From the steam punk of the 19th century to the neon-lit futurism of the 20th, the rivers of London have long been associated with the creative energy that the city embodies. Many of the city’s most famous buildings–from the Gherkin to the Walkie Talkie–owe their existence to these great rivers that helped shape London into the great city it is today.
But it wasn’t always that way. For much of the city’s history, its rivers were seen more as barriers than creative wells. Navigation above and below ground was a major issue, and the numerous tube stations that now traverse the city’s sewerage system date back to the 20th century. During this time, many of London’s ‘most dangerous rivers’ were partially or completely damned, resulting in the flooding of lands that were previously dry.
This article will examine the role that these rivers have played in the development of London and how they continue to shape the city today.–The Editors
The City as We Know It
The river Thames is, by any estimation, the longest river in Europe. The average depth is around twenty feet, and the depth at low tide can sometimes reach a few feet. This means that even the smallest tidal fluctuation can cause serious flooding. It also makes it highly unsuitable for swimming or fishing.
The River Thames is a major artery that runs through London and carries water to the sea. This water is essential for the city’s survival, as drinking water is taken from its source. This makes the river an important ecological as well as physical barrier. While much of the river has been built upon, its importance as a flood barrier has not been diminished. At around a tenth of a mile in length, the Thames is the city’s main waterway.–Wikipedia
In addition to its significance as a waterway, the Thames is also home to a wealth of wildlife. Significant swans, herons, and even the occasional beaver can be found along its length. Fishermen have traditionally fished for salmon, trout, and eels along its waterway, resulting in the city’s cuisine being heavily influenced by the river’s catch.–Wikipedia
Other notable rivers that drain into the Thames are:
- The Fleet
- The Humber
- The Regent’s Canal
- The Lee
- The Roding
- The Lea
- The Colne
- The Hambleton
- The Tyburn
Together, these rivers provide a habitat for over 140 different species of bird. Over a million stars have been seen twinkling along the banks of the Thames at night, providing a mesmerising celestial display.–Stargazing Around London
In addition to its natural beauty, the Thames is notable for the fact that it has been used for trade since the 1300s. In the early days, ships would unload their wares onto small boats called lighters, which would then transport the goods to market place in the city. Today, the river still plays a major part in the city’s economy, as 40% of all commercial shipping movements along the river are classified as ‘postal’ (the postman would have a field day).
An Examination of the Urban Wilderness
While much of London has been built upon, there is still a significant amount of open space remaining within the city. With over a quarter of a million acres of former urban wilderness, there are plenty of green spaces available for public use. Perhaps the most famous remaining wilderness is London Fields, a public open space located in the northwestern corner of the city. It is here that one can find London’s original ‘skyscrapers’, the Georgian buildings that were designed by and for the city’s elite. These grand residences now serve as museums and galleries, providing visitors with a unique glimpse into London’s past.–London in the Sixties
There is also the less well-known wilderness of Richmond Park, which was originally a royal hunting ground, while the zoological gardens of London are another famous example of urban wilderness. However, the majority of the urban wilderness is located in the eastern half of the city. Much of this undeveloped land is now occupied by large suburban estates, built upon the spoils of the Industrial Revolution. While much of this rural acreage was originally covered in forest, much of it now forms part of the sprawling urban landscape. This means that while there are plenty of green spaces within the city, there are very few that can be described as ‘green’ in nature.–London Urban Wilderness
A Brief History of Tidal Control
While the Thames is one of the major rivers that runs through London, it is far from being the city’s only waterway. The River Fleet, which flows past Buckhurst Park in the southwest, is slightly shorter and considerably narrower than the Thames. This means that the fluctuation of water levels along the Fleet is considerably less significant than along the longer and deeper river. This, in turn, has significant implications for the operation of docks and commercial shipping. While much of the Thames is deep enough for boats to navigate, the Fleet frequently has to be dredged to allow large vessels to dock.–Wikipedia
This difference in depth and width means that the river’s levels can be controlled to a much higher degree. Tidal control has therefore become a fundamental part of river management. The River Thames, for example, is under strict regulations regarding its levels; the Water Authority constantly monitors the depth of the water and issues flood warnings as and when necessary.
The Dirty Little Secret
Perhaps the most significant impact that the rivers have had upon the development of London is not one that is related to either its physical or ecological structure. Instead, it is associated with the fact that these waterways have been used for human excretion. The need to get rid of waste products has, in fact, been cited as one of the main reasons why London’s rivers were initially polluted. Open sewers, like those that exist along the Thames, initially provided a handy and cheap means of getting rid of waste.–London in the Early 2000s
It was initially difficult to separate human waste from that of domestic animals. In addition to the filth that these sewers contained, they also held the occasional dead animal, which increased the risk of disease. This, in turn, made it difficult for workers to do their job effectively. Even today, much of London’s sewerage still contains a high concentration of human faeces. The most significant reduction in animal and human waste took place in the mid-1800s, when the London Metropolitan Police Service was founded. This new police force was responsible for guarding against crime and enforcing the Public Health Acts of that time. The fact that much of London’s early development took place adjacent to or within the city’s borders makes it all the more significant that these waterways were initially seen as barriers rather than creative assets.
A Damned River Is a Potential Flood Hazard
While there is still a desire to maintain open spaces and natural beauty within the city–as can be seen with the recent restoration of London’s Kew Gardens–there is a clear acknowledgement that the sheer volume of building work that took place along the rivers meant that they never truly became ‘natural’ again. The presence of these large, predatory mammals, the alligators, became the ultimate proof that these rivers were not meant to be walked upon or enjoyed in anyway. Alligators have been sighted in the sewers that empty into the Thames, and even today, there are occasionally reports of alligators being trapped in manholes and having to be shot to safety. These sightings are not entirely unfounded considering that much of London’s urban geography was constructed above ground. While there is a clear desire to maintain open spaces and natural beauty within the city, this can be hard considering that much of London was built upon the edges of large rivers.–The Editors
Letting the Waters Flow
Today, much of London is built upon but it does not have to be. The fact that these rivers were initially polluted means that they still possess a tremendous amount of water and, as a result, a lot of potential. While some parts of the city will always be ‘built upon’, much of London’s former wetlands can be returned to their original state through careful and considered planning. This can provide significant benefits to the city’s ecology as well as its inhabitants.