Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Thames: Sacred River

Review by Ann Skea

Thames: Sacred River.
Peter Ackroyd.
Random House. 2007. 490 pp.
ISBN 978 070 1172848.

Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River runs from source to sea, like the river itself. Like the river, too, it sometimes flows swiftly through landscapes of great interest and beauty, and at other times it meanders, becomes turgid, or has stony passages where the going gets harder. The journey, however, is well worth taking and, as a companion book to Ackroyd's London: The Biography, it must rank as one of the most detailed, informative and enjoyable surveys of London and its river since 1598, when John Stow wrote A Survey of London, a book to which Ackroyd often refers.

Thames is a book for dipping into rather than for prolonged immersion. There are fascinating and curious facts and anecdotes, history, geography, geology, myth, legend, art. There are chapters on the working river, trade, river boats, river law, the river as "a stream of pleasure"; and on the association of the Thames with healing, life and death.

There are curiosities, such as "dene-holes" (interconnected subterranean tunnels along the river banks) and "swallow-holes" (where the river vanishes and rises again). There are pre-historic visions of crocodiles and jungles. There are pageants, kings and queens, diarists, historians, saints and sinners, watermen, dapper Chelsea "kiddies," day-tripping cockney 'Arries and 'Arriettes, artists, poets and musicians. And there are barges and punts, log-boats and coracles, "cogs," "trows," "wowsers," hoys and onchers, and other strange and more familiar vessels which use the river's waters. Alongside the river are the towns and villages, the great houses and palaces, the churches, the ruins, the docks and the City of London itself. Ackroyd can fairly be said to have covered almost every aspect of the river, and to have done it with admirable skill, scholarship, humour and delight.

But why is his Thames a "sacred river"? Rivers all over the world have, since pre-historic time, been regarded as healing, life-giving places, and the Thames is no exception. Based on objects and clusters of objects found in the river over the years, Ackroyd argues (as do many archaeologists) that votive offerings have been made, and still are made, to Thames river gods. And although the association of the Thames with the Egyptian goddess, Isis, dates, according to the author, only from the 1500s, the use of the Thames for baptism, healing and purification is ancient and, in some cases, still exists. Old Father Thames is a common name for the River around London, and the number of religious establishments which have lined its banks (temples, monasteries and churches, for example), suggests its long and close association with religious practices.

The role which Ackroyd attributes to the Thames in inspiring religious awe and fervour in poets and painters, however, is less certain. There is no doubt that James Mallord William Turner, for example, was inspired by the Thames and that Thames light, colour and changeability pervade many of his paintings, but whether he regarded the river as sacred is questionable. Similarly, Ackroyd waxes lyrical about the mystical colours and light of the Thames but the poets and painters he gathers to his "sacred" theme often seem unlikely recruits.

Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Kenneth Graham were, perhaps, more interested in story-telling than in the Thames itself, although it is delightful to hear of Dodgson inventing The Adventures of Alice Underground as he rowed Alice Liddell and her sisters up the river from Oxford to Godstow. And it is fun to learn the whereabouts of the Wild Wood of Graham's Wind in the Willows, and of the likely model for Toad Hall and for the dungeon in which Mr Toad was incarcerated after his arrest.

On the whole, the book works best when Ackroyd sticks to fact, rather than speculation, but, that said, there are times when facts become just lists and when his speculations are much more entertaining and thought-provoking.

Ackroyd is a congenial companion with whom to take a Thames journey, but for those who want to explore and experience the Thames on their own he has included "An Alternative Topography, from source to sea" at the end of the book, complete with maps, and a condensed guide to the towns and villages along the way. I particularly enjoyed his brief asides in this section. The note to the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary, for example, is just seven lines long and ends with the comment that "in 832 it was overrun 'by the heathen men.' It has not been the same since." It makes me want to go and find out what he means by that.

Thames is well written, well illustrated, full of joys and horrors, facts and fiction. It is an excellent guide to a great river and to the city which grew up on its banks. And it is written with style and humour. In addition, the hard-cover copy comes with a handsomely illustrated jacket and with endpapers reproducing Joseph Mallard William Turner's watercolour painting, "River Scene with Trees." It's a fine cover for a fine book.


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