Thames High Tides

“When the lions drink, London will sink…”

…so the much quoted saying goes. A saying that, without finding its origin, you’ll see quoted in guide books and all over the internet. However, I was told by Ben, Waterman and Lighterman of the river Thames, that the rhyme was used by Thames Watermen and “it’s been said for many years by guides on sightseeing boats.” There are further lines with slightly different wording but this last one has a punchy ring of authenticity: “When the lions are ducked, London is f…looded.”

The bronze lions’ heads, each holding a mooring ring, were sculpted by Timothy Butler in 1870 as a decorative finishing touch to the embankment built by Joseph Bazalgette over his newly created London sewer. They line stretches along both sides of the Thames Embankment in central London.

Three of the Lion rings set outside Lambeth Palace, standing beneath George Vulliami’s dolphin lamp posts, at the approach of high tide
A lion definitely drinking at high tide. A wave must even have momentarily reached his nose. Above is the base of one of George Vulliami’s Embankment lampposts
Rising Tide: Jason deCaires Taylor’s riders braced against the flooding tide on the Vauxhall foreshore

As mentioned in my earlier piece Ebb and Flow on the movement of Thames tides, the deCaires Rising Tide sculptures remained defiantly in place for a month, at times almost completely submerged by the highest tides.

The Riverside Cafe and the Tamesis Dock Bar, are two of the Thames-side venues from which you can enjoy a close encounter with the river at high tide. Of course both have exceptional views over some of London’s most famous sights but there is that extra frisson when, so close to the water, you feel afloat.

The Riverside cafe on the Lambeth bank of the river appears to float
Tamesis Dock Bar at Lambeth almost floating

However, the lovely 18th-century Bull’s Head pub at Chiswick unfortunately doesn’t float and in December, 2019, a combination of heavy rain swelling the downstream flow and a high tide driving upstream, raised the water level over the window ledge. The window held firm but there was seepage through the brickwork below. Yet General Manager Barbara Smith is philosophical and takes it all in her stride. She has a particular affinity with the Bull’s Head as not only does she appreciate its history – there has been a tavern on that site for over four hundred years – but her great grandmother worked there in 1905.

Thames water seeps through the wall below the window ledge of the Bull’s Head ©The Bull’s Head
Barbara Smith, General Manager of the Bull’s Head, is philosophical: Life goes on © The Bull’s Head

People living close to the river overlooking stretches of the Thames that flood regularly during high spring tides, are used to it. Ruth Wadey, artist, photographer, and weather watcher for the BBC, is an acute observer of both river and clouds at Twickenham, capturing some memorable moments.

Rising tide breaching the Thames Embankment opposite Eel Pie Island at Twickenham © Ruth Wadey
Egyptian Geese bathing in flood water opposite Eel Pie Island at Twickenham © Ruth Wadey

Anywhere along the stretch of the river at the risk of flooding, you can watch the inexorable rise of the water during a spring tide. Of course London is now protected by the Thames Barrier, first operational in 1984, but flood alerts can still be issued for low lying roads and paths between Putney Bridge and Teddington Weir when it has not been judged necessary to close the Barrier, as no property flooding is expected. However, warns Flood Forecaster Alan, “Don’t park in roads vulnerable to flooding.” But the warning is not always heeded.

My childhood friend Clare Risoe who lived in Putney before the Barrier was built, confesses: “I’m afraid, being young, we used to watch with some amusement, distraught owners coming back to find their cars full of stinky water, or swept elsewhere by the force of the water’s flow.” She remembers how “walking back to Ruvigny Mansions along Putney Embankment at high spring tide could mean paddling, or even wading, through the overflowed river water to reach the front entrance, wisely built raised from ground level.” She remembers too, the surreal effect of a high tide “when watching football at Fulham’s ground Craven Cottage, she could see the sails of boats gliding past above the hoarding”.

High spring tides can also cause problems for river traffic, specially if their timing is slightly out. Last year, no less than three Thames clippers, were trapped temporarily unable to pass under Westminster Bridge. I have also seen tugs getting into difficulties there and having to wait for the water level to drop.

