Caroline Crampton has spent more than six years thinking about the Thames River. We’re so excited she joined us to talk about the river’s history and folklore! Featuring “more recently, the Middle Ages,” the Angel of the Thames, and the pilgrims’ version of the pressed penny.
This week, Julia recommends the Join the Party one shot episode Goat Party (with Lauren Shippen).
Content Warning: This episode contains conversations about sacrifice (human/animal), stabbings, espionage, drowning, and flooding.
Caroline Crampton is a freelance writer and podcaster. She writes narrative non-fiction, like her book The Way to the Sea, a podcast about detective fiction called Shedunnit, and writes for two email newsletters (Hot Pod and The Listener). You can follow her on Twitter @c_crampton.
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Amanda: Welcome to Spirits podcast. A boozy dive into mythology, legends and folklore. Every week, we pour a drink and learn about a new story from around the world. I'm Amanda.
Julia: I'm Julia.
Amanda: This is episode 136, Thames River with Caroline Crampton.
Julia: Yes, we talked a bit about Caroline on the show before because she has this fantastic podcast about women's detective novels called Shedunnit, which is very, very good. We mention it in the episode, but Caroline is a delight to talk to, and she has so much knowledge about the Thames River that I only have very passing understanding of the Thames from Shakespeare and what not.
Amanda: We had such a lovely conversation and I can't wait to learn more about the Thames in her new book which we will promote to you, don't worry, in the episode. If you listen to podcasts to go to sleep, get ready because this episode is chill as fuck.
Julia: Yeah, it is very calm. I really, really love her voice. It's just chill as hell.
Amanda: Then listen again because there's great facts and good stories.
Julia: That's true. Yeah, listen twice.
Amanda: You know who I would always listen to, twice in any recorded format?
Julia: Our new patrons?
Amanda: Our new patrons; Evangeline, Nicole, Sara and Luke, welcome. You join the distinguished ranks of such patrons as our supporting producers; Philip, Eeyore, Skyla, Mercedes, Samantha, Danika, Marissa, Sammy, Josie, Neal, Jessica and Phil Fresh.
Julia: I love this gang. Such a good gang.
Amanda: Also, so good, unmeasurably good. Have their own title patterns, good. Aylah, Cody, Mr. Faulk, Hailey, James, Jess, Sara, Sandra, Audra, and Jack Murray are legend-level patrons.
Julia: Honestly, legends as legendary as the Thames, and as old and ancient.
Amanda: Totally. Julia, would you tell me what fresh drink you whipped us, not ancient whatsoever, for this episode?
Julia: Yeah, so I made us a couple of brambles on the side of the pond. I'm not entirely sure what Caroline was drinking, but we had brambles over here. The bramble was actually created in 1984, in London at Fred's Club in Soho. It's inspired by summers of picking blackberries along the shores of the Thames. I was like "Well, this is just perfect. I can't, not use this."
Amanda: Absolutely amazing. It sounds like a drink that, that friend of the show and former guest Andrea would love because Crème de cassis is like chef's kiss; delicious.
Julia: Yes, it's delightful. It also has gin and fresh blackberries and it is a really nice, just summer refreshing drink.
Amanda: I really, really enjoyed it. Do you have any particular listening or reading that you would suggest, pairing with your cocktail this summer?
Julia: Okay, so I'm rereading the American Hippo series which I recommended to you all a couple of episodes ago and I already recommended that, so I'm not going to do it again. I would love for everyone to go and listen to the most recent episode of our sister show, Join the Party because Amanda GMd a one chat that involved goats, demons and the Met Gala.
Amanda: I sure did.
Julia: It also features our good, good friend, the chaotic, artistic force of nature that is Lauren Shippen.
Amanda: Oh Jules, I didn't know you'd recommend that this week. That's very sweet of you.
Julia: Of course. It was very, very good. I just listened to it as we were recording this. I listened to this episode and right before that, Join the Party. I got a double feature of Amanda being awesome.
Amanda: Thank you so much. It was incredibly fun. Basically, I am leading a one hour-ish, one shot where everybody's a little goat and they just want to party. It's so fun. It was incredibly fun. I got to be, both Kristen Bell and another guest I'm not going to mention, because it was such a good reveal. I don't know man. Whether or not you like RPGs, I think you'll enjoy me trying to marshal three goats having a party at the Met Gala. Jointhepartypod.com.
Julia: It was very funny and very good, and the link is in our description.
Amanda: That is so sweet of you, Julia. Thank you. Speaking of multitude goodness, it would be a very good week for folks to sign up for our mailing list at multitude.productions. I'm not going to tell you why, but there's some stuff brewing. There's some good stuff happening. There's new things on the works. You'll be first to know, if you sign up for that mailing list at multitude.productions.
Julia: As I've said before many, many times, Amanda makes it so pretty.
Amanda: Thank you. I do my best. Without any further adieu, folks, enjoy Spirit podcast episode 136, Thames River with Caroline Crampton. We are so excited to have our friend Caroline Crampton on the show today. Caroline is a writer and podcaster. Also, the creator of the fabulous show Shedunnit, which we talked about several times before. Caroline, welcome.
