Dark river
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - September 12, 2020 - 12:00am

The pandemic has given me an opportunity to do things I hadn’t imagined doing previously. Sitting indoors, pacing around, I’ve been building up a readiness to leap out of the house and seek new adventures. So I’ve decided to walk the 294-kilometer national trail along the River Thames, from the Thames Barrier in east London to the head of the river near another ancient Roman town: Cirencester, Gloucestershire. After two afternoons of walking this week, I’ve made barely a dent in the distance but gained a completely different perspective on the city of London.

We started in the Isle of Dogs (which isn’t an island and has no more dogs than any other area of London), deepest east London where the fortunes of the working class through the centuries shaped the area. It’s actually a peninsula formed by a meander in the river, so people who’ve lived here have considered the area as somewhat separate from the rest of the city. Even though the name’s been in use since at least 1519, when it appears in a shopping list for Henry VIII, it only became official in 1987 when there was a reorganizsation of the district but was abolished again only a few years later.

Workers moved into the area when the West India Docks were built in the 19th century at the height of the British Empire, and there wasn’t much public transport to the “island,” contributing to its separate character. The area was heavily bombarded in World War 2 because of its importance for trade, and if you’ve watched “Call The Midwife” set in the rubble of post-War London, this is where it takes place.

In 1970, community leader Ted Johns and his supporters announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence for the Republic of the Isle of Dogs to draw attention to the social deprivation in the area. They set up an “Island Council” with Johns as its elected president and blocked the two bridges that provided the only access to the area by road.

Nowadays, Canary Wharf in the north of the Isle looks like it could be a neighborhood in Manhattan with its gleaming skyscrapers, but in the south it’s a mix of riverside luxury flats and the remains of what was once the highest concentration of social housing.

Looking south across the river from here you can see the Royal Naval College and Greenwich Palace, which was built centuries before the current royal residence at Buckingham Palace. It was where King Henry VIII, who broke off from the Catholic church so he could divorce his first wife and went on to have five more, and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth I were born.

When people refer to “Greenwich mean time” around the world, they’re referring to this place, where the Royal Observatory is located. We don’t think much about it in modern times, but it took centuries for astronomers, navigators and mapmakers to determine longitude for safe sea navigation.

The prime meridian or 0 degrees longitude was located at Greenwich after 1884, and the whole tale of human endeavor that led to that moment is the subject of the bestseller “Longitude” by Dava Sobel; it’s well worth reading.

It’s a measure of the history of London and the Thames that though we were still only at the very beginning of our walk on the path, we were already immersed in so many layers of history and great stories surrounding just this relatively short part of the river. That’s why I always recommend a river tour to visitors to London. There aren’t nearly as many coming during the pandemic but it’s probably quite safe to take a cruise in the open air on a fine day and observing the usual measures to limit infection.

Heading west and staying on the north bank, we passed through more historic districts, though we lost sight of the river for quite a long stretch because of all the luxury housing developments in Limehouse, St. Katherine’s Docks and Wapping. The next world-famous landmark was Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, and we were fully in the city of London where the original ancient Roman port city was founded and the river is recorded by the name “Tamesis,” which probably derives from an even older Brittonic-Celtic name “Tamesas” and may have meant “dark.” The Roman name may have given the river its other, less well-known name “Isis,” by which it is called from its source to Dorchester in the Thames Valley.

Blessed by fine weather, and a lot cleaner than it has been in centuries before, the river isn’t dark, so much as murky in 2020. It’s easy to take for granted living here, but walking along it for so long has given me a chance to consider the intimate and intricate relationship between the river, the city and the people who’ve lived here.

London owes its extraordinary and unique cosmopolitanism to the river. The name of the city itself refers to it, it’s been traced to meaning: “too wide to ford.” Its very wideness allowed huge amounts of trade to come here from around the world. There are place names referring to such goods like cinnamon, calico, cotton, tobacco, rum and molasses; none commemorate the trade in humans that made millions for the city’s economy right up until the Slave Trade Act in 1807 and the Abolition Act in 1833. Some historians say the industrial revolution itself was only possible because of the capital gained from the triangular trade that made commodities of people and has left a deeply damaging legacy of racism. Walking the river opens up a window of opportunity and time for a closer look at the history of empire and oppression for what it is.

Through the centuries the river has given people who settled here the means to make dreams and nightmares real. It will continue to do so and, as I walk, I wonder what we will make of that.

DOGS
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