Three Thames Clippers held up at Westminster Bridge

But tides can rise even higher, causing damage and loss of life rather than temporary inconvenience. Over the centuries the centre of London was regularly subjected to flooding, and to see how dreadful conditions were for people who lived in these areas Victorian London is a sobering read. An excellent article by John Kelly on The great 1928 flood of London explains how that flood, the worst since the record-breaking flood of 1881, broke through and over the river’s defences. He writes: “Worst affected were the slums on the Westminster side of Lambeth Bridge, where ten of the fourteen victims lost their lives.” There was also widespread damage to property both there and in the City, which took many years to restore.

Here the markings of the 1881 flood appear on the wall of the access lodge to the river steps of the Palace of Westminster at the north end of Victoria Tower Gardens

London escaped major flooding in the devastating North Sea Floods of 1953 that claimed so many lives on Canvey Island and elsewhere, but the embankments in the centre were within inches of being breached. That focussed people’s minds on the need for the protection of central London and from then began the long process of agreeing to, and constructing the Thames Barrier which was finally completed in 1984.

The Thames flowing freely through the Barrier on an ordinary day

Closed only for its monthly testing, rigorous annual overhaul, and when conditions dictate, the tidal water flows freely between the piers allowing normal river traffic to pass through. When the Barrier is fully closed in its ‘defence’ position, water from the incoming tide backs up and floods the specially built overflow areas.

The incoming tide is held back by the Barrier © Ian Tokelove

London is lucky, for the Thames Barrier is deemed sufficiently robust to protect the city and the surrounding area from flooding for at least another forty-five years.

Sources and further information
The Liquid Highway Excellent boat info site on the Thames by Ben. Follow him on Twitter @liquid_highway1
Explore Ruth Wadey’s Gallery and follow her on Twitter @ruths_gallery
Clare Risoe ceramicist. See her work ‘Shoreline’
Tamesis Dock @TamesisDock
The Bull’s Head, Chiswick, @TheBullsHeadW4
News of Thames Barrier closures on Twitter @AlanBarrierEA
Visit Ian Tokelove’s site Canoe London Follow him on Twitter @iantokelove

Ebb and Flow

Watching the Thames tides

Walking by the river, unless you happen to time your arrival with that moment between tides at slack water, when it’s more or less still, you will see a current flowing either down or upstream. Either ebbing or flooding. Familiarity with the tides is essential for all who work on, or use the Thames for recreation but observing them is also interesting for anyone who is doing more than simply passing over or under the river.

On November 8th, the RNLI Tower Station, @TowerRNLI, tweeted a time lapse film capturing the first stages of an ebb tide from their station by Waterloo Bridge. This moment is also described by Iris Murdoch in Under the Net, as “a gentle and continuous pull”. The pull gradually strengthens and the speed of the outgoing tide can rise from 4 up to 8 knots depending on the amount of rainfall coming into the river from further upstream.

Tide ebbing slowly past one of the Palace of Westminster security markers, much favoured by cormorants
Tide ebbing more swiftly from beneath Lambeth Bridge
City Cruises’ sightseeing boat navigates the Blackfriars Bridges against a fast ebbing tide
Night time at the Blackfriars Bridges where a fast ebbing tide takes on a more sinister aspect

Pogue Muhone, who has kindly allowed me to quote from his article ‘Tidal Ebb and Flow’, explains the phenomenon, known as the Rule of Twelfths, which you might have heard of in relation to the speed of rising and falling tides on the coast. “Starting from slack water at low tide, the flow rate speeds up until half tide and then slows down until full tide.”

“It has been observed that the tide rises one twelfth of its range during the 1st hour; two twelfths in the 2nd hour; three twelfths during both the 3rd and 4th hours; slowing to two twelfths during the 5th hour, and finally to one twelfth in the 6th hour at full tide.” And the same goes in reverse for the ebbing tide. Though things don’t work in quite the same way on the Thames, these details are good to know, especially if you are absorbed in a walk on the foreshore at low tide, as after a slow start the tide can come in swiftly and you risk being cut off. If you watch attentively, you will become aware of subtle changes in the texture and movement of the water as you walk along the riverside and you will get to know its moods.

