Thames: Sacred River

October 9, 2007

Written by: Peter Ackroyd

Read by: Simon Callow

Published by: Random House Audio

Price: £40; 3 Volumes, 12 CDs from Random House

I’ll certainly not look at the River Thames in the same way again. In Sacred River Peter Ackroyd (who also wrote London: A Biography) breathes new life into its waters and reveals it’s social, literary and geographical history. You may well yawn…but the Thames isn’t just a practical venue for the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. Historically, it’s a place by which rulers built their cities, where merchants sold and traded, and where corporal punishment was dealt. It’s also the place where our sewage used to be expelled straight into (and where it still sometimes leaks) and on the banks of which there are over 50 Churches dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. (Akroyd ruminates around this, coming to the conclusion that it is because the River is surrounded by the myth of purity).

The Thames meanders through South East England, much like Ackroyd’s ponderings. I liked Simon Callow, he narrates with a confident, authoritative tone, relating Ackroyd’s musings like a gossiping friend.

I was left wondering how long it took Ackroyd to do his research, as the book is full of interesting facts. The Thames stretches 215 miles, passing through Hampton Court, Kingston, Teddington, Twickenham, Richmond, Dartford, Tilbury (Docks) and Gravesend before entering the Thames Estuary near Southend-on-Sea. Only 191 miles of the Thames are navigatable.

Now, after hearing much about the social history of the River, I’ve a morbid urge to visit places like Tilburn and Smithfield, where public executions where held. Apparently there were gallows at Greenwich and Deptford (Dead Man’s Dock).

I also now thank God for our Health and Safety Executive, as in 1794 they used to drink the water from the Thames as a ‘healing’ aid!! It was not recommended to cook with though, as it’d turn your vegetables black – go figure!

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