Holy Waters; Timeless Beauty ... Sunset over the Thames and Tower Bridge

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

Holy Waters; Timeless Beauty ... Sunset over the Thames and Tower Bridge


Byline: Peter Ackroyd

There was a man called Douglas Chellow, born in 1790, who lived all hislife beside the Thames, from Chelsea to Southend. He devoted his days tobuttonholing passers-by and trying to make them share his obsessive love of theriver. Chellow discoursed on the Romans and Saxons who made the river theirown, on the monasteries that were built by the side of the river, on Chaucerand Wat Tyler, and on the great fairs that took place when the river frozeover.

His love of the Thames eventually spilled over into worship. He came to believethe river was an ancient god which would take its revenge if it was used forpiracy and profiteering.

After 700 people were swallowed up by the Thames when the Princess Alice wentdown, the 88-year-old Chellow took to walking up and down the river banks witha placard inscribed: 'Can we be masters of the sea if we cannot keep a pleasureboat afloat on the Thames? The river has had her revenge.' Chellow's last yearswere spent in a do-ityourself shack on the river bank in Greenwich.

Every morning he would pray to the river by throwing up his arms, prostratinghimself and calling on it to claim him as its follower. One morning, his corpsewas discovered on the foreshore at low tide.

Were he still alive to read this magical, mesmerising book, Mr Chellow wouldsurely welcome Peter Ackroyd to his morning worship, for he is without doubt amember of the clan, regarding the Thames as a powerful deity with a will of itsown; always changing yet ever the same, and existing beyond the confines oftime itself.

All of Ackroyd's many books (25 at the last count) express, in one way oranother, the mystical urge to live beyond time by surrendering to history. Inhis great book about London, to which this is in many ways the companionvolume, he made the reader feel that even the most commonplace street in thecapital is haunted by all those who have ever walked down it,and that we, inturn, will haunt our most distant descendants. In this new book,he looks out atthe modern industrial architecture in the Thames estuary - oil refineries,petrochemical works, power stations, and so on - and observes, like Ozymandias,that 'there will come a time when these installations ... will be defined bytheir ancientness like the earthworks of the region'. In writing about theThames, he is taking history back almost as far as it can possibly go, for itsmatrix was created some 170million years ago. 'In this period, plesiosaurs, andfish with beaks and teeth, swam above the bed which would eventually become theThames,' he writes. 'It was a great and fast-flowing river, a tropical river, ajungle river, to which the ancestors of the horse and the bison, the rhinocerosand the lemur, came to drink.' More recently - just 12,000 years ago - came thelast major glaciation. 'This was the age in which hippos wallowed in TrafalgarSquare, and elephants roamed down the Strand.' Ackroyd has a visionary abilityto concertina time in this very immediate way, leaving his readers in a stateof awe.

Even an unremarkable place such as Brentford becomes, through his eyes, aspinning whirlpool in which the drab present is sucked inexorably into a morevivid past. There is a spot on the river at Brentford where the Holy WatersALAMY

Cassivellauni took on Caesar's troops in 54BC; in the same place, 834 yearslater, Offa held a church council with his bishops; two centuries on, EdmundIronside drove Cnut and his defeated Danes back across the Thames at thatpoint; and in 1642, the very same place was the scene of a battle between KingCharles I and the Roundheads. Human beings come and go, but the river stays thesame. The river, he says, defies time. The book is called Thames: Sacred River.His use of the adjective 'sacred' is not casual; it is heartfelt.

'It would not be too wonderful,' he observes, 'to see the mother of Moses, orthe daughter of a Pharaoh, suddenly appear among the rushes on the banks of theUpper Thames. …

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