Rising tide rocking a cormorant perched on one of the Palace of Westminster security markers

Pogue Muhone gives specific details on Thames tides: “Their timings vary enormously and Rivermen often observe the flood to be over seven hours and the ebb nearer five, which means that the flow rate at a given point tends to be faster on the ebb than on the flood. Under ‘ideal’ conditions the water flows at almost 8 knots (10 mph) in places.” This is fast…

Pigeons uncovering titbits brought to the Victoria Tower Gardens’ shoreline by a rising tide

There are a number of small beaches accessible at low tide along the central London Thames. Some, such as the once popular and glamorous Tower of London beach have been closed to the public for a while, others with their slippery steps and inhospitable foreshore, enjoyed only by mudlarkers and the sure-footed, have a limited appeal. Yet there are some, with sandy stretches such as Ernie’s Beach below Gabriel’s Wharf, that draw families and friends for a good beach session depending on the tide and, as I mentioned in my last piece, sand sculptors. All who go there, particularly those who venture onto one of the other Southbank beaches around the corner, must keep an eye on the tide. On occasions I’ve seen an RNLI Tower Lifeboat coming alongside, warning people to return to a part of the shore with steps up to the embankment. And I have seen some, caught out by the swiftly rising tide, having to wade through a foot of water to get back the safety of stairs or to the main beach. It is dangerous, for even at that depth the current can be powerful enough to sweep you off your feet.

Sculptor on Ernie’s beach enjoying his sand chair till the last

This sand sculptor who in 2007 entertained both beach goers and the crowds walking on the embankment above, was clearly familiar with the strength of the incoming tide and knew just when to abandon his *castle* to avoid a complete soaking.

Rising Tide. Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculptures stand on the Vauxhall foreshore braced against the rising water

Longer lasting were the deCaires’ Rising Tide sculptures installed for the month of September 2015, on the Vauxhall foreshore. What I liked about them was firstly, while making his point about the dangers of ignoring the multiple threats to our environment, they were a striking addition to the riverscape set against a Palace of Westminster background as a warning message to politicians who have the power to shape our future. And secondly, views of the four horses and their riders were in constant movement, changing perspective with the tides, the time of day, and the weather.

Extinction Rebellion yacht having been stranded by an ebbing tide finally floats on the flood

Another focus on the river to raise awareness of the climate emergency took place on October 18, 2019. Using one of their trademark pink boats to highlight their cause, the Extinction Rebellion yacht, having apparently been stranded, caught out by an ebbing tide below the Victoria Tower Gardens’ embankment, managed to re-float, only to be *kettled* next to Westminster Bridge by Police and Port of London launches concerned about the potential danger to the protesters and to other river users.

A flood tide racing beneath Westminster Bridge

As mentioned earlier, at full flow the tides are fast-moving and muscular, added to which, should anyone fall into the river, there is the real danger of cold water shock, and drowning.

Experienced captains and amateurs, however, use the tides, harnessing the force of the currents to help bear their load. The Cory tugs, along with the Port of London and emergency services’ patrols, kept going throughout the Covid crisis and used the tides to their advantage, as did, when later permitted, groups of kayakers.

Cory tug REDOUBT coming in with the flood tide, towing her empty waste containers to the collection depot upstream
Kayakers riding upstream with the tide

So there she stands, attentively, a young girl watching the incoming tide. Like many of us, she is perhaps dreaming, giving way to her imagination, or simply allowing her thoughts to swirl around with the infinite patterns she sees at her feet. If you’re not in a hurry when you’re walking by the river, stop for a moment and do the same…

A young girl watches the river…

Further Information
See Tidal Ebb & Flow by Pogue Muhone.
The Port of London Authority has produced The Tideway Code, an indispensable guide for all “users of man-powered boats”.
Tides on the River Thames by Richard Jennings.
See Tower Beach by Simon Rushton (with a fabulous collection of vintage photos).

Thames tides

LOW TIDES in central London.

Just the other day two visitors approached me in Victoria Tower Gardens, considerately keeping to our Covid social distancing norms, and asked me why the river seemed bereft of water. It was low tide. And it was not the first time that I’ve met people unaware that the river is tidal up as far as Teddington Lock and, that apart from the short intervals during slack tide, there is the constant movement of water upstream or downstream, borne by flood or ebb tides.