Caroline: Thank you very much for having me. It's very exciting to be on.
Amanda: We are so pleased. We love you and your work, but when I saw that you have just published a book about the history of the Thames River in England, I knew that we had to have you on, to talk about that good, good river mythology which we absolutely love. Both of us grew up by the sea. We love rivers, we love water, we love a good mythology of a body of water. We would love to hear from you, anything that you feel fit to share about the Thames, and rivers generally.
Caroline: Right, well, it's an enormous subject, I would say, first of all. Just the Thames mythology, I mean. My book is partly about that and it's partly about my own family story and how we ended up living in the estuary of the Thames. It's also about some of the history and culture that's associated with it as well. I spent, maybe five or six years working on this book. I had other jobs as well, so it wasn't full-time, but five or six years just thinking about the Thames. I would say, I have read maybe 2% of the books that exist, about the Thames.
Caroline: It is just enormous. Every time I would go to a library and I would diligently spend my day, go through bibliographies and stuff, I would just come away, weighed down by the sheer weight of stuff there is. There's loads of reasons for that, but one of the main ones is just that London is on the Thames. London is a very old city and it's Britain's capital city. It's also just a city that people are obsessed with stories about. The Thames is a big, big part of that.
Caroline: I think on top of that you've got the fact that, like a lot of big old cities, Paries went through this as well. A lot changed for London in the 19th century, particularly with the river as well. They built embankments on it, they completely changed how the sewer system worked. As a result, lots of the things about the river that had been very accessible to people, not least the fact that the Thames has loads of tributary rivers that flow into it, both above London and all the way through the city. Loads of them just disappeared. They got put into tunnels, underground or covered over or used in sewers instead of being out there on the surface. Yeah, ever since then basically, people have just been obsessed with "Where did the rivers go? Where are they now?" Stuff like that.
Julia: I love that.
Caroline: Yeah, as a result, in the process of doing this book, I really just came away with the sense of everything I didn't know rather than everything I did. I did still write an entire book about it, so I have something to say.
Julia: You've added to the collection of how many books there are about the Thames.
Caroline: It's crazy. I did an event the other night at the British library that was about waterways, more generally. There was someone else, they were were talking about other rivers and stuff. In the questions, that section, a really nice person put their hand up saying that, "I'm American. I read and know much about Britain's natural world, but I'm really interested in what you said about the Thames and I'd love to know more about it. What would you recommend I read?" I was like-
Julia: "So many things."
Caroline: ... "So many things. Could I email you?"
Julia: Yeah, it's the best answer for that kind of thing.
Amanda: What do you think that Americans or non-Brits more generally, don't understand about the way that the Thames figures into the national imagination or the national mythology?
Caroline: I think a big thing that even people who just haven't ever lived near it, wouldn't necessarily know is that the Thames is really tidal. The whole river is 215 miles long, from source to sea. About 100 miles of that is tidal. Every single day, the tide comes all the way in from the sea, twice a day, all the way through London. It's been artificially limited now. They built a big lock, a place called Teddington, which is in West London. That's as far as the tide can go now. That's a huge movement of water, in and out everyday, on top of just the natural flowing of a river towards the sea.
Caroline: As a result, the Thames is quite fast, quite dangerous and it has a really big range. I think in the lunar cycle, at the highest point of the month, I think there can be a five or six meters difference between high and low water. That's within 12 hours, that changes.
Julia: That's a lot.
Caroline: That's something that people ... I grew up in the Thames estuary. My parents are massive boat people, and we did lots of sailing and so on. That's actually how my parents ended up in the Thames estuary in the first place. They are from South Africa. They built a boat, they sailed it to England.
Julia: That is so cool.
Caroline: I knew all this about the tides because it's very important when you're sailing, especially because there's a lot of sandbanks and mudflats and scary navigational hazards in the part where the river blends into the sea. You really have to know how much water have I got under the boat at any given time. I found it interesting when I moved to London after university, and I would walk across the bridge on my way to work, and I'd be like "Aha, the tide is low now." I might comment, if it was particularly low or something, I might comment to someone I was with. They would be like, "You, what? What do you mean?" I gradually came to realize that this thing about the river being so incredibly tidal was not necessarily that well-known.
Amanda: Wow, that's so interesting. I like that we take things for granted too, when we live by them for so long. It doesn't personally affect us, but we ignore it because of that, or it just falls into the background.
Caroline: Yeah and that's something else more generally, that I found when I was reading about the Thames, as well as doing loads of book research. I was trying to talk to people and interview people and so on. I found that even people who live by the river their whole lives, will tend not to see it, in that way that you don't see something that you're so familiar with. I found a really interesting study about this, that was done back in the 70s where I think, he was an Architectural Psychologist. Fascinating job.
Julia: What a cool job?
Caroline: Right, yeah, cool. His name is David Canter. He wanted to dig into this phenomenon of how you don't see the thing that is there everyday. He asked participants in the survey to estimate the distance between two points, north and south of the river. Then also, to do this elsewhere in London. Just say like "How far off did you think it is from Kensington to Hampstead?" That kind of thing. He found that the distances that went across the river, people would massively overestimate them, compared to the ones that were just on the same side which is really interesting because it suggests that people think of the river as a much bigger barrier than it is.
