Saturday, 22 August 2009

thames wading

Will, the powerstation in the background, and the Thames beach...

Word on the street is that there are between 80 and 100 bodies a year that float down the Thames. That's a gruesome statistic of 1 and little bit more than a half of a human per week. Apparently the majority are suicides. Or accidents, drunk people descend to the shore, get stuck in the mud and pass out. The tide – all 6 metres of it – then comes back in. Luckily, most cadavers get stuck in the U-bend before the Isle of Dogs, ending up at Limehouse – which is a favourite fishing spot for the River Po-Po.

If I had known this when my uncle proposed that we walk along the shoreline of the Thames, I might have refused, as it was I hesitated. Were there not diseases in the river? Couldn't I get tetanus, or tuberculosis, or typhoid (like all those kids back in the 70's, when the Battersea Park shore was a swimming beach)?

No, he explained, it was perfectly safe – the Spring Low Tide would make it possible to walk, well, he didn't know how far, but a fine distance. In truth I needed little convincing, and his 'you'll really be the best man for the walk' speech sealed the deal. Off we set.

You can re-live the whole adventure via my Facebook album, which I have made public (yeah, I feel we're at the Facebook level in our relationship), so I'm not going to try to recount everything now. Suffice to say, I don't know where my uncle got the idea of Spring Low Tide from, but the tide was not low. I have heard several claims about the actual date for the lowest tide of the year, ranging from about the 5th to the 12th of March. I have no idea which claim is correct, but I can tell you that at the 7th of July, our expedition could not be considered even an outlier of the group of possibilities. At one point, as we were negotiating around submerged industrial equipment in fecal-like mud, I sunk up to my groin. At Westminster, in view of Big Ben, the walk became something more of a swim.

But I am not one to complain, and in any case, I thoroughly enjoyed it all. In total we walked about 3 miles, and I would say about 10% of that time was spent in the water. But who can say they have waded in the Thames? As Will pointed out, this was the type of activity one is likely to do only once.

As I stepped off the greasy steps at Chelsea Bridge and onto the soft shingle of the shore I had a bizarre sense of having stepped under the city. When you are at eye-height with the river, on equal terms as it were, walking along a beach like almost any other (assuming all the others you know are scattered with the lost ephemera of 12 million people), and you see the bottom of walls and structures built directly onto the ancient rock of the Thames valley you get a very weird sense of being in a wild landscape. Suddenly the models in the Museum of London depicting Iron Age marsh people trekking over paths of compressed brambles seem very real.

At Vauxhall we passed by the oldest known bridge over the river, and looking carefully at the geography, I came to see why it was such an advantageous position, just as the water slows around the bend and the shores come a little closer together. They were no fools, our ancestors, they knew how to read the territory. I began to see the land like it was empty of human development. I began to already forget that the city existed – it was something that had retreated out of sight and thought, concealed behind cliffs crafted of crumbling Victorian brick.

And then under all this came a feeling of... not fear, but worry. I was reassessing my relationship to the river, but how did the river feel about me? Was this land hostile or merely ambivalent? I thought of Roman legionaries, spotting out the best place to build their new fort. Somehow the gap of two millennia had been closed, contracted just like that, and I was seeing London with new and very different eyes.

The old coal cranes used to provide the source of power for Battersea Power Station, which is going through yet another phase of design development. I heard yesterday that back in the day the piping hot water used as coolant in the plant was then fed under the Thames to heat the radiators of Dolphin Square, one of the most amazing estates I have ever seen.

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