London: A River Runs through It

Article excerpt

Byline: Francesca Segal

In economic terms as well as geographic, London's black and beating heart has always been the River Thames, viscous with centuries of filth and secrets. Eventually, the Victorians laced the city with underground drains to spare Londoners the sight and stench of their own effluent, which had until then poured freely into the river; yet in my childhood it was, nonetheless, still famously dirty. The schools of used condoms that washed ashore on the litter-strewn, muddy banks were known as Thames Goldfish--a very London joke.

The river slices the city in half, dividing us, suspicious and unforgiving rivals, into South London and North, or "saaf" and "norf" in the local diction. To go to the other side is to venture into unfamiliar and potentially hostile territory. The river is cleaner these days, but an ancient collective memory of its poison remains. Perhaps this is what makes us so reluctant, now, to cross it. We breathe sighs of relief, lungs cleared by the fierce wind off the water, as we cross back over the bridges and return to our rightful places. And so in truth, for 21st-century Londoners, the Thames is no longer a center but a boundary. If we're crossing the river, we think, it better be bloody worth it.

For me, a lifelong northwest London girl, the Thames is merely my southern border, and the heart of my city is Hampstead Heath: 790 acres of dense woodlands and open meadow, and the odd corner of manicured and rolling lawn, all presided over by the twin peaks of Parliament and Primrose hills. The view east from these heights sweeps all the way across the city to St Paul's Cathedral, to the slow-turning Ferris wheel of the London Eye, and now to the angular monstrosity of the Shard. When I was little, someone once told me that Parliament Hill would remain above the water as an island even if all the polar ice caps melted, and this immediately made it the center of my imagined world. The Heath is a place for solitude or for communion. It is a place for picnicking, for stargazing, for mushrooming, for watching birds and for collecting whichever blackberries hang high enough to have evaded the casual urination of passing canines. The Heath is where north Londoners walk the dog or the baby and where, in darker corners on certain nights, men look to one another for fleeting love, or something like it.

I knew the Heath before I ever breathed--my mother walked here every day when she was pregnant with me. …