I was lucky enough to join a party of around ninety people last Saturday and climb aboard the City Cruise boat, M.V. Westminster at its mooring by Tower Pier. It was a perfect day for cruising, bright and sunny with gentle breezes, so we all headed for the deck in search of the best place to enjoy our views of London from the River Thames as we sailed along.
We were there at the invitation of TEP to raise funding for the post production costs of making Dorothy Leiper’s film, The Living Thames.
The film is presented by TEP’s president, environmentalist Chris Baines, and it shows the work of the many people and organisations who ensure that the Thames continues to sustain all those who live, work and play by the river, through the careful management of its waters, beds and banksides.
The film reveals the diverse aquatic life which teems beneath the muddy-looking surface of the tidal Thames on its course from Teddington to the estuary, where it joins the North Sea. The aim is to reconnect people with their capital’s river so that they can get to know it in the same way as earlier generations of Londoners, many of whom depended on it for their livelihood and transport through the city.
Everyone on board had a keen interest in the ecology and conservation of the tidal Thames and we were all excited about making a journey which took in iconic views such as Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, Wren’s magnificent Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich and the Thames barrier. Some of us were also familiar with the converted warehouses which line the banks at Wapping, Rotherhithe and Limehouse, as they shelter some of London’s most historical pubs: The Captain Kidd, The Prospect of Whitby, The Mayflower and The Grapes.
We were joined by a panel of enthusiastic speakers who shared their extensive knowledge of the marine ecology and archaeology of the Thames without baffling us with any technical language associated with their area of expertise.
Archaeologist, Dr. Fiona Haughey, brought along a box of intriguing artefacts found along the foreshore of the river which included a Mesolithic stone hand axe, the jaw-bone of an unidentified fish, a Roman weight used for trapping fish and a small, contemporary figure of the Hindu God, Ganesh, with his elephant head.
She emphasized the importance of connecting with the past to enhance our understanding of the modern city. Many of our London ancestors projected their hopes onto coins and sacred items which they launched into the Thames in the expectation of harnessing its powers to fulfil their wishes, just as Hindus today drop votive offerings into it.
Steve Colclough, Independent Aquatic consultant and a rare specialist in estuarine ecology, explained that the murky water of the Thames with its surging tides, makes the ideal environment for juvenile fish, or fry, to mature as they make their way upriver and then back down to the sea. The river is essential to the life-cycle of the dover sole, sea bass and smelt in our seas.
Sixty years after the tidal Thames was declared biologically dead it has become home to 125 forms of aquatic life and receives regular visits from seals, dolphins and harbour porpoises. This transformation has been brought about by the rapid de-industrialisation of the Thames, improved treatment of sewage, tighter regulation of the use of fertilisers and the tireless efforts of organisations such as TEP.
Steve and Chris Baines described the essential role TEP has played in revitalising the Thames, by working with developers to ensure that their projects don’t harm wild life and, in some cases improve their conditions, for example by creating salt-marsh environments by the river.
Amy Pryor, marine scientist and TEP’s Project Manager, told us that the presence of plastics in the Thames remains a significant threat to the welfare of river life. In 2016 TEP launched a campaign, #oneless, as part of a coalition of organisations working to reduce single use plastic water bottles in London, many of which end up in the river, and it is already showing signs of becoming a great success.
Our river cruise took us past the construction site of the Super Sewer at the King Edward Memorial Park, Wapping. When ready, it will reduce the annual discharges of untreated waste into the river from thirty one to four. The Super Sewer, or the Thames Tideway Tunnel, is being built at a further twenty three sites along the river, stretching from Richmond to Deptford.
Once completed in 2023, the tunnel will play a major part in guaranteeing a future for tidal Thames wild life which looks much better now than it has for hundreds of years.
Dorothy Leiper’s Living Thames will be screened at film festivals and shown in community centres. Free copies of the film will be distributed to London schools.