In Search of the Soul

Some personal meditations on the tidal Thames.

From the photographs of Ruth Wadey, who watches over the Thames in its neatly framed borders at Twickenham, to Ian Tokelove and the Psychojographer, whose work evokes the open stretches and wildness of the Estuary, I have sensed something of the soul of the Thames. Individual and differing relationships with the river vary greatly and here are gathered just a few currents of thought from Twitter friends, and elsewhere, that have particularly struck me.

River and sky in quiet harmony. ©Ruth Wadey

Ruth Wadey is an accredited BBC Weather Watcher whose photographs appear frequently on various television weather bulletins, often only briefly. But with longer exposure on Twitter, her feeling for the moods and soul of the Thames comes through her observations of the river’s countless shades of colour and reflections, enhanced by the ever-changing sky above. During certain high tides the river spills over the neat lawns in Twickenham below where she lives and in a similar way, her images of river and sky flow often into a spiritual dimension.

The upper Pool by William Wyllie

Marine artist William Wyllie (1851-1931) was particularly well-known for his views of the Thames. “He spent much of his time living on a boat in the lower Thames and painting directly from nature.” His book From London to the Nore, co-authored with his wife Marion, brings readers close to the heart of the river. Wyllie’s detailed and sympathetic observations of working life on the Thames, with all its grime and movement dictated by the rhythm of the ever-shifting tides, seem to show that he understood something of the intangible soul of the river. And his wife, in her engaging account of their journey, complements this feeling.

View of the Upper Pool from the top of Tower Bridge by William Wyllie

Keenly sensitive to atmosphere, Marion writes about the The Tower of London as “a wicked twelve acres, saturated with blood and tears, crowded with the ghosts of those who suffered.” But for the Thames, though she doesn’t shy away from descriptions of gruelling work, dangers and death, she reserves a happier vein with several depictions of the river throughout the book. On the occasion when they are moored near the Tower of London, she describes the beauty of the river at evening time: “Night has fallen, and the moon rides high; the dew lies thick on the deck. The Tower is only just visible against the deep grey-blue of the sky; and from hundreds of casements long beams of light are flashing. The whole river twinkles with red and green and white…” In the final paragraph of the book she strikes a chord that must resonate with many today: “Why do we as a nation think so much of going abroad? Close to our doors lie wonderful scenes.”

Putney Bridge, in article From the River’ ©Wal Daly-Smith

Wal Daly-Smith, whose life has been bound up with the Thames from boyhood, is passionate about the river. In an interview with him in an earlier article, he explained: “To have a job on the river which I love, is carrying on a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. And this makes me feel a part of the sacred life on the river.”

And evidence of past lives, traditions and occupations are discovered daily by Thames mudlarkers pacing foreshores at low tide, their eyes focussed on the latest washed-up detritus, collecting remnants and evidence of those who came before them. Poet John Challis evokes this so well in ‘Thames’, a poem part of his recently published collection The Resurrectionists, where he writes that the river:
“flips the past up like a coin to send afloat
its drowned possessions: Anglo-Saxon ornaments,
unexploded payloads, bone dice and oyster shells,
wedding rings and number plates…”
And, like Challis, some mudlarkers feel that their discoveries, piecing together fragments of history and wondering about the people who lived, worked, loved and lost on the river, add to something beyond their shoreline gathering, something spiritual.

Every tide unmasks fragments of London’s history on the foreshore

Mudlarkers’ beach findings are small enough to pack into a bag but further towards the sea there are larger remnants of the past. As well as thriving commercial activity now there is much evidence of rusted and rotted industry and a desolate beauty along the Thames Estuary coasts, with their crumbling ruins, slowly decaying boats, and an undertow of past tragedies.

Ruined jetties still standing at Cliffe Marshes ©IanTokelove

Ian Tokelove explains that “Three ruined jetties still stand at Cliffe Marshes, remnants of the explosive works which grew up in this remote, estuarine landscape between the 1890s and 1920.” He adds that the picture above “is the first of the three, its salt-bleached timbers standing 6 metres tall.”

Evensong at the Saltwater Chapel © @psychojography

The Psychojographer, sees and records the curious and unexpected, understanding how light and patterns in structures along the river appeal to the imagination. Much of his work is centred on the Thames and the area around the Estuary.

Birds perhaps bearing the souls of dead mariners ©John Franglen

While taking and working with this image, John Franglen’s thoughts were on the belief by some mariners that seagulls bear the souls of drowned fishermen and sailors. And for that reason, gulls should never be harmed or killed, in order “to avoid injury to the deceased.” The gulls are said to “forever fly above the waterways they used to sail”, prompting his question “How many must there be upon the Thames…?”

These last pictures come from three explorers and photographers, who not only instinctively pick out striking images but reveal traces of something indefinable, beyond the simply archeological, something of the soul of the Thames.

With thanks for permission to use their words and pictures:
Ruth Wadey, Wal Daly-Smith, John Challis, IanTokelove, the Psychojographer and
John Franglen.

