river-slime.
Yikes! And if I understand Noyes’ following stanzas, the woman goes on to steal the clothes off a corpse.
It seems that James Kenneth Stephen (1859-1892) was feeling a bit proprietorial about when he wrote Steam-Launches on the Thames in 1891. Paddling – yes. Powered watercraft – no:
Shall we, to whom the stream by rights belongs,
Who travel silent, save, perchance, for songs;
Whose track’s a ripple – leaves the Thames a lake,
Nor frights the swan – scarce makes the rushes shake…
The rush, the roar, the stench, the smoke, the steam,
The nightmare striking through our heavenly dream,
The scream as shrill and hateful to the ear
As when a peacock vents his rage and fear.
My next blog will begin with a poem which speaks to the ever-changing nature of the River Thames.
Photo credits: Rudyard Kipling – jrbenjamin.com; sea nymph’s pond – emeraldsemporium.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 50, 25th February 2015
Then and Now
Krista and I are not the first persons to be enchanted by the River Thames, and we will certainly not be the last. Amoung those who have been particularly engaged by the Thames was Reginald Robert Bolland. Bolland began working for the Thames Conservancy in 1932, and in the following decades accumulated a large collection of what the author described as “Thamesiana.” This included books, photographic prints and paintings.
In 1974, Bolland published a book entitled Victorians on the Thames. It is a treatment of the late Victorian era, essentially 1880 to 1900, “a period during which Londoners discovered the upper Thames.” Given that Krista and I will soon be discovering all segments of the River Thames for ourselves, Bolland’s book seemed to beckon.
Among the treasures in Bolland’s book are myriad photographic images, sketches and paintings of the great river from the last years of the 19th century. Four photographs particularly caught my attention. They are sufficiently detailed that it should be possible to identify the exact spot from which the photographs were taken. And that is what I intend to do. For each of the following images, I will attempt to take a photograph in the same place in April of this year. I will then post those new images, along with the ones below, on this website as a basis of a then-and-now comparison. Stay tuned…
On Wednesday 22 April, just our second day of paddling, Krista and I will paddle under Radcot Bridge, where Oliver Cromwell is thought to engaged in a battle in 1645.
On Sunday 26 April, we will end our day’s paddle at Boulters Lock. On the hill behind the lock is the site of the first baptism by Saint Birinus, the first Bishop of Dorchester. Krista and I expect the lock to be slightly less crowded than on the day this photograph was taken.
We will paddle through Bell Weir Lock on Monday 27 April. This structure was named after its first keeper, Charles Bell. The scene is likely to appear a bit different for Krista and I, as the lock has been enlarged since this photograph was taken around 1900.
The second last lock on the non-tidal portion of the River Thames is Molesey Lock; we will paddle through it on Tuesday 28 April. Built in 1815, it was rebuilt in 1905, about five years after this image was captured.
Photo credits: Victorians on the Thames, by Reginald Robert Bolland
Falling Down the Thames Blog 49, 18th February 2015
The Thames Barrier in 2015
In last week’s blog, I briefly described the Thames Barrier, a project designed to help protect the city of London from flooding. That engineering marvel has now been in operation for a third of a century. What actually is it? How is it doing? Is the great city of London still at risk from the River Thames? Let me fill you in…
I am not an engineer, but I know a good piece of kit when I see it. The Thames Barrier is it. Construction began in 1974, and was completed eight year later. The barrier spans the Thames near Woolwich where the river is a little over 500 metres wide. The barrier involves a system of ten steel, semi-circular gates which can be rotated into place when deemed necessary. Each gates weights 3,300 tonnes, which was, by strange coincidence, the weight of blueberries exported from Peru in 2014. When the barrier is put into operation, 125 square kilometres of London is protected against flooding. This is an area two-and-a-half the size of Bermuda. I gather that the eastern boroughs of London are not protected by the barrier. Perhaps no one special lives in east London.
When a combination of data indicate a possible flood threat, the first step is to halt traffic up and down the river. The gates are raised until the threat has passed, and then normal circumstances are restored.
A variety of circumstances can cause a flood threat. First, a particularly high tide can combine with the wrong sort of storm to drive seawater up the Thames Estuary. Then it is time to raise the barrier. Alternatively a very high tide could meet a particularly large volume of water coming downstream. The trick then is to close the barrier at low tide in anticipation of problems, creating a void to be filled by river water, which can be released later on the falling tide.
The barrier is put into operation at least once a month for testing and routine maintenance. When the barrier was first created, it was expected to be needed to prevent flooding two or three times each year. It was used once each in 1983, 1985, 1987 and 1988, and called upon not at all in 1984, 1986 or 1989. Since then the barrier has been required more and more frequently. The Environment Agency closed the barrier nineteen times in 2003, and an astonishing forty-eight times in 2014. The River Thames acted rather badly in 2014.
And what about the future? According to the best guesses of experts, the Thames Barrier should protect London from flooding until the year 2070. After that…? We have fifty-five years to come up with a new crop of creative engineers to deal with the additional issue of rising sea levels.
Krista and I are scheduled to paddle through the Thames Barrier on the morning of Friday 1 May. Keep us in your thoughts.
Photo credits: The Thames Barrier – www.gov.uk; satellite view – Google Earth, posted in wreforum.org; ship passing through the Thames Barrier – www.bbc.co.uk
Falling Down the Thames Blog 48, 11th February 2015
Keeping London’s Feet Dry
You never know quite what you might find while strolling among the shelves of a university library. I recently found a 1984 book entitled The Thames Barrier. It was written by Stuart Gilbert and Ray Horner. The book contains a wealth of information about the River Thames along which Krista and I will soon be paddling.