Amanda: Yeah, some psychological effect. That's so interesting.
Caroline: Then the second part of his study was that he had a group of people who were new to London, that people who just moved there. I think mostly from other countries as well, so they didn't have much residual familiarity. He asked them, he checked in with them once a week for six weeks or something and asked them to draw the shape of the Thames. To start with, it was just a line because people do tend to think of the Thames in London as running west east, in a flat way. Of course, it doesn't at all. Then gradually ... It's really interesting. In the book, he wrote about this. You can see, he includes loads of the drawings. You can see how their drawings develop over the weeks, and they start including some of the squiggles. Then by the end they actually have a decent approximation of what it's like, but they've gone from flat line to all of the squiggly meanders that actually exist.
Amanda: Yeah, I guess when you think of it as being north bank or south bank, you think of the river as just a delineation. The fact that it has so many hair pin turns and looks like a coiled up snake. Doesn't necessarily become part of your imagination until you start looking for those lines. I feel that same way about, we're from New York City. People have no idea, the relative size of the boroughs. No idea, even Brooklyn and Queens are on the same land mass or that Staten Island is fucking gigantic. Even that, when you look at Manhattan, the skyline is not just straight. The island is not a straight peninsula. There is a huge portion that curves out at the end, almost like a heart, how a heart is lopsided. That's what the bottom looks like.
Amanda: You can be on a different shore or at one point of the shoreline, and look up and down and not see the Empire State Building where you think it's going to be, because you're actually looking way east instead of north, the way that you think you are.
Caroline: Exactly, yeah. I do think that people tend to use the Thames like a horizontal axis in their understanding of the city, when it's anything but. The other thing that I got told when I first moved to London, which was 2009 was that this ... People call it, the cab driver's immortal refrain. "Don't go south of the river this time of the night, love." There is just this feeling that the north bank of the Thames is where, by and large, most of the important buildings are. It's where all of the important civic things are. It's just the more expensive side of the river. It's also where the vast majority of the London underground network is.
Caroline: If you live in south London, you don't take the underground. Most of the time you take buses or you take overground trains. It's much better now, I think because of competition from stuff like Uber and whatever. Black cab drivers have had to start going south of the river, but there's just this sense that once you cross the Thames, it's so much harder to get anywhere. It's that much less approachable. I think that's another reason why it's quite a big barrier in the mind of Londoners. I definitely remember really early, when I first moved to London. I had come back from somewhere, out of the city really late and I got off at the main line train terminal and I was in the queue, because oh, also, if you haven't been to London you might not know. Our trains don't run after about midnight. If you get back after that time, you just have to walk or pay for cabs.
Amanda: Which is really good context because that's why the Knight bus with the K in Harry Potter is a pun because in London, if you're out drinking at 1:00 in the morning, there's no more trains to a take a night bus with an N. It's extremely funny.
Julia: Glad you got our Harry Potter reference in, early.
Caroline: Yeah, and I didn't know that. When I read Harry Potter, I didn't realize that people would know that. Also, if you've never taken a night bus, they are wild. It is-
Amanda: They are. It's like one of those Hummer, party Hummer Limos in a way. It's just like weird collections of people who you would never expect to see in the same spot. I love them a lot.
Julia: Thank you for explaining this to me because I haven't' been there yet.
Caroline: ... I would definitely say, if people are interested, there's an amazing episode of the Nocturne podcast about this, that Helen Zaltzman, a famous podcaster and British friend of mine. She did an episode of that, where I think it's called The Bubble, which is about an incident in a night bus where it turned really dark. Someone got stabbed on the upper deck of the night bus. She basically just talks about how, although that's horrible, it feels possible all the time when you're on a night bus, that everything could just turn upside down like that.
Amanda: Yeah, well here is your American introduction to, or an introduction for Americans to the British vocabulary. Also didn't know that Treacle tart was real. I thought it was like a pumpkin pasty or pumpkin juice for that matter. I thought they were all fictional wizard treats.
Julia: Yes, the wizard treats.
Caroline: The fictional wizard treats. That's amazing. My husband loves Treacle tart. He makes it all the time.
Amanda: It's delicious. I tried it when I lived in London. I was just grinning to myself and looking around like someone was playing a prank on me. It was adorable. Like "Oh, is this cafe, Harry Potter inspired?" They're like, "No, it is a pie."
Caroline: Oh, that's amazing. Right, yeah, so anyway, yeah. I remember once, coming back from somewhere out of town and having to get a taxi and being in the queue for the cab rank of Victoria station. I needed to go somewhere on the north banks. I was fine. There was someone in front of me who was, he was quite drunk and he was trying to get a cab to take him to Croydon. Croydon is really far, south London. Arguably, not really even in London at all, some people might say. It is in the larger London area. Just no cab drivers would take him there, and he was literally showing them his money in some cases. Be like, "Look, I can totally pay for this. I'm not trying to rip you off. I just really need to go to this place, and it's really late." They were like, "No, sorry."
Caroline: That always stuck with me as an idea that, just the river is still this, even in contemporary age, it's still this barrier for people.
