Vintage, 2008

ISBN 978-0-09-942255-6

Reviewed by Michael Colebrook


One of the many things I learnt from this book is that the river in Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows is based on the Thames around Cookham and I have to declare an interest: for most of my life I have shared Ratty’s passion for ‘messing about in boats’ and, for my childhood and youth I was able to indulge this in, on and around the river Thames. The river has played a significant part in my lived experience.

Peter Ackroyd has provided a very readable, comprehensive, thematic biography of the river Thames. The feature that makes it relevant to GreenSpirit is that throughout, the river comes first. People and places are considered in the context of their relationships with the river. Typical is the story of William Morris. He owned two properties by the river, Kelmscott Manor near Oxford and Kelmscott House at Hammersmith. He used to commute between them by boat, taking a leisurely five or six days.

Inevitably, London looms large in the story of the Thames but it figures always as the city that grew up by the river. The Thames is not simply the river that runs through the city. The relationships between the city and the river occupy a substantial part of the book. It is a complex and fascinating story but one which emphasises the debt that the city owes the river.

The theme of the subtitle ‘Sacred River’ runs through the whole of the book. In the indo-european tradition the river has its guardian deity represented by Old Father Thames. The goddess is not forgotten, but she appears, or more likely reappears, late on the scene, in 1546 when John Leyland in his Itinerary names the upper reaches of the river as the Isis, possible derived from the celtic isa – flowing water. The name has stuck, and the Ordnance Survey maps still refer to the headwaters through Oxford and as far as Dorchester- on-Thames as the rivers Thames and Isis. What are clearly votive offerings to the river have been found relating to a time span of several thousand years, from the Neolithic to the late medieval periods. And the idea of the river as sacred has been maintained subsequently by the impressive array of writers, poets and painters who have drawn inspiration from the river; from Blake and Shelley, Turner and Whistler to Charles Kingsley and Kenneth Graham, through to Stanley Spenser. The artcyclopedia web site lists 58 paintings whose titles refer to the river.

There was certainly something that drew me inexorably to the river, possibly a strange sense of calm inevitability, a sense of its fundamental beingness. Peter Ackroyd has done good service to the river he obviously loves and admires.