The Thames by G. E. Mitton
THE BEAUTY OF THE RIVER
Close your eyes and conjure up a vision of the river Thames; what is the picture that you see? If you are a prosaic and commercial person, whose business lies by the river side, the vision will be one of wharves and docks, of busy cranes loading and unloading; a row of bonded warehouses rising from the water's edge; lighters filled with tea lying in their shadow, tarpaulined and padlocked; ships of all sizes and shapes, worn by water and weather. And up and down, in and out, among it all you see river police on their launch, inquisitive and determined, watching everything, hearing everything, and turning up when least expected. The glories of the high Tower Bridge, and the smoky gold of the setting sun will not affect you, for your thoughts are fixed on prosaic detail. As for green fields and quiet backwaters, such things do not enter into the vision at all.
Yet for one who sees the Thames thus prosaically, a hundred see it in a gayer aspect. To many a man it is always summer there, for the river knows him not when the chill grey days draw in. He sees gay houseboats in new coats of paint, decorated with scarlet geraniums and other gaudy plants. He associates the river with "a jolly good time" with a carefully chosen house-party, with amateur tea-making and an absence of care. Nowhere else is one so free to "laze" without the rebuke even of one's own occasionally too zealous conscience.
To another the Thames simply means the Boat Race, nothing more and nothing less. Year by year he journeys up to London from his tiny vicarage in the heart of the country for that event. If the high tide necessitates it, he stands shivering on the brink in the chill whiteness of early morning. He sits on the edge of a hard wooden cart for an immense time, and, by way of keeping up his strength, eats an indigestible penny bun, a thing that it would never enter his head to do at any other time. He sees here and there one or the other of those school-fellows or university chums who have dropped out of his life for all the rest of the year. Then, after a moment's shouting, a moment's tense anxiety or bitter disappointment, according to the position of the boats, the flutter of a flag, and a thrill of something of the old enthusiasm that the unsparing poverty of his life has slowly ground out of him, he retires to his vicarage again for another year, elated or depressed according to the result of the race.
To others Henley is the embodiment of all that is joyous; the one week in the year that is worth counting. But to others, and these a vast majority of those who know the river at all, the Thames means fresh and life-giving air after a week spent within four walls. It means congenial exercise and light, and the refreshment that beauty gives, even if but half realised. It means a quiet dream with a favourite pipe in a deep backwater so overhung with trees that it resembles a green tunnel. The gentle drone of the bees sounds from the banks, there is a flash of blue sheen as a kingfisher darts by; a gentle dip and slight crackling tell of another favoured individual making his way cautiously along to the same sheltered alley; the radiant sunlight falls white upon the water through the leaves and sends shimmering reflections of dancing ripples on the sides of the punt. Such a position is as near Paradise as it is given to mortal to attain.
These are only a few of an inexhaustible variety of aspects of this glorious river, and each reader is welcome to add his own favourite to the list.