Julia: Yeah. Oh, that's so fascinating too, because I'm thinking from a mythological standpoint. There are so many delineations between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the underworld versus the mortal plane. This feels very much like that in a lot of ways, where it's crossable but it takes a lot of effort to cross it.
Amanda: Yeah, that guy should have paid double cab far, much like going to the River Styx, you have to have two coins. One to go there, one to come back.
Caroline: Yeah, so actually you mentioned the River Styx, and that's a really big thing I found in images of London. The way people think about it is this idea that it represents death, or something that has to be appeased. I read all of these archeological books. There's actually a really good book called Thames: Sacred River which covers this in lots of detail. Basically, for over 1000 years, more like two, three even, the archeological record shows that people have just been throwing things in the river to-
Julia: I love it.
Caroline: ... appease it.
Julia: Yes, love it.
Caroline: They found everything from astonishing artifacts like, these fishermen fished out a cup of Trojan origin near Hammersmith Bridge that is estimated to be made between 1000 and 700 years B.C. Really incredible stuff like that. Then also, just weapons, like Bronze age weapons and neolithic flint axes and animal bones and human bones. More recently, medieval times, these pilgrim tokens. I know, sorry-
Julia: I'm sorry. I'm just so used to more recently, like 100 years ago and you're like, "Ah, yes, the middle ages." I'm like.
Caroline: ... sorry about this. It's something I always get wrong when I talk to Americans because, not that we wander around in Britain, steeped in history all the time, but I do think there's a slight different range we talk about stuff. When I tell people that the university I went to my third year, dorm room was in a building that had basically been the same since 1264. People are like "Wow, was it a castle?" I was like, "No, it was just a building."
Julia: That's just been there forever.
Caroline: Yeah, so.
Amanda: That is what it's like in California, especially though. You walk somewhere. They're like "Yes, this historic building built in 1962." I'm like, "My dad was around then."
Julia: My dad was alive. That's not acceptable.
Caroline: It's to say my parents are really into this as an idea because they come from South Africa, a place like America, that doesn't have a ton of stuff, like the 17th century. My dad's sister lives in a very old part of Cape Town, in that it was one of the first areas to be settled by the Dutch when they arrived. There are houses in England that are that old, that aren't listed, that aren't protected by the government, you know? Yeah, it's just an interesting perspective on that kind of thing.
Julia: Sorry, I didn't mean to sidetrack this with my surprise.
Caroline: I always find that fascinating that, my parents are sailing in ... They've just crossed over into Canada now, I think. They're in the lakes. This is something that my mom talks about all the time. When I talk to her, she's like, "Yeah, I was really excited to go to this place because the guidebook I have, said it was a historic town." Then it was just all normal, and from recent times. Yeah, she's got to recalibrate her tourism.
Caroline: Yeah anyway, sorry, I was talking about the pilgrim tokens. When people were going to Canterbury on the famous Chaucer, as pilgrimage, to see the shrine of Thomas of Becket, they would have one of the many things the church would try and sell you as a memorial or a souvenir of your pilgrimage with these round, big, flat coins with the details of your journey stamped on it. People used to throw them in the river as, I don't know, I think partly like a wishing well type thing, but also as "The river is holy and so I'm dedicating my pilgrimage by doing this."
Amanda: Oh, see my thought was like proof that you'd been there. "Hey, see God, I did it." Then you just put it in the collection jar. Also, here's a thesis for you. I think that pilgrim tokens are the first Instagram geo tag. It's like "Yes, I really am in Amsterdam. Suck it."
Caroline: Yeah, I definitely think there's something in that. You know you can even, because I went to school near Canterbury, taking us to the cathedral, and the associated ridiculous Chaucer based museum was a annual thing. In the stupid Canterbury tales experience, there used to be, I don't know if there still is. There used to be one of those machines where you can put a penny in, and it grinds it and it stretches, and it stamps it with a design they say, is taken from one of the original pilgrim groups or something, which I used to do every single time we went, even though it's really dumb.
Caroline: Yeah, what's interesting about the Thames and religion there is because you've probably heard of this figure called Old Father Thames. This odd, non-denominational deity that nobody really knows. As far as I can tell, no one can really trace it back to any one single source. There are representations of him, going back hundreds of years. He's like a guy with a long flowing beard, often depicted in reliefs on bridges and stuff, just with his face and his. There used to be a statue of him at the source of the Thames that's now been moved slightly further down to a place called Lechlade.
Caroline: I think he looks a bit like Neptune. There are some statues where he has a trident as well. He's just generally, the embodiment of the river in a pagan sense. I can't find any evidence that it's really connected to Christianity or anything like that. It's just, this is the river's God. I really liked ... I found, there's a poem from the 17th century by a poet called John Denham called Cooper's Hill. In it he says, "Thames, the most loved of all the ocean's sons." Quite like that, it's an idea that each river would have his own God, and they were all junior to the ocean.
Amanda: Have you read, The Rivers of London Series by Ben Aaronovitch?
Caroline: I haven't. Loads and loads of people have recommended this to me.
Amanda: I'm sure.
