London was born on the banks of the Thames. To walk along it is to gaze on 2,000 years of liquid history. This majestic gateway to the sea is why the Romans first chose this spot on which to found Londinium. The Magna Carta was signed on an island in the river at Runnymede, near Windsor, in 1215. The Tower Of London imprisoned the great and the good (and the not so good) from William "Braveheart" Wallace in 1305 to Guy Fawkes exactly 300 years later, the doomed men being ferried from their sentencing in Westminster to the forbidding walls of the Tower with their executioner standing guard on the boat behind them.
The Thames became a great trading route plied by hundreds of ships and barges, symbol of the British Empire’s sea-faring might. For centuries it had only the one crossing, London Bridge (a later version of which was sold to an American oil corporation in 1968 and now spans the Colorado River), so that residents had to be rowed across. Most of the bridges you see now were added in Victorian times, notably Tower Bridge, whose ingenious bascule design, allowing it to be raised to let through tall ships, was chosen from hundreds in a nationwide design competition.
Some winters, the bridges were not needed at all. Between the 16th and 19th centuries the Thames sometimes froze over, and Londoners threw riotous Frost Fairs on the ice. The last one, in 1814, even had an elephant parading under Blackfriars Bridge. In short, the Thames was a dirty, busy, chaotic artery through the heart of London—but like a smoker’s it became hopelessly polluted and clogged. Its waters turned black and smelled of rotten egg, so foully during "The Great Stink" of the hot summer of 1858 that Parliament had to abandon its sittings; the great Victorian sewer system, still in use to this day, was built in response.
The ingenious Thames Barrier was constructed between 1974 and 1982. The world’s largest navigable flood barrier, it prevents central London from flooding. But as water-borne traffic dried up in the 20th century, the city turned its back on the river. It became a divide between north and south, both physical and psychological, unloved and unvisited. Until 16 years ago.
The first stirrings of new life were in 1997: Shakespeare’s Globe theater opened after a ceremony in which a gigantic wooden pillar was paraded through the city on an ox-drawn cart and then ferried across the Thames, and the OXO Tower was redeveloped with a top-floor restaurant, awakening Londoners’ taste for river views. The river began to star in films, from "Shakespeare In Love" to James Bond blockbuster "The World is Not Enough."
The new millennium was the turning point, adding in a single year the London Eye, Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge and, farther east, the Millennium Dome (now the O2 Arena). In 2002, City Hall became the new seat of London government, with an open-air space, The Scoop, showing theater for free. In 2007, the Royal Festival Hall received a facelift and its neighbouring restaurants and cafés are now so thronged the Southbank Centre has applied for permission to build more to meet demand.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe this is the same city. No other capital now offers such extensive access to its waterfront, with 75 percent publicly accessible on riverside walkways. It is also one of the cleanest capital rivers, welcoming salmon, dolphins and even a whale. From being a dirty, undervalued backwater, the Thames has reclaimed its place in the heart of London.
Nothing illustrates this better than the Pageant for The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which I had the honour of directing. A world-record number of boats sailed through the capital—670 of them—led by the Spirit Of Chartwell, the specially converted Royal barge on which the whole Royal family stood tirelessly for the four-hour cruise. Up to a million people lined the banks as music played through powerful sound systems, from bells and bagpipes through to special commissions and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with its drenched choir. It was a true Canaletto moment.
After that success, we had to make a bigger splash with this year’s 17th annual Mayor’s Thames Festival (held in September), so we extended it from a weekend to 10 days. The undoubted highlight was a spectacular, water-borne ship’s opera created by the artist Richard Wilson, twice nominated for the Turner Prize, and Cultureship directors and artists, Zatorski + Zatorski, in which historical vessels have been modified to become marvellous musical instruments and sculptural pieces in themselves. Resurrecting the lost sounds of the river with steam whistles, bells, horns, hooters, sirens and canon, the day-long performance from Sea Reach at the mouth of the estuary culminated in a dazzling finale of sound, light and steam at Tower Bridge.
The Thames may have more than 2,000 years of history behind it; but its future is certainly brighter still.
The Mayor’s Thames Festival is typically held in September of each year, and has varied from a weekend event format to the 2013 festival format which was held over 10 days. For full details, or to plan your trip to the festival, visit www.thamesfestival.org.