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What Could Happen to Old Father Thames?

Extracts from a feature article by the author in The Times, 8 August 1975

A Choice “Today, Londoners are faced with a choice. Should their own river be abandoned or not? For centuries, it has been the main artery of the capital; the docks were a focal point for trade; the shipyards, for industry; it was a highway for commerce and pageantry and a major outlet for leisure. Today the channels silt and the wharfage crumbles as the Port of London retreats towards the sea. But the opportunity now exists to make much more of the river.”

A Motorway? “The most radical solution would be to resolve London’s traffic problems by doing away with the river as we know it. An 8- or 10-lane motorway up the river bed between dams at, say, Woolwich and Kew might obviate the need for more elaborate and more socially disruptive orbital and radial routes. The stream of traffic would bring life to this forgotten artery and its sunken character would protect the capital from undue noise and fumes. Many of the road and rail over- and under-passes for such a highway are, of course, already constructed and in use. In addition, the necessary new reservoirs and flood plains upriver would resolve London’s water-supply problem and the dam downstream would protect Central London, once and for all, from the serious danger of tidal flooding.”

High-speed river transport “The major transport problem on either shore downstream from the City is the acute congestion on the main road and rail routes. Bottlenecks are frequent and savage. Journey times are slow and frustration intense. High-speed river transport, competitively-priced and intensely operated could provide considerable relief. Compared with road and rail improvements, the infrastructure costs in terms of new piers and carparks are negligible. Commuter use of the craft in the morning and evening can also be linked with tourist services during the day.”

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Secretary of the London River Commuters Association (LORICA)

The Future of the River

Extracts from Downstream to Greenwich – The Heritage and Future of the London River by Paul Tempest

Largely Derelict for a Decade

“While the whole River is ‘a liquid ‘istory’, a historical goldmine for the antiquarian, few would argue that the stretch between Tower Bridge and Greenwich Pier has much of architectural merit. The square mile of the old Surrey Docks behind Cuckold’s Point, an area as great as the City of London and within two miles from it, has been largely derelict for a decade. While some sections of the waterfront prosper, there are many more sections in ruins or where commercial activity has virtually ceased.”

The People and Politics of the River

“The sturdy docker communities of Rotherhithe, Wapping, Deptford and the Isle of Dogs suffered intense war-time bombing, neglect in the period of post-war reconstruction and finally the transfer and transformation of their livelihood to the new cargo-handling facilities downstream. The remnant, still deeply rooted in the older terraces, splendid pubs and corner shops, are strong in the Borough Councils where they can scrutinise the more grandiose schemes for expensive yacht marinas, luxury private riverside residences and white-collar dormitories, but are unable to generate the compensatory impetus for public sector investment. The result appears, at first sight, to be political stalemate.”

A Corner has been Turned

‘The tidal river is, in fact, already becoming a much more attractive place. Thanks to the post-war Clean Air legislation and our changing weather pattern, far less of the soot and dust of the West End is dumped on the East End than before. Both air and the river-water are cleaner: fish are returning to the river and the problems of effluents are under stricter control. Where 80,000 Thames Watermen worked, less than 1500 are left.’

A Hope for the Future

It may be that our children’s children will look more to the River. As the energy cycle begins to project the economy along a new path, they might look back to the River of today and see it not so much in terms of commercial and industrial decline, but more as in transition to a new role, through which some of the best of our maritime, architectural and social heritage was stubbornly preserved. At least we might hope that our grandchildren will find by the River something of the bustling activity, visual excitement and quiet charm that our grandparents have enjoyed – and not just a derelict, stinking eyesore.

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