The historical and cultural impact of the River Thames

The Thames may be one of the most famous rivers in the world, but how much do you know about it?

Beginning in the Cotswolds, Britain’s most famous river stretches over 210 miles through the heart of some of our nation’s most picturesque towns as well as its thriving capital, London. 

Not only is the Thames the only river in Europe to have a national trail following its entire length, it also winds its way through three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and offers you the chance to see all of London’s most iconic landmarks from a completely unique vantage point.

A brief history of the Thames

Almost 2,000 years ago, in AD43, the Romans invaded Britain. They landed in Kent and pursued the ancient Britons along the banks of this great river and at the first fordable point of the Thames they built their garrison. Londinium was formed.

The Thames would go on to play a key role in our nation’s history and hundreds of years later the Vikings would sail down river to capture London. The Vikings occupied London until, in 1014, Ethelred, King of the English, recaptured the city with the help of the Norseman, Olaf.

Flash forward a few hundred years more to the reign of the Tudors, and the Thames helped the nation prosper, with London becoming an important centre for world trade. Over the next few hundred years, the great river played a significant role in commerce, and as trade increased, shipbuilding flourished. New wharves and piers were constructed to handle the huge cargoes coming from all across the globe, and in 1598 a survey revealed that over 40,000 people earned a living on or around the river.

Settlements grew to support shipbuilding across the city, which was spurred on by the expanding navy and continued world trade. Docks were established, wars came and went, and explorers ventured out to charter pioneering routes on blank maps. Adventurers came back from unknown places, bringing with them potatoes and tobacco plants from the New World. And today, many years later, the great River Thames is awash with historical landmarks that plot its history.

See the city’s landmarks from the water

Tower Bridge at night

As you take to the water on a cruise down the Thames, you’re presented with some striking views of some of London’s most inspiring locations.

Very few compare to the magnificent Tower Bridge. Taking five major contractors and 432 construction workers eight years to build, Tower Bridge was opened in 1894 by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Originally powered by a steam-driven system, but now lifted using electrified hydraulics, there are few sites more recognisable in Britain’s buzzing capital than the opening of this great bridge. This incredible structure is quite simply the most iconic point in London’s striking skyline.

After Tower Bridge, arguably the second most famous point on the river is the Houses of Parliament and the world’s most famous clock - Big Ben. This iconic silhouette is instantly recognisable and few buildings in Britain are steeped in as much history as this legendary palace.

Also on the banks of the River Thames is the world-famous trade ship the Cutty Sark. Built in 1869, this marvellous vessel was designed to carry tea back from China, and ended up visiting nearly every major port in the world, gaining fame for its record-breaking passages.

Other iconic landmarks include the grand Battersea Power Station, the formidable Tower of London, and Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse for which William Shakespeare wrote his plays.

Add to this the modern delights of the London Eye, The O2 Arena, and the dazzling lights of Canary Wharf, and you’ve got a whole host of varying destinations just waiting to be seen.

Mixed capital London

The nation’s most culturally significant river

In 1929, when English trade unionist and politician John Burns heard an American unfavourably compare the River Thames to the Mississippi, he responded by saying, "The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history”.

And when you cast your eye on all of these landmarks situated along the banks of this grand, great river, it’s easy to see what Burns was talking about. This river has, over the years, not only played a huge part in Britain’s history, but it has also had a starring role in British culture.

The Thames features in the pastel hues of a beautiful manuscript owned by Charles, Duke of Orleans that is over 500 years old, in what is almost certainly the earliest known artwork of mediaeval London. And since that day the river has appeared in numerous great works of art, from renowned artists such as Wenceslaus Hollar, Philip James de Loutherbourg, JMW Turner, and even the world famous Claude Monet who painted the river during the year he spent in London to escape the Franco-Prussian War.

The river has also featured in great works of music, such as George Frideric Handel’s Water Music, which marked George I’s progress down the river from Whitehall to Chelsea. This famous piece premiered in 1717, as a response to King George I's request for a concert on the River Thames.

In modern British culture, the Thames continues to stand tall, whether it’s appearing in the famous opening sequence of the long-standing soap opera Eastenders, or featuring in dramatic chase scenes in a number of James Bond films, from 1999’s The World is Not Enough to 2015’s Spectre.

And not one New Year’s Eve goes by without the eyes of the nation witnessing a dramatic fireworks display in the dark skies above the Thames.

All you have to do is walk its banks or set out on a boat and you can see just why this magnificent river has inspired so many artists and continues to hold its place in our national culture.

Big Ben from the Thames

The Thames today

Today the Thames is a fabulous mecca for tourism and recreation. Every day Londoners and tourists walk, jog, cycle, and skate along its banks from sunrise to sunset as the ever-changing tides rise and fall.

Tourists take to the water on guided boat tours, or hop on open top bus rides seeing the sights from the road. Others set out on foot for guided pub tours, ghost walks, and other sightseeing opportunities. Artists set up easels along the bank to create their own great works, whilst others simply stop and sit, enjoying lunch with a view.

And when it comes to corporate award ceremonies, networking events, and team building days, or wedding receptions, anniversary celebrations, and pre-wedding parties, there are few locations more unique and memorable than hosting an event on a private vessel on the river. Here at West End on the Thames, we can host a vast array of events on our wide range of modern and flexible boats, and our in-house team will design a bespoke proposal for your event that fits your requirements. All of this means you can set off and enjoy a bespoke event with London’s celebrated skyline as your backdrop.

You can visit this page here to submit your interest and a member of our team will be in touch with a quote, alternatively you can visit our corporate or special event page for more details on each service we offer.

Written by Adam Rowden, creative copywriter at West End on the Thames.


Posted May 02, 2023

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