Caroline: No, at least when I did the Thames episode of Shedunnit, and I talked about detective stories that are set on the Thames. So many listeners were like, "You have to read this." No, I haven't got around to it yet, but I really want to. Maybe when I go on holiday this year, that would be a good.
Amanda: Yeah, well you're not required, and probably you know all of the bits that were new to me, through this series. They have a lot of literal daughters of the river. River goddesses, that each have their own estuary based off off the main Thames. It's like mother daughter-type situation. It deals, really interestingly in my opinion, with the bricking over and making underground of so many of the rivers that used to just wind through the country side. Conspirators recommended that book to me, and I think it's lovely.
Julia: That's interesting. We got to pick that up.
Caroline: Yeah, it sounds really, really good. It's also, I slightly know Ben Aaronovitch because he used to be a journalist at the Times, way back when I first started being a journalist. He has this whole other career as serious writer of spy non-fiction.
Caroline: Yeah, so he's, I think, best known in Britain for that kind of stuff. He writes the real life John le Carré type non-fiction about-
Amanda: I didn't know that was a thing, but that makes complete sense.
Caroline: Yeah, it's a massive genre here. It's really popular, but you can read all kinds of stuff into it. They were this famous four. I think they were called the Cambridge Four or something. Famous four Cambridge graduates, who, in the 60s, secretly defected to Russia and then became big MI5, and then eventually got found out. He's written books about that kind of thing. I see his name all the time because there are big posters at stations and stuff, advertising these.
Amanda: That's so funny.
Caroline: I really didn't know until quite recently that he had this whole other series.
Amanda: That he wrote sexy fiction about water, yeah.
Julia: The sexiest fiction about water.
Amanda: A little sexy, a little sexy.
Caroline: Oh no, I'm glad it's sexy. I think that's definitely a underrepresented thing about the Thames as well, but it does have a kind of fertility dimension to it as well. I think partly because of the huge tidal range and stuff. Writers going back centuries have really enjoyed comparing it to the Nile. There's a whole ... Sadly we're totally apocryphal and based on a typo theory, but enjoyable nonetheless. The Latin name for Thames is Tamesis; T-A-M-E-S-I-S. For a very long time, up until the 19th, maybe even early 20th century, there was general agreement that the Thames was the name for the river below Oxford. From the source to Oxford, it was called the Isis, which obviously has Egyptian connotations and all of that.
Caroline: There's a tributary river called the Thame, so T-H-A-M-E, that joins the river just after oxford. Basically there were saying "Isis plus Thame equals Tamesis. That's the name for the Thames. I think lots of Victorian writers enjoyed attributing this to medieval monks and stuff, but there is no evidence for it whatsoever.
Amanda: That's one of my favorite, adorable, OTP portmanteau name.
Caroline: Yeah. It just so happens that the Latin includes the sis suffix. That's it, really.
Amanda: That's just how it be.
Caroline: Yeah, but it is true though, that the Isis is still what people in Oxford call the river. That's where I went to university. People just say, are you rowing on the Isis tomorrow? It's just what you call it. Also, it's a really popular brand name in and around Oxford. There was a famous cheese shop in Central Oxford that had an Isis cheese.
Amanda: Listen, I would buy it, and I can't even eat cheese. I get it.
Julia: You're speaking my language though, because I'll sign up for any kind of mythology inspired cheese.
Amanda: I can't wait to find out more, but first Jules, let's go grab a refill.
Julia: Let's go.
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Amanda: Jules, I'm still getting to know this wonderful neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where the multitudo is located. I made a wonderful discovery last week, which is that there is sushi place nearby that does a teriyaki fried tofu bento box for lunch. I'm so sorry you weren't there the day that we ordered these, because it was so good. You want to know how we got those delivered to our door, so we did not have to leave our air conditioning and go forth and find lunch?
Amanda: It sure was. It genuinely was. It was extremely easy. The DoorDash folks who do the delivery, always know how to get into the building. They read the delivery notes and they know this weird door system that we have, which is really lovely because the last thing I want, is to have to be on the phone for 15 minutes and go outside and try to locate my food. DoorDash is super easy. It has an app where you can choose what you want to eat. Then the dasher will bring it right to you, wherever you are.
Julia: Yeah, you can also, even if you're not in the mood for the sweet corner sushi place that has that teriyaki tofu. Oh my god, now I'm so hungry, you can go to stuff like your favorite chains. They have Chipotle or Wendy's or the Cheesecake factory, which is Amanda's favorite chain restaurant of all time.
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Amanda: Exactly. When you're ready to check out, just put that promo code spirits in for $5 off your first order from DoorDash. Now let's get back to the show.
Caroline: Yeah, there's just loads of stuff called Isis. I don't know if this is real, but I feel like you could stand on Oxford high street and a van would go past being like, "Isis plumbing." Fix your toilet now. That is just a name for stuff. It does have that nice mythological association, I think people enjoy. I found it in all kinds of places. J. M. W. Turner, the painter. He was a big fan of painting the Thames at all points on the river. His paintings and his drawings of the upper Thames, he really liked making it look, for want of a word, mere classical. He used to add temples and stuff, that aren't there. Then he'd title-
Amanda: Oh my gosh, how baffling. Architects or archeologists being like, "Wait. What, huh? Where'd it go?"
