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Literature & The River

The Thames is mentioned in many works of literature including novels, diaries and poetry. It is the central theme in three in particular.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, first published in 1889, is a humorous account of a boating holiday on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford. The book was intended initially to be a serious travel guide, with accounts of local history of places along the route, but the humorous elements eventually took over. The landscape and features of the Thames as described by Jerome are virtually unchanged, and enduring humour has meant that it has never been out of print since it was first published.

Charles Dickens Our Mutual Friend (written in the years 1864–65) describes the river in a grimmer light. It begins with a scavenger and his daughter pulling a dead man from the river near London Bridge, to salvage what the body might have in its pockets, and heads to its conclusion with the deaths of the villains drowned in Plashwater Lock upstream.The workings of the river and the influence of the tides are described with great accuracy. Dickens opens the novel with this sketch of the river, and the people who work on it:

In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in. The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a girl of nineteen or twenty. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waisteband, kept an eager look-out.

Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows written in 1908 is set in the middle to upper reaches of the river. This starts as a tale of gentle anthropomorphic animals "simply messing" about on the water and concludes with the arrogant and anti-social Mr Toad getting his come-uppance on a river barge.

The river almost inevitably features in many books set in London. Most of Dickens' other novels include some aspect of the Thames. Oliver Twist finishes in the slums and rookeries along its south bank. Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle often visit riverside parts as in The Sign of Four. In Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the serenity of the contemporary Thames is contrasted with the savagery of the Congo River, and with the wilderness of the Thames as it would have appeared to a Roman soldier posted to Britannia two thousand years before. Conrad also gives a description of the approach to London from the Thames Estuary in his essays The Mirror of the Sea (1906). Up river, Henry James Portrait of a Lady uses a large riverside mansion on the Thames as one of its key settings.

Literary non-fiction works include Samuel Pepys diary, in which he recorded many events relating to the river including the Fire of London. He was disturbed while writing it in June 1667 by the sound of gunfire as Dutch warships broke through the Royal Navy on the river.

The Water Music composed by George Frideric Handel premiered in the summer of 1717 (July 17, 1717) when King George I requested a concert on the River Thames. The concert was performed for King George I on his barge and he is said to have enjoyed it so much that he ordered the 50 exhausted musicians to play the suites three times on the trip.

 
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