Saturday, January 9, 2016

An Historical Trip Down the River Thames

by Tim Walker

The Thames, best known as the brown murky river that flows through London, the longest river contained wholly within England, has witnessed many events that have shaped our nation’s history. It rises in a meadow in Gloucestershire and flows though 9 counties for 215 miles, and was the inspiration for my first creative writing endeavour – a collection of short stories under the title, Thames Valley Tales.

I was pulled to London from my provincial roots as a keen young graduate in the 1980s to work for an international publishing group based in Ludgate House, standing proudly beside the Thames on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. I lived further upstream at Kingston-upon-Thames, and more recently have lived in Maidenhead and now, Datchet, near Windsor. This connection to living close to the river Thames had naturally permeated into my writing, providing the settings for many of my stories, written during a period of convalescence between 2013-2014, that draw on personal and borrowed experience, news items and history.

I reviewed my collection of stories in early 2015 when the theme became apparent to me, and I started honing and knocking them into shape with the help of a copy editor. I continued to research my subject matter, thinking that I needed an introduction to the collection. Internet articles and books helped to build up my knowledge of historical facts, some of which inspired new stories or amendments to existing ones. A 15th and final story was written – The Battle of Radcot Bridge – to complete the collection. My story is about a school teacher in a primary school in Radcot, on the upper reaches of the river to the west of Oxford, trying to enthuse his unruly pupils with the story of this famous battle that took place in 1387 and led to the powers of King Richard II being clipped and ultimately to the ruinous Wars of the Roses.

Other historical tit-bits I uncovered, around which stories are woven, include:
- The sealing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede in 1215. 800 years on, a group of eco-villagers living in the woods close by fight for their rights against the legal powers of the landowner.
- The hosting of the first English Parliament by King Alfred in a meadow at Shifford in 890 (the upper reaches of the Thames, west of Oxford, formed the boundary between the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia). King Alfred’s story is given a humorous airing as a bedtime story.
- Ancient Chinese artefacts at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford form clues in a murder mystery in which a shape-shifting tiger stalks students on the Bridge of Follies.
- The legendary Highwayman, Dick Turpin, operated in Maidenhead Thicket, where his ghost continues to search for hidden treasure.
- The Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook is an old coaching house with a grizzly past.
- Roman soldiers built the road from Londinium to Aqua Sulis (Bath), called Akeman Street, bridging the river at Staines and Maidenhead. The Saxons later named the long straight stretch through the dense Berkshire forest, The Devil’s Highway, inspiring a story based around an old Roman coin.
- Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is given a contemporary make-over.
- A real prison escape in London provided a backdrop for the evocation of the figure of Charles Dickens’s memorable villain, Magwitch, in Great Expectations, escaping over the bleak, salty marshes in Thamesmead.
- At the town of Goring, north of Reading, the shallow river was a fording point for ancient man, as the Ridgeway Footpath crosses here. 30 miles to the west on the Ridgeway is the most ancient of all white horse carvings. Accurate soil dating techniques applied by a team from Oxford in the 1970s proved the carving to be one thousand years older than previously thought, dating its origins back to the Bronze Age over 3,000 years ago. This fact inspired a story.
- An English Civil War skirmish at Newbridge gave rise to a ghost story.


My reading around the subject has greatly improved my knowledge and understanding of the history of England, from early settlements in prehistoric times to invading forces of Romans, Saxons, the Norman Conquest and ensuing civil wars. Royal Castles (Windsor) and palaces (Hampton Court) all add to the rich history and splendour, with the river acted as a highway for trade and royalty. Bridging points led to the development of towns and became magnets for conflict in power struggles that have influenced the history of the nation.


I’ll leave the final word with Christopher Winn, author of I Never Knew That about the River Thames; “...a journey down the river Thames is a journey not just through the heart of the English countryside, but through the heart of the English people and the English way of life”.


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Tim Walker is the author of Thames Valley Tales, available on Amazon Kindle.

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6 comments:

  1. Lovely post. Have you read Per Ackroyd's book on the subject?

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  2. I'm just enjoying dipping into 'Thames Valley Tales' on my Kindle. I always wanted to live in Datchet when we were stuck in Hayes working at Heathrow! I was born at Isleworth, near the river, but not alas on a houseboat which would have been more romantic. I can understand your fascination with the Thames I always gravitate towards it wherever I am, from Southbank to Sheerness.

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  3. Lovely post,are their any ruins of the Catholic monasteries in that valley. Thank you for posting.
    cheers
    john

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