Caroline: ... then he'd called the paint ... I think there's a painting called the Isis at weighbridge, and it's got a kind of portico with columns and stuff in it, that just isn't there. I think people have always been obsessed with the idea that, if its name is Isis, then it has classical links, even though it doesn't really.
Amanda: Yeah, are there other ways that people throughout history in Britain have linked or tried to use the Thames in historical continuity, because there's obviously Roman roots. There's a lot of classical studies with a big C. Can you talk a little bit how the river maps on to a self-understanding or a historical understanding?
Caroline: Yeah, that's definitely a big thing. I'd say, one of the biggest associations is with a kind of, for want of a better word, nationhood. A feeling of nationhood, because the Magna Carta, this very important but confusing document from the 13th, 13th century. I want to say 13th century, was signed on the banks of the Thames at a place called Runnymede, just on the western edge of London. It was signed, some people say, on an actual island in the river that's now called Magna Carta island. There's no evidence for that. I think the Victorians just like the idea of it.
Amanda: Yes, surrounded by rushing water on all sides.
Caroline: They built a little gothic cottage on Magna Carta island to commemorate the great ... Anyway, the Magna Carta was this, the end of this dispute between the then, King John and what you learn, when you learn this at school, what they call, the unruly barons. Why they are specifically unruly, I don't know, but they are just always-
Amanda: They wanted stuff?
Julia: They just want to fight.
Caroline: ... they wanted various checks and balances on the power of the monarch. They wanted rules about raising armies and taxation. Basically, they wanted an end to absolute, absolute monarchy.
Julia: Just unruly, Caroline. How dare thee?
Caroline: I always thought unruly was such a weird word for that, because that's a very serious political concern and campaign rather than, just a bit out of order. Anyway.
Amanda: It's like a bunch of toddlers that want a second Popsicle. That's the association that comes to mind for me.
Caroline: There'd been this Civil War raging and the, I think the king had ... That's right, yeah. The King had hold up at Windsor Castle, also on the river Thames, and the barons had taken control of the city of London, and the fortress of the Tower of London. There was this stalemate, where they each had a important strategic stronghold on the river Thames, but they couldn't really go any further. Then a lot of stuff happened but then a peace accord is agreed and King John reluctantly agrees to these various rules and these various things that will curtail his power. They meet at this mid-point, between Windsor and the Tower of London, on the river Thames to sign the Magna Carta, which is just this great list of all the things that he won't do anymore.
Caroline: Historians, it's a big subject, obviously for historians, this period, but historians say that a lot of the Magna Carta was contradictory and completely unenforceable, and didn't really make a huge amount of sense. Didn't necessarily, really change stuff that quickly. Every time in British history since, anyone has had a revolutionary movement or any pro-democratic movement, they've always looked back to the Magna Carta as the "Well, we're just trying to do that."
Caroline: The fact that the chartists in the 18th and 19th century who worked in favor of universal suffrage and all that kind of stuff, they called themselves the chartists because of the link to the Magna Carta. Then even more recently, when the Thatcherite redevelopment of the former dock areas on the Thames got really aggressively capitalist, and the people who actually lived and worked in those areas wanted to object, they called themselves the new chartists. Delivered a petition that, they made look like the Magna Carta, by boat, to the Parliament at Westminster.
Amanda: That's very good.
Caroline: The river is really central to those ideas of liberty verus authoritarianism. It also helps of course, that the palace of Westminster which is where both houses of the British Parliament meet, is right on the river and is actually built on reclaimed land, on the north bank of the river.
Caroline: There used to be a huge medieval palace there, which mostly burned down, apart from the Westminster hall, which is still very old. Then in the 19th century, they built the building that you know from photographs, they built that on a reclaimed island next to it. It's completely falling down and MPs won't fix it. Yay.
Amanda: Government. There seems to be some kind of appeal. You plunk down the seed of government in the literal river, it feels like ... I don't know if it was intentional to be this way, but it feels like a appeal to some kind of, if not divine then geographic source of authority.
Caroline: Definitely. Other really important state buildings are on the river as well, like various royal palaces. There's the MI5 and MI6, the big intelligence agencies are both on the river, on opposite sides, in huge modern buildings, but they were built by the river for the reason. Yeah, there's definitely this idea that the Thames conveys authority and a certain political power. It's so funny that, because the fortunes of the land by the Thames has really seesawed over the centuries, they would built royal palaces by it, but also dreadful, dreadful slums were right by it.
Caroline: For a long time, someone I met in the event the other day said, "You couldn't have paid people to live by the Thames." It was seen as really lower class, poor people. Now all these huge glass tower blocks that are going up by the river, it's incredibly valuable. Not just valuable for people who want to live there, but they have a huge problem in London with people, especially people in Malaysia and China. People who are never planning on ever coming to London, buying London property as an investment. Then keeping it empty, because it goes up in price and up without ever having to actually install tenants. Essentially, buying boxed in air by the Thames makes you money, which is wild, when you talk to the people who have lived by the Thames their whole life, and they remember when you couldn't have paid rich people to come anywhere near it.
