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River Thames: Some Useful Facts about This Scenic River

The River Thames

River Thames, in southeastern England, is a river rising in Gloucestershire among the Cotswold Hills, flowing eastward past London, and emptying into the North Sea at The Nore, a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames estuary about 48 miles (77 km) east of London Bridge.

The river's source is usually said to be at Thames Head, 3 miles (5 km) southwest of Cirencester, 210 miles (338 km) from The Nore. Another source claimed for it is at Seven Springs, 4 miles (6 km) southeast of Cheltenham. Streams from these sources unite near Cricklade, where the Thames is 237 feet (72 meters) above sea level.

During the Roman occupation of Britain, the Thames was named Tamesis. Joining the upper Thames just below Oxford is the tributary Thame (pronounced tame). Medieval scholars believed the Latin name Tamesis was made up of the words Thame and Isis. Thus the upper Thames is often called the Isis.

Course of the River

The Thames is not normally a fast-flowing river. The width increases gradually from 150 feet (45 meters) at Oxford; to 800 feet (240 meters) at London Bridge; 2,100 feet (640 meters) at Gravesend, near the river's mouth; and 5.5 miles (8.8 km) at The Nore.

Ancient fords and crossing places on the Thames provided sites for historic cities and towns such as Oxford, Abingdon, Wallingford, Reading, Marlow, Maidenhead, Windsor, Staines, Kingston, and, of course, London, founded at the lowest fordable point.

There are many highway and railway bridges across the Thames, chiefly in Greater London. The most famous, London Bridge, was sold to an American and shipped to Arizona in 1968. It has been replaced by a concrete structure.

Above Oxford the Thames is navigable only by craft such as punts and canoes. From Oxford to London it is used by barges and small steamers and by numerous sailboats, motorboats, and other pleasure craft. Below London it supports a great system of docks. Oceangoing liners call at Tilbury, below London. There are also harbor and dock facilities in the estuary of the Medway River, a branch of the Thames estuary.

The Grand Union Canal connects the lower Thames and the English Midlands, and vehicular tunnels pass under the river at Rotherhithe, Blackwall, and Dartford. East of London much of the riverside is reclaimed marshland, and there are many factories and industrial buildings. Near the river mouth, however, are resorts such as Margate and Southend-on-Sea.

The Scenic River

The Thames above London is mainly a pleasure river. Famous sporting events are the Henley Regatta and the annual boat race between the crews of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. A succession of regattas is held at riverside towns throughout the summer. A footpath follows the river on one bank or the other from Putney to Lechlade.

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From its source to the outskirts of London the Thames displays some of the finest river scenery in England. Its early course is among low-lying meadows. At Oxford it offers attractive views of that lovely old city. Thence it gradually approaches the splendidly wooded escarpment by Goring, where the river has cut a gap dividing the Chiltern from the White Horse hills.

An even finer tree-covered escarpment -most beautiful of all Thames reaches- is that at Cliveden, between Cookham and Maidenhead. The river continues past Windsor and Eton to Hampton Court Palace, Richmond, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. A notable point below London is Greenwich, where the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Naval College are situated.

Jurisdiction and Control

The Port of London Authority, which was established in 1909, is responsible for the navigating safety of the tidal portion of the Thames. The nontidal portion was the responsibility of the Thames Conservancy from its incorporation in 1857 until 1974.

The National Rivers Authority now oversees the nontidal section of the river, maintaining navigation, registering boats, protecting fisheries, and gauging and recording the river's daily flow. It also attends to river quality and fisheries in the tidal portion.

Measured at Teddington, the Thames's long-term mean daily rate of flow is 77 cubic meters (100.7 cu yd) per second; the highest rate ever recorded was 1,065 cubic meters (1,393 cu yd) per second, in 1894. To control flooding in central London due to high tides and unfavorable winds, a movable flood barrier was built at Woolwich, which began operation in 1982.

Until the incorporation of the Thames Conservancy, the city of London had jurisdiction over the Thames as far as Staines, where a stone monument erected in 1285 marks the old limit.

By arrangement with the National Rivers Authority, which is under statutory obligation to maintain a minimum daily flow at Teddington, water is drawn from the Thames for domestic uses at Oxford, Staines, and at Hampton for London, which is by far the biggest user. Two-thirds of London's water is drawn from the Thames.

One of the first acts of the Thames Conservancy on its incorporation in 1857 was to set about controlling pollution of the river. Today it is claimed that the Thames above Teddington is technically clean throughout its length and supports more angling and pleasure navigation than any other river of similar size in the world.


Since prehistoric times the Thames Valley has provided a route into England for immigrant tribes from Europe, and important remains have been found in the gravels of the London Basin. In 1935–1936 at Swanscombe, Kent, were found fragments of the skull of a young girl who belonged to the hand-ax culture of the mid-Acheulean period (about 200,000 B.C.).

Other discoveries have included bones of mammoth, rhinoceros, elephant, and musk-ox. Remains of Bronze Age canoes of oak were found at North Woolwich, and several Roman boats have been uncovered. Neolithic pottery and flints were found at Staines in 1962.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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