Sunday 23rd at 1:00pm
Right in front of Big Ben
* Instructions: in order to complete this walk, one may take bus 53 to Whitehall and Horse Guards or bus 453 towards Deptford Bridge from New Cross Gate Station. Estimated arrival time: 40 minutes depending on traffic.
As I embark on this journey via foot, I have been careful to remain unsure of what to expect. In the very true nature of the flaneur practicing flanerie, I am attempting to find some questions and answers as I walk the River Thames near Westminster. I leave with the intention to observe the “language of the streets,” through sight seeing (Coverley, 2012). Intrigued by the writings and historical work of Samuel Pepys, I discovered I was fairly interested in The Great Plague and his experience living in London during this period of epidemic illness, death, and ultimate cultural renewal. My walk begins right across the Palace of Westminster. According to the diary of Pepys a regular route of his stretched all the way from Westminster Hall to the Tower of London in the East (Easton, 2005). I had originally thought I would walk the route of Fleet Street where many of Samuel Pepys offices or places of work were located, or perhaps Pudding Lane,which was the starting point of the destructive Great Fire of London. Instead once I arrived near the River Thames questions had already begun to arise. How had the plague affected the cleanliness of the River Thames? What environmental aftermaths of history can we find today in the river? Simply walking along the edges of the River Thames, I stopped to notice the murky green waters and wondered what was under its depths. Excerpts from Samuel Pepys diary reveal that people escaped the plague near Charing Cross and White Hall (Pepys, 1666). Charing Cross is about a 1/2 mile walk from the Palace of Westminster , and close enough to be a place where perhaps people sought refuge from the deathly plague. In his diary Pepys writes that he kept his family hidden near Woolworth and Greenwhich (Pepys, 1666). One blog post notes in reference to Pepys, what are the “plague houses,” boarded up and painted with red crosses, noting the presence of illness and death were here (Rennie, 2011) To follow blog: http://eastlondonhistory.com/2011/06/16/the-plague-the-thames/ . This brings in the question of sanitation to a greater extent.
The walk begins right outside of Big Ben right by the corner of Westminster, where I take my first steps forward to cross the street. As I cross, I pass hoards of tourists. Groups of people all rushing past, it is difficult to imagine that this section of Westminster could ever be empty, as it is still packed even on a Sunday afternoon. I start by walking past some food vendors, and down the left side of the Thames. Past boat tours, bikes that are stationed, and a War memorial. I then cross over to the Golden Jubilee Bridge. People are still walking about this popular tourist attraction, lining up on the right hand side from my position to see attractions, such as Sea Life Aquarium and the London Eye. The display of street performers is interesting ranging from people dressed as golden statues, to Star Wars impersonators and singers covering songs by Taylor Swift. It’s the meeting place of history and commercialism. There’s so much buzz and activity happening, I wonder how much revenue this one part of London must bring into the city. This section of London embodies the rush of a city, and the rush of a living, breathing, and working economy. The line for the London Eye isn’t horrendously long- probably because it’s a Sunday afternoon- but it does stretch back a good length. Passing all the road side attractions, I finally make my way up to the stairs leading back to the Westminster side. I have to wait about 3 minutes to allow the groups of people to pass, so I can make it up by the right side. As I walk, I become aware of my belongings, and make sure to place my small purse in front of me with my hand over it. It crosses my mind, that this motion of protecting baggage has become second-natured, due to prior experiences traveling. I remember to place purses and bags in front of me whenever I can, when I am exploring the city.
Even on a Sunday afternoon I am struck by the sheer crowds of people, walking all along the River Thames. True, this is a central location for many Londoners and also a world renowned tourist destination, and I realized how impossible it was for me to imagine these streets ever being fully empty. As I walked along the left side, starting up by Big Ben and heading down towards the Golden Jubilee Bridge I was struck by the modes of transportation available. I passed by bright yellow colored bikes, boats, some sightseeing others industrial, a Tube station, black taxis, regular vehicles, and double deckers. I remembered the power of a River City- and how much revenue it brings in. Through tourism and a long tradition of trade, a river represents mass value. I learned this when I lived in Seville, Spain and became aware of how people responded to a river within a city. Due to easy access the amount of attractions near where I walked, there was simply so much available to do. From the Sea Life Aquarium, to sightseeing boat tours, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, to the London Eye there was one word that kept coming to mind: revenue, revenue, revenue.