Julia: New York has that problem too, doesn't it?
Amanda: Yeah, yeah, it does.
Julia: Got that housing problem. They want to tax the non-occupancy.
Amanda: Empty penthouse is what they call it, which is very catchy. We talked a little bit about locks on the Thames. I know, I have memories of just learning in school, how there were so many boats that you could walk across the Thames without touching the water. How has the current intersection of commerce and the Thames changed throughout history?
Caroline: The Thames for a very, very long time until the very recent past, so the last 50 years or so, it was always a port. It was like a massive market. The meeting of road and river as ever just made it a very popular place for commerce. For a very long time, that all happened in the river itself. Boats would come up the river in the high tide, anchor or raft up by one of the wharfs. Unload and then go back out again.
Caroline: Then in the early 19th century, once the industrial revolution had really gotten underway and London ... It was really, the coal. London needed so much coal, mostly coming down from the northeast of England. There just wasn't space for all the ships. That's when they started digging the docks into the banks of the river, the ones that you can see now where there's a short canal and then the big basin in it. Yeah, all the way through the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, it was a huge, huge enterprise to the point where there were two major floods in the Thames, in the 20th century. One in 1928 and one in 1953. Both times people lost their lives. The second time, hundreds of people lost their lives. Both times, there was a very strong political, like "Yes, something must be done."
Caroline: The obvious thing to do, which was build a flood barrier, change the banks of the Thames, people that way, would have directly impacted on the shipping industry. Nothing was done, because shipping was-
Caroline: ... There is no flood barrier in the Thames, but it didn't open until the early 80s.
Caroline: That was still ... I interviewed the guy who's the, he's the head engineer on the flood barrier now. He said that, they very much saw the building of this as a response to the 1953 flood. It just took 30 years, and for most of the docks to close during that time, to get the political will to actually have it built.
Amanda: Wow. One of my favorite things is to look at a place or a thing that has so much, so much history. Then see how current generations are telling stories about it. I would love to hear if there are any really fascinating urban legends or anything in more recent years that are centered around the Thames.
Caroline: Yeah, there's all kinds of stuff. A lot of them do use past history and then refashion it.
Amanda: My favorite thing.
Caroline: One of my favorite novels is called Down River by a novelist called Iain Sinclair. He's got a character in it who ... He's like a kind of wandering tramp/minstrel type person. His head is just buzzing with history all the time, and he sees it everywhere. One second he's looking at the Thames barrier, shiny, which has got these shiny futuristic piers that look a bit like the points of the Sydney Opera House. He's looking at that. He's thinking that it looks like the old stone alcoves on the old medieval London bridge. He's constantly making the connections.
Caroline: Another story that he's very fond of is, there was a major shipping disaster in the Thames in the late 19th century, where a pleasure steamer sank and hundreds of people drowned in that horrible, mucky sewer. One of the women who was killed by Jack the ripper, a decade of so later, claimed to be a survivor of this ship wreck. She actually wasn't. It was just. She just made it up as an explanation for how she ended up as a sex worker et cetera, et cetera. She liked the story and that the media liked the story at the time, and has liked the time since. He sees her ghost everywhere, and he sees her ghost in modern women walking around, being near the river. I always really liked that as a interface between the two.
Caroline: There's also just lot of very old legends that people still enjoy today. One of my favorite ones is the pigs that live in the river Fleet. Absolutely 100% not true, but there is this very big urban legend that when they closed over the river Fleet or the Fleet ditch as it was know, which was one of the tributaries, there used to be pigs that were bred by people who lived on the banks of this river. When they closed it in, they closed some of the pigs in, under there.
Amanda: Sewer pigs.
Caroline: They interbred and became mutant sewer pigs, I guess.
Julia: That's so good.
Caroline: They're still down there. Every so often, you get, someone saw a sewer pig.
Amanda: I'm just saying, I think the market is there for teenage mutant ninja pigs. It's going to be a spinoff. It's going to be awesome, it's going to be international. I'm very into it.
Julia: They're a little bit tougher than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles though, in the sense that, do you remember Street Sharks? They were very big and they rode ... You know what I'm talking about. I could picture that. Very tough pigs.
Amanda: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Caroline: I've always really liked the sewer pigs. Then there's also just ... I was reading about this the other day. There's this persistent idea that you get every so often, resurfacing on blogs that there's a kind of Thames angel which various ... One blog I found, has published a lot of investigations into this. They are convinced that the most famous sighting in 2006 was 100% a hoax done by a charity called Guardian Angels, in order to promote themselves. The charities never claimed any of the publicity associated with it. I don't know, but yes, someone thought, was on the south bank and thought they saw an angel flying above the Thames and took a photograph in which you can see a kind of white blur, which might be reflections from the water or might just be something on the camera lens or it might be a real angel. Who knows?
Amanda: Who knows?
Caroline: Yeah, so it comes up periodically in ... I've been to a few talks by ... There's this thing called the London Fortean Society, which is just a society of people who like looking for UFO's and that kind of thing.
Julia: My favorite people.