Low tides expand the foreshore exposing multi-layered remnants of the past and that is why London’s beaches have been declared an architectural site, which must not be explored or excavated without a Thames Foreshore Permit. At first glance the apparent slime or mud-covered rubble at low tide lacks appeal but on closer examination you can see thousands upon thousands of fragments of London’s history. Bricks, bottles, clay pipes, coins, jewels, medals, and countless remains of household, shipbuilding, and industrial artefacts, lie jumbled together, often broken, continually shifted by the movement of the tides, appearing and disappearing at the whim of the currents. And their stories are being studied and pieced together by members, both expert and amateur, of the Thames Discovery Programme.

The remains of old structures and a figure on the foreshore close to Southwark Bridge

You may, as you walk through the city along the Thames Path, come across figures moving slowly, bending intently towards the foreshore, occasionally picking up and stowing objects into a sample bag. These are modern day, permit holding mudlarkers, who with every find add another piece to the mosaic of London’s history, and among them, some such as Nicola White, not only add to our knowledge of London’s past but turn their finds into art. Low tides are a potential treasure trove for them. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries mudlarks were the very poor, mostly men but women and children too, scavenging the shoreline for objects that they could sell to eke out a living and, until a hundred or so years ago ‘mudlark’, was recognised as an occupation.

The remnants of a jetty below the Victoria Tower Gardens’ embankment
Part of the Victoria Tower Gardens’ embankment wall blasted into the river by a WW2 bomb
Pools among the foreshore rubble make good hunting ground for gulls, ducks and others

Low tides, while they suit some, are not necessarily such a benefit to navigators. They have to learn the shape of the river bed and its shifting positions, with its beaches, sandbanks, and sandbars. The Port of London Hydrographic Service survey vessels THAME, MAPLIN, and GALLOPER are each fitted with ‘Multibeam Echo Sounder Systems’ and carry out over four hundred surveys a year along the tidal Thames and Estuary.
People often ask how deep the Thames is but of course this varies with every tide so the difference between the depth of the river at high and low tide is at its greatest during spring tides. This also depends on the volume of the fluvial flow. The average low water levels at spring tides are marked on charts as MLWS – Mean Low Water Springs.
However, for those just wishing to check the tides on a particular day, there are a number of sites including the BBC that predict the tide levels at London Bridge, and Willy Weather that covers the projected tide levels at all the central London bridges.

Port of London survey vessel THAME approaching Lambeth Bridge

Knowing the tide tables is not just essential for professionals but also for walkers and mudlarkers to avoid being cut off, not forgetting canoeists and anyone making use of the currents to speed their journey. When I met him last year Rob Jeffries gave an example from upstream, where the river is shallower, of the need to be aware of the tidal movements: “There’s a shoal by Fulham Football ground close to which, if you’re not careful, you risk getting stuck and stranded by an ebbing tide.”

Putney foreshore at low tide
The foreshore beneath Albert and Battersea Bridges at low tide
The Tamesis Dock bar always high and dry at low tide. Canoeists passing by
Low tide at Lambeth Bridge
Muddy castle building at low tide on the Westminster foreshore
Sand sculpture on the beach at Gabriel’s Wharf

The beach at Gabriel’s Wharf is a favourite place for sand sculptors, who create their work on the sand revealed by the falling tide, only to see it washed away a few hours later. They are fun to watch and of course depend on the public *showing their appreciation* from the embankment above by aiming coins at a well-marked target.

A set of sculptures called The Rising Tide, by Jason deCaires Taylor, installed on Vauxhall beach for the month of September 2015, was constructed to resist the scouring of the tide for much longer. And after being displayed on the shore of Lanzarote for three years, sadly the subject of a political dispute, they are now in storage. Made of stainless steel, cement, basalt and aggregates, their form and meaning evolved with the rhythm of the tides…

The businessman, ignoring the dangers of climate change, one of Jason deCaires Taylor’s four ‘Rising Tide’ sculptures on Vauxhall Beach

If you spend a lot of time watching the movement of the river, your visit might just coincide with the changing of the tide.

An incoming tide flowing past one of the Palace of Westminster security markers

Often imperceptible to begin with, you can see a change in direction of the current when, after slack water, an incoming tide meets the fluvial flow. The water can remain still for a while, with small eddies whirlpooling out against the main direction of the flow, but not for long before pursuing its inexorable course upstream.