In last week’s blog, I explained how vulnerable London is to flooding as the result of several co-conspiring factors. The book in hand went further, describing how humans had altered the landscape over a period of several centuries resulting in London becoming increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. The creation of docklands where previously there had been marshes, channelization of the River Thames within river walls, and even the construction of the original London Bridge causing changes in the deposition of silt had all put London at risk. At a conference in 1971 authorities concluded that, relative to the land, sea levels around London were rising at a rate of 30 centimetres per century. This wasn’t good.
There are records of horrific flooding of the River Thames devastating London as far back as 1099, with further reports from 1236, 1242, 1663, 1791, 1834, 1852… well, you get the idea. A surge tide in 1953 caused water to breach flood defences along England’s east coast, flooding 160,000 acres of farmland and 200 miles of rail lines, damaging 24,000 homes, killing 11,000 cattle and 9,000 sheep, and drowning 300 people. A combination of factors meant that London itself was largely spared in 1953, but the portion of the city that would be affected by a really big flood was home to more than a million people living in 350,000 residences. Something had to be done.
For London the best solution was considered to be a barrier across the River Thames. However, as described by Gilbert and Horner: “an immense structure would have to be built on entirely new principles without the help of previous smaller examples.” The barrier would have to be engaged when the risk of flood was deemed high, but disengaged at other times to allow the continued movement of ships.
In next week’s blog I will describe the Thames Barrier, and what role in plays in the ongoing safety of Londoners.
In the meantime, I would like to share a funny side of Gilbert and Horner’s book. After 182 pages of explanatory graphs and text, the volume ends with thirty-one pages of glossy advertisements for companies that were, in some way, associated with construction of the Thames Barrier. These include Davy McKee Ltd which designed and supplied operating machinery, Sunderland Forge Limited which provided concrete formwork securing systems, Benford Limited which provided 214,000 cubic metres of concrete, Reinforcement Steel Services which supplied reinforced steel, and Alexandra Towing which towed things around. I searched online, and found that at least 80% of the firms with advertisements in the book are still in business. I will find this a bit comforting as Krista and I paddle our kayak through the Thames Barrier.
Photo credits: The Thames Barrier by Gilbert and Horner – www.amazon.com; Mallard ducks taking advantage of a flooded yard with a trampoline – www.demotix.com; Flooded park in Henley-on-Thames – www.theguardian.com; Trust Benford – The Thames Barrier by Gilbert and Horner
Falling Down the Thames Blog 47, 04th February 2015
My mind finds funny ways to entertain itself. Of late, I have been trying to think of great cities that are situated on neither a river nor a sea. It hasn’t been easy. The Canadian city of Regina in Saskatchewan is on a creek, but not a river… I’ve been to Bozeman, Montana, and I didn’t see a river…
There is a really good reason for the union of cities and major bodies of water, of course. Rivers and seas are opportunities for transportation and recreation, for the dumping of waste, and the extraction of water for all sorts of purposes.
London, a great city, is not only situated on a great river, the Thames, but it has all sorts of smaller rivers running through it. I described some of these “lost” rivers in an earlier blog. But is London in the very best location relative to water? Possibly not.
New Scientist is a weekly magazine dedicated to keeping readers up to date on the latest and greatest findings in the fields of Astronomy, Physics, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry and Engineering. I have been reading the magazine for thirty-five years, and feel that my grasp of fundamental scientific and engineering principles is all the better for it. Of late, contributors to New Scientist have been engaged in a dialogue about the relationship between Britain and the surrounding sea, and the mounting threat that the sea poses to the city of London in particular.
Human-created global climate change is threatening costal lands, including London, in two ways. First, as the water locked up in retreating glaciers is released to the sea, the surface of the ocean rises. Not a lot, but enough to make a difference. Also, because warmer water occupies a great volume than cooler water, “global warming” is causing the sea to rise even more.
That isn’t the end of it for poor old London. In millennia past, when thick glaciers sat over vast parts of northern North America, Europe and Asia, the weight of the ice pushed the land downward. With the retreat of those glaciers at the end of each ice age, the land sprung back up in a process known as isostatic rebound. This rebound isn’t just a thing of the past, but continues slowly to this day. As a result, Scotland is gradually getting higher. In a teeter-totter kind of effect, the south of England is gradually getting lower.
But there is more. Geologically speaking, the Thames Valley is a syncline, a downward-folding bit of landscape that, in the very long term, will continue to get lower and lower. Further, until recently groundwater was drawn from the earth below London to provide for the needs of the great metropolis, which has caused the land to sink further. And if that weren’t bad enough, a quick look at a map of England will show that the North Sea forms a sort of funnel, with London at the pointy end. Storms tend to push vast volumes of water up the Thames Estuary.
New Scientist reader Hillary Shaw summarized the situation this way: “All this adds up to one inescapable fact: the lower Thames was not a good place to site a major capital city.”
In a later blog, I will describe one of the mechanisms by which London tries to defend itself against the sea. It is a mechanism through which Krista and I will paddle in a couple of months from now.
Photo credits: London on the River Thames – www.gbposters.com; Post-glacial rebound in British Isles – www.wikipedia.com; map of London and the Thames estuary - www.thamesestuary.com; London bridge suffering a virtual storm surge – www.floodlondon.com