Caroline: Yeah, the Thames angels comes up at their events and stuff like that.
Julia: Now, does the Thames angel do anything or the Thames angel is just flying around on the Thames?
Caroline: Just flying around, from what I can tell. Yeah, I think people like to think of it as a guardian angel protecting the city. Protecting the people, but I think, just flying around.
Julia: Okay, cool. It's very interesting. Just the idea of an angel occupying the Thames is fascinating on its own, even if it's not doing anything besides flying.
Amanda: Yeah, I'm sure there are a ton of deaths and crimes associated with that area, both because of the underdevelopment from the city and also just how dangerous the docks and shipping are. Either the angel helps keep that number down, lower than it would be, or the angel's just chilling and has more of a Laissez-faire, like predestination approach.
Caroline: I also think that if the angel had appeared on Wandsworth Common or something, it would not have persisted in accounts in the same way. You might have got the same type of photographs. People might have still talked about it, but I just think the Thames angel just immediately works as a brand name, shall we say.
Julia: Yeah. No, for sure. Oh man, I love that.
Amanda: I love all the history you've given us, Caroline. I'm so excited to read the book because of the personal mythology and the personal angle of your growing up and your family's history with the Thames. How did that impact you, growing up? Did you hate it because your parents loved it? Then you came to appreciate it later in life? Can you give us a little preview of that arc?
Caroline: Yeah, exactly what you just said actually. That's pretty much, it. That yeah, I, like all teenagers. I really enjoyed it as a child. I didn't really realize how unusual it was, to get to spend all our time sailing and stuff. Once I became a teenager and became a bit more aware that people I went to school with, they went on holidays to beaches. They didn't go to muddy estuaries and sit on a boat for days on end. Sea sickness didn't feature heavily in their holidays, where it did in mine.
Caroline: Then I became really grumpy and sulky about it, and used to moan about it constantly and so on. Then I came out the other side of that, I guess in my 20s when I really understood how incredibly privileged that was. Also, just I think once you're more of an adult yourself, you get to understand that your parents are separate people too, and are allowed to have their own interests. You don't necessarily have to share in them.
Caroline: My sister for instance, she had the same thing as me, but she hasn't really come back around to it at all. She would happily just not have anything to do with it anymore. Whereas I actually now, quite enjoy it and I enjoy hearing about their sailing. I enjoy joining them when I can. Yeah, and I've got really into the Thames and its mythology and stuff. Yeah, so I think definitely, that journey from unawareness to awareness, and hating it. Then awareness and acceptance let's say, is yeah, a very big part of the book.
Amanda: At the end of this journey of research, or at least culminating in the book. I'm sure you'll be reading and researching for a long time to come. Is there any predominant emotion or association that you feel now, when you do walk over a bridge or walk by the side of the Thames?
Caroline: I think it goes back to what we were saying at the beginning. I just feel ... Such a cheesy thing to say, I still feel very much like a student of the whole thing. Just seeing it again for myself just reminds me how much I don't know. When the day that my book came out, my publishers had a launch, and beforehand they took me out for a drink on this pub that I'd never been to, called the Samuel Pepys, which has this amazing under ... You go into the pub on one level and then you go down some stairs and then there's a balcony that sticks out over the Thames, which-
Julia: Oh, that's so cool.
Caroline: ... I've never been too. It was really cool. Even just that. I was like, "Wow, I really thought I knew all of the places where you could get a good view of the Thames, and I just don't." Yeah, every time I go there, I feel like I learn more things that I don't know.
Amanda: The river runs on.
Julia: Wow, I love that.
Amanda: Thank you so much for coming on the show, to tell us all about the Thames and your favorite memories and histories of it. Please let everybody know where they can buy a copy of the book and where they can also listen to and read your work online?
Caroline: The book is called, The Way to the Sea. You can buy it ... This is slightly frustrating. If you're in Britain, you can buy it at any bookshop. I believe also, Ireland and Australia have it in bookshops. If you're in America, I don't have an American publisher and so it's not distributed physically in the U.S. You can buy it from U.K. online retailers including Amazon. They will ship it to you, but that does cost a bit more. You can buy an eBook version from Amazon and obviously, read it.
Amanda: I'm sure, ask your library to pick up a copy, and they may do so.
Caroline: Yeah, very good idea. Then otherwise, you can find me at my podcast; Shedunnit, which is at shedunnitshow.com and generally on Twitter, which is c_crampton. Yeah, I think that's all the relevant links.
Julia: Shedunnit is so good. Just repeating it for the 10th time on the show. It's fantastic. I listened to the Thames episode yesterday that you did, and it just blew me away.
Caroline: Oh, thank you. I really enjoyed doing it. Actually, it didn't occur to me until quite later on that, that was a good idea, if you know what I mean. I kept the Thames-
Amanda: Too close to you.
Caroline: ... I kept the Thames so separate. I was like, "Because this is detective fiction. Then there's this other thing I'm working on." I was like, "I actually know these two things overlap in a really interesting way."
Amanda: Murders, but make it river. I love it.
Julia: Just the theme of our show.
Amanda: Right on. Thank you again, Caroline. Listeners remember, stay creepy, stay cool.