THAMES: SACRED RIVER is about the river from source to sea. It covers history from prehistoric times to the present, the flora and fauna of the river, paintings and photographs inspired by the Thames, its geology, smells and colours, its literature, laws and landscape, its magic and myths, its architecture, trade and weather.
The reader learns about the fishes that swim in the river and the boats that ply on its surface; about floods and tides; hauntings and suicides; miasmas and sewers; locks, weirs and embankments.
'My fair lady' of London Bridge is Falling Down is identified as Eleanor, Queen of Henry lll; Mapledurham House near Henley as Toad Hall of Wind in the Willows. In AD 54, the river was 14 feet shallower than it is now, flowing sluggishly at low tide through sandbanks and swamps: thus Caesar and his legions could cross the Thames and defeat the British tribes. 1700 years later, malaria in the marshes of the estuary was so terrible that some men had 'from 5 to 6, to 14 or 15 wives' consequence, as Ackroyd writes drily, of mortality not profligacy. Here is Shelley floating on the river under poetical beech trees, Hogarth getting roaring drunk on a boatrip to Gravesend, William Morris wondering whether the same Thames water flowed past his windows in Hammersmith as flowed past his house at Kelmscott 100 miles upriver.
Did you know that Pepys (in 1661) was the first to mention a dock on the Thames? That 'toe-rag' (meaning despised individual) derives from sacking worn over the boots of workers in the grain and corn warehouses of Milwall Docks? That hangings continued at Execution Dock until 1834? Peter Ackroyd has a genius for digging out the most surprising and entertaining details, and for writing about them in magisterial prose.