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Rivers of Romance and Commerce


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An Australian asked me when we thought a stream big enough to be called a river in this little land of ours. I rather think that he was hinting that to him, from a big country, none of our rivers looked to be worthy of the name. And it is true that our rivers are not large when compared with those in the majority of other countries. Islands do not breed big and powerful rivers. But our rivers are very much our own. We do not share them with other lands as do the Continental countries. And just how much our rivers mean to commerce, despite their size, may be judged by the fact that on them we find two of the six chief ports of the world-London and Liverpool.

In the schoolroom I used to feel that the books left it to our choice which was the longer, the Thames or the Severn. In any case, the difference was only a few miles in a little over two hundred. But both the Thames and the Severn were longer and mightier in far-off times than they are now. When our isles were the highlands of the lost continent of Atlantis, then the Thames had a common mouth with the Rhine somewhere near where the Dogger Bank lies under the sea to-day, and the Severn ran on to join the ocean at a point farther west than the present coast of Ireland. So we see that our biggest rivers are not only small when compared with the rivers of the continents, but also small when compared with their old selves.

But the shrunken Thames is famous throughout the world as London's river. How long ago it was that London was first set on the hillock which is now crowned by St. Paul's, who can say? The Romans made a walled city of the settlement, but I doubt if they laid out London quite as lovingly as they laid out another of their cities on the Thames. They built Corinium, now Cirencester, with handsome villas as a place to live in, and it became the fourth in size of British towns. To-day Cirencester-and, as a Gloucestershire man who ought to know, I beg you not to call it Ciceter - is a little place with only 7,000 people, whereas London has 7,000,000. Which shows what an advantage it was to London to be on the tideway.

Cirencester lies on the Churn, the little Cotswold river which we generally accept as the beginning of the Thames. But many other little rivers from the hills-the Colne, the Windrush, the Evenlode, the Cherwell, the Isis and the Thame-have to come in to make the river of the valley. Oxford is at the meeting of many of these waters, and it is there that we begin to talk of the Thames.

Reading is the only other town on the Thames that is not small or now suburban. The great abbey there is now, alas! in ruins. It was within its walls that what is reputed to be the first English song, "Summer is i-cummen in," was composed. Below Reading the river breaks through the Chil terns, and here, where the passage is narrow, we have some of the best scenery, between Henley and Maidenhead. Thence onwards the valley opens out into the plain over which London is spreading so fast. The towns along the banks have become the homes of Londoners, and have lost what independent status they once had. And just because they are at one end of the daily journey which so many of us ordinary folk make to and from the City we are apt to forget what historic places they are.

But think of it as we come down the river towards London! There's Windsor, with its great castle; Staines, which grew up about a very early crossing of the river. Hampton Court brings memories of Wolsey or of Charles II and his ladies, who came here so often. Close by where the trains now rumble over the bridge at Richmond was the palace of Sheen, where three of our sovereigns died-Edward III, Henry VII, and Elizabeth.

When we come well into London we find that the old houses by the river have given place to embankments and wharves. But the Bishop of London still keeps his palace at Fulham, and the Archbishop of Canterbury his at Lambeth. London's river was once London's great highway, but we no longer hire a "pair-oar" to take us from the City to Westminster; the old paddle steamers that plied from pier to pier are almost forgotten now. The piers themselves have been removed, all save a few; even Old Swan by London Bridge is threatened. And certainly the old going to and fro on the river of which we read so much in "Pepys's Diary" and other books has passed from the Londoner's daily life. But the watermen are still navigators of a river that is a busier waterway than ever it was. Old London Bridge, with its many narrow arches through which the tide sometimes had a fall of several feet, was a bar which divided the river into two parts which we still know as, the one Above-Bridge and the other Below. The present bridge has five wide arches, and the division is not as marked as it was. As a result, water-borne traffic has greatly grown above bridge, and large colliers now make the passage of the bridges. London has, in fact, developed an inner port that does direct business with the sea.

But for most of us the port really begins with the Pool just below the bridge. It is there that the Londoner loiters to look at tall ships, and tall they really are. It is a surprise to strangers, I think, to see what big steamers lie safely aground by the wharves at low water. The shingle bed, shelving but gently and of a hard yet slightly yielding texture, prevents any risk of straining.

So the Thames is still what it was in the days, two or three thousand years ago, when ships first came into it, a port of river wharves. But docks now carry the steamers from the riverside far in among the houses.

One reason for building the docks was that it was thought that goods would be safer if landed within what was enclosed property than if landed on the more open wharves of the river, where there was always much pilfering. Some of the docks were built with moats and had an armed guard to protect them. But shipowners and-traders did not at first see why they should pay to use the docks when they already had their wharves' on the river. Perhaps even to-day there is still some little jealousy between the river and the docks, although both are under one control, the Port of London Authority. But the docks are necessary now to make room for the ships of the port, which has become the market of the world for many goods. It is because she is that market that London is a cargo rather than a passenger port.

