The River Thames: A Guide to Barging
The River Thames is the spine, the lifeblood and the main attraction of one of the best-known and historically important cities on the planet. But while the section that flows through London is certainly the most high profile, the 215 miles of the Thames slice England, stretching from the Cotswolds at Cirencester, through rural towns and villages to Oxford, London and finally emptying out into the North Sea.
Historically, the Thames has been a vital trade route right back to Roman times. Today, while the Port of London handles around 10% of the entire country’s commercial shipping, the quieter sections of the waterway appeal to private leisure vessels and barge cruise operators.
Built On a River
When the Romans arrived in Britain in AD 43, they settled at the most strategic site on the river to build their city, Londinium. From the port they traded extensively throughout the Mediterranean and also made roads to link the capital with the rest of the country. It was the Romans who built the first bridge to span the river, on the site that would later be the crossing of the city’s famous London Bridge.
Bridges and Locks
The bridges that were built across the Thames have become icons of engineering in themselves. Tower Bridge is one of the most acclaimed, and has been an instantly recognisable landmark of the capital since its construction in 1894. The incredible mechanism that allows for its raising and lowering still functions with perfect precision. Westminster Bridge sits under the shadow of Big Ben and is considered one of the most elegant of all in terms of its architecture. The Millennium Footbridge is the city’s newest, opened in 2000 and crossing the river at St Paul’s Cathedral.
There are 45 locks along the river and each has its own history; some date back to the 1500s while others were variously constructed through the 1700-1800s. While in earlier times weirs were built in order to divert the flow of the water to use in mills, as the traffic increased, many of these were converted or used alongside locks, to allow the passage of vessels to navigate the fall of the river. Today, for those on a barge cruise, navigating the locks is one of the most interesting and anticipated parts of the experience.
Attractions en Route
The beauty of exploring the route of the Thames by barge cruise is the constant accompaniment of scenic views and historical and cultural attractions. Runneymede, the site where King John signed the highly significant Magna Carta document, is a popular disembarkation point. As well as the official monument to the event, the lovely woodlands are filled with wildlife and walking paths.
Windsor Castle is another high profile attraction that can be visited along the river, and the oldest and largest castle in the world lives up to the pomp and grandeur of its reputation (the Queen may even be in residence). At Henley-on-Thames, the renowned River and Rowing Museum celebrates not only the river itself, but also the international sport of rowing for which the town has become globally recognised.
Meandering Through History
The elegant curves of the Thames have defined the history of Britain in so many ways. The privilege of being able to traverse its length on a modern day barge cruise offers a unique insight and a truly memorable way in which to see to the country.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK’s most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury barge cruise itineraries. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.