Further information
Ruth Wadey’s Gallery
William Wyllie at the White Dog Gallery
London to the Nore, painted and described by W.L. and Mrs Wyllie, A & C. Black, 1905
Wal Daly-Smith From the River
John Challis Poetry
Ian Tokelove Remote London
The Psychojographer on Twitter @psychojography
John Franglen is on Twitter @passedwonder
Discover more about the explosive works at Cliffe Marches
See Oxford Reference for information on seagulls bearing the souls of lost seafarers.
Five mudlarkers to follow on Twitter: Liz Anderson @liz_lizanderson; Anna Borzello @mudlarkanna; Germander Speedwell @GermanderS; and Nicola White, mudlark @TideLineArt, Mudlark_thames_larker @Rothersman

A moat of flowers

The Tower of London’s tribute to HM The Queen

The Queen’s Garden below the Byward Tower, with twelve glass emblems representing the flowers on the Queen’s coronation gown and in pride of place, the State Imperial Crown.

There have been numerous events and celebrations in 2022 to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee but this has to be one of my favourites: Superbloom in the Tower of London’s moat. Twenty million seeds from twenty-nine flower species were planted earlier in the year to create a “floral tribute to Her Majesty”. And now the display is spectacular and will be at its best until at least September. Rhiannon Goddard, in charge of the Superbloom project, tweeted that from July 1st the Superbloom would be open until late so visitors can see the flowers illuminated.

The flowers are set to bloom in “three vibrant and colourful waves”. In June the dominant colour will be the orange and yellow of Pot Marigolds; in July, the moat will be carpeted in blues and purples of cornflowers, punctuated by red poppies; and from August until the end of September, Dyer’s Tickseed, among other flowers will turn the moat into “a sea of golden blooms”.

Part of the Queen’s Garden, its flowers grown from a “treasure chest” seed mix, specifically chosen, as have all the varieties in the Superbloom, to attract pollinating insects.
Visitors among the blooms.
Enjoying the flowers.
Wildflower carpet.
Close up.
Flowers the colours of a summer dress.
Volunteer guide.
Pastoral walk.
View from across the east side of the garden towards Tower Bridge.
View across Superbloom from the south – garden and pathways.
Bands of flowers beneath the waste chutes.
The delicate Bees and Butterflies’ sculpture by Mehrdad Tafreshi.
Weaving among the flowers.

The display doesn’t quite occupy the whole of the moat. A section on the south side facing the Thames has the Tower’s pet cemetery and a stretch of water below St. Thomas’s Tower leading to Traitors’ Gate, which shows the intimidating view faced by prisoners as they arrived at the Tower.

Pet cemetery where a number of cats and dogs belonging to the Beefeaters are buried.

The moat was drained for health reasons in 1845 by order of the Duke of Wellington, Constable of the Tower but it was to be completely filled once again, this time by an act of nature: the severe flooding that engulfed large parts of low-lying London on January 7, 1928.

St. Thomas’s Tower with the entrance to Traitors’ Gate beneath. This section of the moat is allowed to fill during the summer but drained during winter to prevent freezing and damage to the stonework.
Traitors’ Gate inspired fear in all those who came through it into the Tower, for it was known that once taken, few managed to leave alive.
A last look.

A short history of the Moat sourced from Historic Royal Palaces
The first moat built by William the Conqueror, defending what became known as the White Tower, was a “deep ditch on its north and west sides only”. It was expanded by Edward I in the 127os and eventually filled with water from the Thames. “It was so long-lasting and effective that its basic shape survives to this day.” In 1292 Edward ordered the use of the moat as a fish farm beginning with “a large stock of young pike.” So began the use of the moat as a source of food over several centuries.

However, “during 1843 and 1845, an outbreak of a lethal infection was caused by poor water supply at the Tower. The muddy moat, reeking of “putrid animal and excrementitious matter” when the tide was out was seen as a possible culprit. This prompted the Duke of Wellington, Constable of the Tower of London at the time, to have “the moat drained and turned into a defensive dry ditch.” And being dry it then became available for different uses, practical, military, commemorative, and celebratory.

“The sunny south side was used for growing vegetables as early as the 1890s”, while livestock grazing in the rest of the moat kept the grass trimmed.” And as many of you will know, the moat was turned into an allotment as part of the government’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign during the Second World War.

In 1897 soldiers taking part in military parades to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee camped out in the moat. During the First World War the moat was used for training recruits before they were sent to the Front. During the Second World War, two out of the twelve executions of German spies, took place in the moat.

Two commemorations marking both the beginning and ending of the First World War took place in the moat. In 2014, the 888,246 hand made ceramic poppies, representing all British and Commonwealth fatalities, made up the art installation “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”, and in November 2018 “Beyond the Deepening Shadow” saw 10,00 candles lit nightly in a ceremony of Remembrance.

But the moat has seen celebrations too. In 1977 the Queen’s Silver Jubilee was marked in the West Tower Moat with a display of 470 thousand begonia flowers, a gift from Belgium. And this year, 2022, the magnificent Superbloom display celebrates HM the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
For full details and interesting archive pictures, see the Historic Royal Palaces site here.

Sources and Further information
The Tower of London, @TowerOfLondon
With thanks to Chris Clawson, Yeoman Warder at The Tower of London @beefeater407
Superbloom at the Tower of London
Article by Victoria Murphy in Town & Country Magazine May 30, 2022