Even walking lead me to see a variety of landmarks at no cost. From historical monuments, to street food, street performers, there’s so much for the singular walking person to take in and observe. I was left wondering just how much the River Thames has changed since the 1600s, what Pepys would think of the industrialization of London since his time, and how the River Thames is cared for environmentally. When I research the key terms: London, Thames River, and Economy one of the first articles to pop up is an article explaining why the River Thames is vital to London in terms of the Economy. According to a British government site, London itself brought in around “30% of the UK’s total economic growth, between 2000 and 2009,” (Thames Water, 2012). The article continues to point out that the population in London is only expected to increase, therefore the Thames is needed to bring in good and consistent construction jobs for citizens (Thames Tunnel, 2012). There is a brief mentioning in the articles of hopes to make the new construction on the Thames environmentally and eco-friendly. It writes that the sewage system is “outdated” and needs to be updated, and without any updates it could overflow causing more harm and environmental damage. This also points out another reason why the City of London needs the Thames for the national sewage system (Thames Tunnel, 2012).
Pollution and the River Thames have a long, complicated, and intertwining relationship. Dating back to the Industrial Revolution the rise of sea transport which includes modes such as ships and commercial fishing have increased pollutants in the Thames waters. Because of this there is close to no fish life in the Thames River (Wheeler, 1969). According to one study, there is still hope for the revival of fish as they have been seen migrating towards cleaner waters indicating a predisposition for adaptability (Wheeler, 1969). Another study conducted found that the polluted nutrients from the River Thames have been destroying soil and have been having detrimental affects on the British agricultural system (Neal et al., 2002). Yet another reason the Thames needs to be kept clean, as it affects the national production of food supply. Through observing the murky and overused waters, I can see that initiatives are necessary in the River Thames which remains a thriving industrial global port.
As I conclude a second walk around this particular section of Westminster, I am left with the question of what can we conclude are the connections between Pepys and the River Thames? As my original question of pursuing more insights about the plague have altered, I must deduce that the river nonetheless, played an important role in Samuel Pepys’ life. He at least must’ve passed it on a daily basis while heading towards work and would have observed some of the rise of pollution while on his way to work. The economic value of the river would have also impacted Pepys’ life just as any other Londoner benefiting from the trade opportunities it provides. Due to a lack of knowledge and technology, however, it is unlikely that Pepys would have been pushing for sustainability initiatives. It appears as though the plague may not have affected the river as much as industrialization itself and the city is still dealing with the aftermath of over- pollution. From walking unsurely myself around the same paths as Pepys, I have been able to uncover his thought processes and make more of a connection to how he viewed the landscape and the city of London at large.
Coverley, M. (2012) The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker (Harpenden: Oldcastle Books).
Neal, C., Jarvie, H.P., Wade, A.J. and Whitehead, P.G. (2002) ‘Water quality functioning of lowland permeable catchments: Inferences from an intensive study of the river Kennet and upper river Thames’, Science of The Total Environment, s 282–283, pp. 471–490. doi: 10.1016/S0048-9697(01)00930-5.
Pepys, S. (1906) ‘The diary of Samuel Pepys’, The Modern Language Review, 1(2), p. 162. doi: 10.2307/3713771.
Thames Water. Why Does London’s Economy Need the Thames Tunnel? (Accessed: 6 November 2016).
Wheeler, A. (1969) ‘Fish-life and pollution in the lower Thames: A review and preliminary report’, Biological Conservation, 2(1), pp. 25–30. doi: 10.1016/0006-3207(69)90108-6.