Further Information
Thanks to Richard Jennings for help with Tides on the River Thames.
Explore the foreshore with Lara Maiklem in Mudlarking: Lost and found on the River Thames.
Thanks to NS for editorial help.
Look at The Port of London Authority’s Tidal Information.

Night Watch

The Thames after dark…

As the changing of the clocks last weekend marks a deeper descent into early evening winter darkness, some Twitter friends have kindly agreed to share their pictures of the Thames at night. So please escape today’s anxieties for a while and stroll along with them to see the river through their eyes.

Teddington Lock footbridge ©Astrid Tontson

Based in Kingston Astrid Tontson has a large and appreciative following for her beautiful sounds of dawn and pictures of awakening life in Bushy Park. You can follow her on Twitter @Astrid_Tontson, Instagram, and her “Soul Food – videos of calming scenes in nature” on YouTube.

Walk alongside the river at Twickenham ©Ruth Wadey

If you live in the London area, or further afield, you might quite often have noticed the photo credit ‘ruthiebabes’ attached to a BBC Weather Watchers’ image. This is Ruth Wadey. Not only is she a talented photographer, she is also an artist, and you can see her work at her gallery Ruth Wadey, and you can follow her on Twitter @ruths_gallery and Instagram.

Hammersmith Bridge ©Kristi Tange

Hammersmith Bridge, in the news recently, has been closed to all traffic, both road and river, since August 13, 2020, for safety reasons. This is causing inconvenience and annoyance to many, particularly as disagreement about who should pay for repairs is holding up the necessary work. Kristi Tange, a keen photographer living nearby, often walks along the river there and has, among other London scenes, been recording some of the boats guarding the bridge. You can follow her on Twitter @KristiTange

Putney Bridge ©Andrew Wilson

Author and photographer Andrew Wilson is a also publisher. Among others, he has written several books, beautifully illustrated with his photographs, on areas in London close to the Thames, including Chiswick, Barnes, Putney, Battersea and Chelsea. You can explore his site Wild London and follow him on Twitter @wildlondonpics

Albert Bridge ©Wal Daly-Smith

Wal Daly-Smith is a Director of Thames Ranger Marine Services, also acting as commercial Skipper/crew for the company. He is a keen photographer and you can see some of his work in ‘From the River’. He was my first interviewee back in February 2019 and you can read about the importance of the Thames throughout his life by clicking here.

View from below Lambeth Bridge on a stormy evening © Ian Ruffles

Acting as mate/deckhand on this job for the Illuminated River art commission with safety boat PROTECTOR, Ian Ruffles also skippers other boats mainly sailing barges. You can follow him on Twitter @capt_PB and you can see him demonstrating how to ascend to the top of barge S.B. CAMBRIA, a preserved Thames sailing barge, by clicking here.

The London Eye © Alastair Hilton

Living on a narrowboat, photographer Alastair Hilton tweets an eclectic variety of pictures of his life and travels along the canals and rivers of London on Twitter @London_W4 For his professional portfolio, click on Art Store and Portrait Gallery to see the wide range of his work.

HEARN MEDICINE CHEST, the newest RNLI boat on the Thames, based at Tower Lifeboat Station © Chris Walker
Lifeboat HEARN MEDICINE CHEST in action, heading towards Tower Bridge © Tower Lifeboat Station

Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames at Waterloo, is the busiest RNLI Station in the country. Lifeboat HEARN MEDICINE CHEST was funded by Jimmy Hearn and his wife Anne. “Jimmy was sailing in the 1979 Fastnet race, during which fifteen people lost their lives in a raging sea. Heading back to port, he saw brave RNLI volunteers setting straight out into the storm to help.” The Hearn Medicine Chest Trust was set up soon afterwards “with the aim of one day funding a lifeboat.” This latest addition to the Tower fleet is a fulfilment of the Trust’s original goal. Follow Tower Lifeboat Station on Twitter @TowerRNLI
Chris Walker, one of the Helms at the Tower Station, often illustrates his tweets with action photos. You can read about him by clicking here and follow him on Twitter @RescueShrek1

View of Blackfriars Bridge and St. Paul’s from the OXO Tower © Spike Abbott

Yeoman Warder Spike Abbot, Beefeater 402, at H.M. Tower of London has exceptional views over the river from the Tower itself and roundabout this famous part of the city. This photo was taken from the OXO tower. You can follow him on Twitter to discover more about life in the Tower @spike_abbott