Bit by bit the port was built up until it is now the largest in the world, with 1,000 ships a day passing in and out at Gravesend. The Kent and Essex marshes are protected by the river walls. The builders of these river walls are forgotten, all except the Dutch, who won Canvey from the water three centuries ago. In the main the training of the river goes back much earlier than that, and has been carried out along practically the whole length of the tideway. We have lost sight of the walls in the wharves, but they still keep about ten square miles of London dry at high tide. They have failed only once or twice, as when Dagenham Breach was made in the eighteenth century, and in January 1928, when there was flooding throughout riverside London.

There are no shipyards now on the river that built the Great Eastern, and London hardly remembers that once at Deptford she launched the best ships for the Navy. But read the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn, and you will learn how famous the shipwrights of that old dockyard were.

There would have been no London, perhaps, if the river had not been bridgable where London Bridge is now. The stone bridge that we associate with the London of the Middle Ages was completed in 1209, and its arches stood until the present bridge was built in the 1820's. For the greater part of six centuries the wonderful old bridge bore the brunt of the cross-river traffic and the force of the tide.

It is hard to get away from the Thames-my river now, because I live near it-to the Severn, which is my native river. But let me say at once that the Severn estuary is far finer than that of the Thames. The Forest of Dean brings high hills right down to the tideway, which is a series of lakes and narrows. And over on the lower eastern banks there are little cliffs and headlands, such as those at Aust and Sharpness. Moreover, the marshes of South Gloucestershire are rich in trees which come close to the water. And rocks give the river bed a wild look at low tide. But above the tidehead the Severn lies too deep within its banks to have that pleasant brimming look which is so characteristic of the Thames. Still, there is this compensation, that the Severn is at the beginning what the Thames never is, a mountain stream, and there, again, it is the wilder of the two rivers. Because the Severn begins in Wales, and passes out to sea with Wales again as one of its coasts, we are apt to look upon it as a border river which kept apart those old enemies, the Saxons and the Welsh. But the. Severn makes a wide bow into England. Worcester lies behind an - English wedge that was pushed across the river to Radnorshire. Gloucester has the little buffer land of the Forest of Dean between herself and the old Welsh boundary, the Wye. Shrewsbury alone of the Severn towns is a border town.

Three great abbeys stand by the Severn on a line of less than thirty miles - Worcester, Tewkesbury and Gloucester. The diocese of Worcester is much older than that of Gloucester, but Gloucester's cathedral is the finer. It was Gloucester which both the Romans and Normans found of importance because it was at the last good crossing over a big river. And it should be noted here that the crossing of Severn has set Gloucester at the crossroads of England. The shortest roads between Land's End and John o' Groat's and between Lowestoft and St. David's Head, the extreme points of Great Britain, meet in the middle of the town.

The outer gates of the Severn are the two islands, Steep Holm and Flat Holm, lying in the Bristol Channel between Somerset and Glamorgan. There is always, I think, a ship passing on one side or the other of Flat Holm, for the Severn is a river of much commerce. Gloucester, Sharpness, Lydney, Bristol, Newport and Cardiff are all ports which can reach the sea only by way of the Severn's mouth. And there is more cross traffic, mainly that of little colliers, on the Severn than on the Thames.

Salmon still come up the Severn. So, too, do elvers- young eels that have wriggled thousands of miles along the Gulf Stream from their first home far out in the Atlantic. A thousand or so of them, as it seems, little white threads with big black eyes, make a good dish for high tea in the springtime. These Severn elvers attracted the attention of the Germans before the War, when an elver farm was started at Epney below Gloucester with the object of stocking German rivers with potential eels.

Here is a little fact about the Severn that I think is worthy of notice. The three English counties of the river have given us an unusual number of musical composers. Elgar was born at Worcester; Hoist and Vaughan Williams are Gloucestershire men; Parry had his home just across the river from Gloucester; and Edward German and Walford Davies come from Shropshire. So it would seem that the Severn country breeds music.

If the Severn is not a border river, the Wye is- at least, between England and South Wales. Monmouthshire, although administratively in England, is Welsh in sentiment. And the Wye gave us the lower end of the line of Offa's Dyke, which was the bulwark that the Saxons built to keep out the Welsh. On the west side of the river are the little outpost towns of Chepstow and Monmouth. Both are gates of the crossings over the river out of England into Wales. But the beauty of the Wye overshadows the history. From the wonderful loop at Symond's Yat down the deep, narrow and winding valley, past woods and cliffs and the ruins of Tintern, is the finest bit of river scenery in all Britain. And by Chepstow this wonderful river climbs the cliffs sometimes to the height of forty feet, as the tide-staining of the rock face shows. That tide-stain is something that we notice when we come from the Thames, where the only mark left by the tide is a line of flotsam on the shingle or grass.

The romance of the Avon is the romance of two of the most individual cities in England - Bath and Bristol. Each of them is placed where the river breaks through the hills. Right through Bath, with its memories of the age of gallantry, winds the Avon, tumbling over a weir in the very heart of the town. The plash of the running waters of a quite considerable river is a sound that we do not hear in many of our English cities.

