Review: Thames – Sacred River

This review originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle volume 14, issue 4 (Winter 2013-4)

Thames - Sacred River by Peter Ackroyd. Vintage Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0099422556

This book is a companion piece of sorts to Ackroyd’s 2001 biography” of London, and was subsequently turned into a TV series. Ackroyd is a Londoner with a deep-rooted love of his city, and so you might expect him to write as though the source of the Thames lies at Teddington Lock, but nothing could be further from the truth. He provides an overview of the entire length of the river “from source to sea”, frequently echoing Thomas Hardy’s dichotomy between Wessex (in the form of the clear waters of the Upper Thames) as representing purity and simplicity, while London acts as a metaphor for pollution, both physical and moral. I am drawing a discreet veil over Buckinghamshire and Surrey, as they mess up the analogy somewhat! The name Isis, which these days is rarely used to denote anything other than the Thames in Oxford, once referred to the river anywhere above Dorchester-on-Thames. Perhaps Wessex Society could attempt to reclaim the original usage, as the contrast between the pure water of the Isis in Wessex and the filthy open sewer that flows through London could serve as a vivid reminder of that which we seek to preserve (the Thames in London may be cleaner now that at any point in its recorded history, but tonnes of raw sewage are still regularly discharged into it during periods of flooding). Possibly those of a pagan bent could also read something into the fact that the Isis is feminine, named after a goddess, while the Thames is commonly referred to as masculine (one of only two masculine rivers in England, according to Ackroyd, the other being the fast-flowing, aggressive Derwent). Though perhaps one should be careful when talking about “Isis defiled”, as such language could very easily get a bit rapey.

The book is divided into 45 chapters, organised somewhat haphazardly into 15 sections, each dealing with a different aspect of the river. Some of these chapters come across as little more than laundry lists, but all of them contain at least one nugget of fascinating information, and most of them contain many more. The bulk of the book is ordered thematically rather than topographically, but there is a section at the end tracing the course of the river from its source in Gloucestershire to the Isle of Sheppey, after which it empties into the North Sea.

It is impossible to do justice to the scope of this book in such a short review, and it would be hard to imagine anything connected to the river that Ackroyd doesn’t cover in its pages. While not specifically a book about Wessex, it has much to say to Wessex Society members in their quest to articulate an identity for the region, or at least its northern half. For this reason, I heartily recommend it.

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