View from One Blackfriars of the four bridges already lit up as part of the Illuminated River Art Commission. ©James Newton

“Drawing inspiration from the spirit and history of the river Thames”, Illuminated River is a public art commission by Leo Villareal, which will eventually see the lighting of fourteen central London bridges. Here, stretching into the distance towards Tower Bridge, you can see the four bridges whose lighting has already been installed: Millennium Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Canon Street Railway Bridge and London Bridge. Follow the project on Twitter @IlluminatedRiv The illuminations are switched on from sunset till 2.00 am.

Tower Bridge ©Mark Roche

Based in London Mark Roche specialises in landscape and street photography. He enjoys sharing his ideas and working with others. He has a passion “for capturing images that excite and draw you in”. You can follow him on Twitter @Markroche114

View across the river from Wapping. © Simon Cardy

Meteorologist Simon Cardy, based in Wapping, is a perceptive photographer who loves London and takes fine pictures of the river Thames and skies around him. You can follow him on Twitter @weather_king

The Isle of Dogs ©Jon Carruthers

Having moved to Rotherhithe during lockdown, Jon Carruthers enjoys exploring and photographing the river. He has covered most of the tidal Thames from Teddington to the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. “Its ever-changing nature and its history are what I love about it.” And that feeling clearly shows in his images. You can follow him on Twitter @carruthers_jon

London sunset ©Michelle Buchan

Michelle Buchan’s stunning shots over the Thames from the Isle of Dogs, with their silhouetted skylines and big open skies to the west, lead your gaze to the heart of London. You can often see her images of striking sunsets on Twitter @M_Buchan

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Covid-19 limitations and lockdowns have severely affected the activities of the pleasure and party boats which usually light up the night-time Thames. It is a difficult time for everyone involved, the companies, their crews and all their staff, many of whom have lost their jobs. We should all come together to support them when they can safely take to the river again. There is so much to see and to enjoy along along its shores…

With thanks for joining in with the project to:
Astrid Tontson, Ruth Wadey, Kristi Tange, Andrew Wilson, Wal Daly-Smith, Ian Ruffles, Alastair Hilton, RNLI Tower Lifeboat Station, Chris Walker, Spike Abbot, James Newton for Illuminated River, Mark Roche, Simon Cardy, Jon Curruthers and Michelle Buchan.

Further information
“From the City to the Sea”: The Thames at Night October 30, 2019. You can discover the author on Twitter @VanishedLondon
The Bridges of Old London by the Gentle author.

Flight Path

Meeting birds along the central London tidal Thames

There is no doubt that there has been a marked renewal of marine life in the river since the dark days of 1957 when the Natural History Museum declared the Thames to be “biologically dead”. The London Natural History Society says that now “the Tidal Thames supports 120 species of fish and that over 60 species of bird nest in central London.” Some of these nest in riverside parks and feed there, or on the foreshore, and I have managed to catch a number of them on camera. Since my wider wanderings have been curtailed by lockdown and health considerations, what follows is of necessity a personal view but I will guide you to further sources at the end.

The water is clean enough to allow the survival of fish and so provide food for birds. Here a cormorant wrestles with an eel…
…and the water is clean enough for this pair of Canada geese to preen and bathe in

The Thames has had its problems over water quality ever since the arrival of humans when it became a convenient place to dispose of people’s waste and rubbish. The most notorious, but by no means the only notable example of pollution in recent times, was The ‘Great Stink’ in the hot summer of July and August 1858. The smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent that affected the whole of central London, and particularly the Houses of Parliament, was thoroughly nauseating and made it virtually impossible to carry on normal business. Literally under and into the noses of our elected representatives, this miasma emanating from the river, was the catalyst that brought about the construction of London’s Victorian sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette and constructed in the 1860s and 70s.

Largely forgotten but even worse was the untreated toxic human waste regularly released into the river further downstream that played a significant part in the tragedy surrounding the sinking of pleasure boat the S.S. Princess Alice at Gallions Reach in 1878. After a fatal collision with the collier Bywell Castle, and horrific drownings at the time, many of the victims died later from infections contracted from the sewage floating freely in the river. This disaster, with a loss of about 700 lives, remains the deadliest inland shipping accident known in Britain.

