‘The Thames – Ancient river, changing never,
Symbol of eternity,
Gliding water, lapsing ever,
Mirror of inconstancy.’
F.S. Thacker wrote this observation about The Thames in his book ‘The Stripling Thames’ in 1909. The Thames has complex geology in its different parts. In the London Basin, it flows through chalk, sand, and clay, at earlier parts it forces itself through soft sands, limestone, and gravel. The local variations were dependent on locations during the ice age. The name of the Chilterns, close to Henley-on-Thames, comes from the Saxon word for chalk – chilt. The history of the Thames is as fascinating as that of any rivers, as it dates to prehistoric times. Some 170 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, when the water flowing through the limestone was a mere ripple, it was just the very beginning of the river Thames. After the Jurassic age, some 77 million years later, came the Cretaceous period and it was a time of the creation of chalk beds in Southern England. The Thames properly emerged some 30 million years ago. A Cenozoic era progressed from that time and it is still the period we live in now. But at the beginning, our island was connected to the European mainland by a bridge of land, where now the North Sea runs. The Thames was then a tributary of a much larger river that flowed across Europe. The longest stretch of it is now called the Rhine.
Below is the Westbury White Horse in Wiltshire, an ancient chalk carving
The earlier landscape was tropical, as we know from many fossils. There were palms, vines, and citrus fruit. Termites, ants, beetles, and spiders were thriving in the warm and humid atmosphere. In the Thames, there were crocodiles and turtles, as well as lizards and many fish.
And then the climate began to grow colder. Over time the forests replaced the palms. The spread of the First Glaciation southwards some 2.8 million years ago, made the earth colder and colder. The ice halted just north of the Chilterns. About one quarter of a million years ago, the Thames created what is now known as the Thames Valley. At the same time, the Thames witnessed the emergence of humankind. We know very little of the people themselves. The Germans call them the geschichtlos ‘people without history’. The last major glaciation came to an end approximately twelve thousand years ago, after an ice-bound age that lasted a thousand years. The warmer climate brought new settlers. They first crossed by land, before the floods united the North Sea and the Channel. They were fair-haired Maglemosians or ‘marsh people’, first discovered in North-western Europe. They hunted and fished, and domesticated dogs for hunting with and for protection. They built simple dwellings with skins spread over tree branches, by the side of the Thames. They dug the first canoes out of a single tree-trunks. The first boats found on the river-bed of the Thames were more than 25 feet in length.
Once the tribes realised that they could move faster and further on the water, they flourished. The Thames became an emblem of life, movement, and freedom. It was a slow evolution that required hundreds of years to be registered as the time of change. In the present time, we know that the Thames is and will be to the end of time regarded as the symbol of our nation.
‘For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever’
Tennyson wrote about the Thames in 1853.
An ancient time town built high above the River Thames has a history that dates back 1000 years – it is Windsor. It is the location of Windsor Castle, and anyone visiting this country, hopefully very soon, has to see it as it is the most interesting medieval castle, the largest occupied castle in the world, with a fascinating history. It started when William the Conqueror saw the potential of the Windsor position as perfect for guarding the western approach to London and built the castle there. Over the centuries, other monarchs rebuilt many parts, fortifying the castle to withstand sieges. There is nothing left of the first wooden walls of William’s castle, that was opened in 1070. Today, Windsor Castle has 1000 rooms and occupies 12 acres of land.
Rebuilt and restored in different styles (including Baroque and Gothic), Windsor Castle was used during its hundreds of years of existence as many monarchs’ primary residence used for visits by foreign kings and dignitaries, and for entertainment. One of the special restorations was the Waterloo Chamber created to display portraits commissioned to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, made Windsor Castle their favourite residence, much improved and comfortable. Many social events were held here. It was at Windsor Castle that Prince Albert died of typhoid in 1861, and was buried in a mausoleum built in Frogmore House in Windsor Home Park.
Such was the importance of Windsor Castle that when George V and Queen Mary sought to change the family name during World War I, to replace the German one (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha), they chose – Windsor. The present Queen, Elizabeth II, has made the castle her primary weekend residence, as she spent her childhood years here. She also spends Easter month here and a week in June during Royal Ascot. Many banquets and state events are held at the Castle, and also family weddings, baptisms, and funerals. The beautiful St George’s Chapel is open to the public, with daily services attended by locals and visitors. The Chapel has held many royal weddings, including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018 and also the same year, Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank.
Windsor Castle is a must on the list of places to visit. Many parts are open to the public all year round: the precincts, the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s famous doll’s house, St George’s Chapel. Changing of the Guard takes place regularly. When the Queen is in official residence, the parade provides a colourful spectacle in the quadrangle. Not many people know that Queen Victoria was baptised as Alexandrina after her godfather Alexander I of Russia. She preferred her second name Victoria, or her nickname ‘Drina’.
Queen Victoria and Princess Louise
The next city gifted to us by the Thames is London. There is so much to see here that I will have to extend this post to more parts than two, and those who are planning on visiting London will have to come back many times. I will start with a less known place but with a fascinating history and well worth visiting – Lloyd’s of London. It is a building with outside lifts, in Lime Street, in the City of London. This unusual business began in Lloyd’s Coffee House, owned by Edward Lloyd, on Tower Street in 1686. The Coffee House was a popular place for sailors, merchants, and ship owners as Lloyd catered for them with reliable shipping news. The Coffee House was soon recognized as an ideal place for obtaining marine insurance. Lloyd’s motto was Frolentia, Latin for ‘confidence’. Over the years, the business prospered, and then disaster struck. On 18 April 1906, a major earthquake and the resulting fires destroyed over 80 percent of the city of San Francisco. This event was to have a profound influence on building practices, and the insurance industry. Lloyd’s losses from the earthquake and fires were substantial. While some insurers were denying claims for fire damage under their earthquake policies, one of Lloyd’s leading underwriters, Cuthbert Heath, famously instructed his San Francisco agent to ‘pay all of our policy-holders in full, irrespective of the terms of their policies’.
The prompt and full payment of all claims helped to cement Lloyd’s reputation for reliable claim payments, and as an important trading partner for US brokers and policyholders. In the main Underwriting Room of Lloyd’s in London stands the Lutine bell, which was struck when the fate of a ship ‘overdue’ at its destination port became known. If the ship was safe, the bell would be rung twice; if it had sunk, the bell would be rung once. Nowadays, it is only rung for ceremonial purposes, such as the visit of a distinguished guest, or for the annual Remembrance Day service and anniversaries of major world events. Lloyd’s is notorious for writing policies to cover famous, unusual, or bizarre events. For example, Lloyd’s has insured a comedy theatre group against the risk of a member of their audience dying of laughter.
The Lutine Bell being rung at Lloyd’s
It is a striking looking place inside and outside, and with a history to match, well worth seeing on your visit to London.