Under Georgian Bath old Roman Bath has been unearthed, but the medieval city has been all swept away, except the Abbey. But lower down the river Bristol has churches and houses that take us back to the Middle Ages. The old port was once the second city in England, and the harbour, an impounded stretch of the river, is the most intimate of which I know in any big place. The quays whence the ships of the merchant adventurers set out into the far seas before they were charted, and from which sailed the privateers and slave-dealers who gave us the stuff of many a brave story of the Spanish Main, are still open to all who would wander and linger along them. And, as if to give the ghosts of Cabot, a Bristol sailor who was the first European to set foot on the mainland of America, and of Morgan, as lawless a seaman as ever sailed, a chance to roam o' nights, the city lights the harbour but dimly.

It was on Welsh Back, or thereabouts, that Jim Hawkins met Long John Silver, and Bristol was, of course, the port for Treasure Island. The old harbour is but a big edition of the secret cove where one could fit out, unhindered, for the great adventure. It lies up the river on the inner side of the Gorge. For two miles the tidal Avon cuts three hundred feet deep through the hills, with sheer cliffs on one side and hanging woods on the other.

The Avon is no longer the chief river trading out across the Atlantic to the West, although Bristol now has docks for big ships at Avonmouth. The Mersey became that as ships grew in size. The Mersey is, as so many of our rivers are, a little river with a big mouth; and that big mouth means to us Liverpool, Britain's second port. Liverpool's docks stretch for six or seven miles along one bank. Opposite is Birkenhead, with other docks. Above Liverpool lies Garston, and then we come to Eastham, whence the big ship canal carries cargo liners up to Manchester. And the romance of the Mersey is wholly the romance of commerce. Possibly the human interest is even greater than on the Thames, because the passenger traffic is bigger and less secret. The great Prince's Landing Stage is something of which we feel the lack on London's river, and I think that nearly all Londoners envy Liverpool folk their ferry trips through the port.

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Pictures for Rivers of Romance and Commerce

RUSSET WINGS OF A THAMES BARGE
RUSSET WINGS OF A THAMES BARGE >>>>
WHERE ROCHESTER STANDS ON THE MEDWAY, LARGEST TRIBUTARY OF THE THAMES
WHERE ROCHESTER STANDS ON THE MEDWAY, LARGEST TRIBUTARY OF THE THAMES >>>>
THE THAMES, CHIEF ARTERY OF COMMERCE AT THE HEART OF AN EMPIRE
THE THAMES, CHIEF ARTERY OF COMMERCE AT THE HEART OF AN EMPIRE >>>>
THE WYE FROM SYMONDS YAT AND THE THAMES FROM AN AEROPLANE
THE WYE FROM SYMONDS YAT AND THE THAMES FROM AN AEROPLANE >>>>
THE WYE BRIDGE OF HEREFORD AND THE OLD CATHEDRAL
THE WYE BRIDGE OF HEREFORD AND THE OLD CATHEDRAL >>>>
RIVER SEVERN SWEEPS ROUND TO FLOW BY THE ANCIENT CITY OF GLOUCESTER
RIVER SEVERN SWEEPS ROUND TO FLOW BY THE ANCIENT CITY OF GLOUCESTER >>>>
LOOKING DOWNSTREAM THROUGH THE GORGE CUT BY THE AVON ON ITS WAY FROM BRISTOL TO THE SEA
LOOKING DOWNSTREAM THROUGH THE GORGE CUT BY THE AVON ON ITS WAY FROM BRISTOL TO THE SEA >>>>
BY THE BANKS OF THE TRENT NEAR NEWARK: THE SEVERN FROM WORCESTER'S CATHEDRAL TOWER
BY THE BANKS OF THE TRENT NEAR NEWARK: THE SEVERN FROM WORCESTER'S CATHEDRAL TOWER >>>>
TYNE, CLYDE AND MERSEY, WHOSE MOUTHS MAKE THREE OF BRITAIN'S GREATEST PORTS
TYNE, CLYDE AND MERSEY, WHOSE MOUTHS MAKE THREE OF BRITAIN'S GREATEST PORTS >>>>
BESIDE THE WATERS OF TWEED THAT WIND AMONG THE WOODED PEEBLESSHIRE HILLS
BESIDE THE WATERS OF TWEED THAT WIND AMONG THE WOODED PEEBLESSHIRE HILLS >>>>
AT DUNDEE, WHERE THE TAY IS BRIDGED BY A STRUCTURE OVER TWO MILES LONG
AT DUNDEE, WHERE THE TAY IS BRIDGED BY A STRUCTURE OVER TWO MILES LONG >>>>
BRITAIN'S GREATEST ENGINEERING WONDER, THE FORTH BRIDGE FROM THE SOUTH
BRITAIN'S GREATEST ENGINEERING WONDER, THE FORTH BRIDGE FROM THE SOUTH >>>>

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