In the mid 20th century, London’s by then already overloaded Victorian sewers were damaged during the Blitz in the Second World War and, writes Sophie Hardach in an article for the BBC, “post-war Britain did not have the resources – or it seems, the energy to fix the problem quickly.” She goes on to explain that with gradual improvements during the late 1960s “the river began to breathe again.” And the improvements continued. Hopefully the remaining problems of sewage overflow from the existing Victorian system during storms, will be sorted out with the inception of Tideway, London’s new ‘super sewer’, which is nearing completion.

Three pigeons seeking food on the foreshore below Victoria Tower Gardens

There is always some bird action on the foreshore at low tide as the improvement of water quality has allowed the return of all kinds of microscopic creatures, which in turn have provided nourishment for those further up the food chain.

Greylag goose stepping out purposefully
Sharp-eyed black backed gull surveying the foreshore

Above the foreshores, good for foraging when the tide allows it, the river embankments make good lookout posts for many of the birds in the area. Crows, ducks, geese and all kinds of gull can often be seen perching on the walls of the central London Thames. And herons have been spotted in the area too.

A young crow casts an eye around
A young magpie on the embankment wall resting on one leg. You can see its other leg tucked up among its breast feathers
A pair of watchful-eyed Mallard ducks on the Victoria Tower Gardens’ embankment wall by Lambeth Bridge
An Egyptian goose, framed by plane tree branches. Such a poseur
“Feed me!” An immature gull squawking for food
Two gulls in a “me first” quarrel
Black-headed gulls waiting in line

Higher up, there are even better lookout posts along the river. The Palace of Westminster has been home to a pair of peregrine falcons for a number of years and though I haven’t seen them myself, I have come across discarded feathers from some of their feasts littering the ground in Victoria Tower Gardens below.

However, there are other birds within reach, that sit in trees, on buildings, or wires above the paths and walkways. Look about you as you go and you will be sure to see some of them.

A magpie perched on the Buxton Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens
Three starlings among the lights on the South Bank near the London Eye
A robin on a riverside tree branch singing in Battersea Park
Rocky, one of the ravens at the Tower of London, whose collective presence at the Tower ensures the survival of the realm

The Thames is a highway, a “liquid highway”, for boat traffic but also the track for a flight path. In WW I German zeppelins used the reflections of moonlight in the river to guide them to their bomb targets. In WW2 many Luftwaffe pilots heading for London followed the course of the river to inflict the fury of their blitz on the city.

But more peaceably, for a far, far greater stretch of time, the river has served as a flight path for birds. In 1902 naturalist C.J. Cornish, who lived on Chiswick Mall, was one of many to observe that the river “is a regular migration route for several species”.

Swans flying south towards Lambeth Bridge

Where this bevy of swans was off to, I don’t know but they were clearly flying upstream along the course of the river.

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Though the improvement in the Thames environment has been spectacular there is one scourge harming river life that needs to be addressed: plastic. Plastic bottles, bags, containers, cotton buds, and other non-biodegradable detritus including covid masks, that litter the shores in great quantities. The environmental organisation Thames 21 is working hard with others to combat this, including the Port of London, who have set up a new litter survey, and they have organised a number of events for London Rivers Week, from October 24 – November 1, 2020, now in its fourth year. And there are people organising regular litter collection outings along the paths, banks, and foreshores of the river. Hopefully, with concerns and awareness about plastic pollution being raised by so many worldwide, it can be brought under control soon, to save our wildlife and to improve the look of our rivers and countryside.

Further Information on the following sites:
The Naturalist on the Thames: C.J. Cornish. An interesting book published in 1902, now online, with information on wildlife conservation and a discussion on purity of the water.
Louise Cripps: ‘The Thames is one of the cleanest rivers…’.
Sophie Hardach ‘How the River Thames was brought back from the dead’, BBC, 2015.
Dante Shepherd & Josh Jones: ‘Watching gulls in East London’.
Ian Young: ‘Anxious Birding’, a blog on birding and mental health.

Thanks also to Ian Young for help with identification of some of the birds. You can catch up with his bird posts on Twitter @ianyoung33