Environment

A year on the River Thames, part one – in pictures | UK news

orfter my initial elation on receiving an email from work suggesting a year-long project photographing the River Thames, from its source to the sea, I wondered whether I was given this project to lift my spirits. It had been a tough eight months: tragic sibling loss, parental loss, precarious finances, family illness.

But something only two minutes from my door seemed to help: the River Thames. I’ve always headed to the river: on it, in it, across it, cycling next to it. It’s always been where I liked to wander.

To be able to immerse myself in a place I feel so connected with was truly quite incredible. Seventeen years ago, as a new mother, I would breastfeed while watching the changing dawn light on Tower Bridge from my home.

Sunrise over Tower Bridge

Before a courtroom across the road was converted into a hotel, I could easily see when the bascules were raised. I like it so much that if I ever see anyone on the riverbank not paying attention to a Tower Bridge lift, I interrupt them and tell them to look at what I call the eighth wonder of the world.

When my son, Ned, was nine years old, he wrote a letter to the bridge-master, telling them all about living near Tower Bridge and, as a result, he was invited to raise it. Some pressure for nine-year-old, especially when his form teacher wanted to be there to watch. Ned’s certificate still hangs on our kitchen wall.

Shadows of boat passengers on Tower Pier

I used to live even closer to the river in 1993, above a chip shop on Tooley Street, now the HQ of the Body Shop. My flatmate Jo and I had to pull the exterior metal shutters up if we came home after the chippy had closed. But my bedroom had an uninterrupted view across the river to the Tower.

Our backyard was the entire area of ​​what is now More London, a development on the south bank. The view now would be the metal facade of the back of the law firm Norton Rose.

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During marathon training, heading east along the river meant committing to a long-haul run that used to take me through the Greenwich foot tunnel, which I used to call the “Mr Mamood tunnel”. A previous tunnel lift attendant, whenasked if he allowed cyclists in the lift, replied: “It depends on… ma mood.”

When I’m away from the river, I miss it and love crossing Tower Bridge knowing I’m nearly home.

As well as the space and my favorite time of slack water, it’s the human encounters that make the river what it is. Mudlarking friends, people on benches, seven-year-old sea scouts in sandwich boards, brothers chilling on pillboxes, waitresses in the cafes along the bank.

The Key family in a cafe
Dan and Colm

  • Brothers, Dan and Colm chilling on Stone Ness pillbox near Purfleet. I loved our chat about photography. They are both avid photographers. Dan is doing a project on Colm, seven years younger.

Pool players seen through window

The 90-year-olds enjoying a birthday, all nighters who do not mind me joining them to watch the sunrise at spring equinox, the last family to leave the beach in Southend and my kayaking friends – who I will never fail to holler across to if I see them on the river.

Three young people

Harry, the boss of the London Kayak company, tells his clients: “She’s a harmless mad woman who we see regularly.” Maybe he’s not far wrong.

I recently took my bike to Goring-on-Thames to start exploring upriver. It’s posh up there.

Mandy working on boat
Mandy and her new elastic
A beer on board
Low bridge seen from beneath

I confess I was expecting toffs, picnics of Pimm’s and far too consciously considered cutlery. So what an absolute joy it was to meet down-to-earth Mandy, replacing the elastic on the boat window side panel, and within moments be invited, with my bike, onboard their Freeman boat for a beer and a short excursion to a magnificent bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Oli and Ashlyn with picnic
Barge named Payback
Murphy the dog, wet

And Whitchurch Bridge toll booth Debbie, who clearly adores her job despite the grief she gets from drivers at the 60p charge per crossing.

Debbie at the toll booth

Off-roading, I tried to keep pace with a large cruiser, which was pulsing with the sounds of music, drinking and mayhem. I caught up with it when it became grounded beside a meadow near Pangbourne. The Watson family from Sheffield were on their long-awaited annual Easter weekend river trip. I asked one of the lads if he enjoyed the weekend. “It’s the highlight of my year,” he said. I could see why, but I was so worried about them, I sent “Pirate Capt” Rob a message the next day: “I hope you are all still dry and alive.”

Freeing grounded boat

  • With almost all hands on deck, the Watson family from Sheffield, on their annual holiday, managed to free their grounded boat near Purley-on-Thames.

“I’m glad our under-control shambolic scenario brought a smile to your day,” Rob replied. Messing about in boats never rang so true.

Following up a kind recommendation, I pushed my bike up the steep incline to the top of Hartslock nature reserve. There were a few indignant glares from some hikers as my phone starting ringing. It was my dad. After his stroke in December, Dad’s struggling to find words, but he had mastered the 21st-century technology of FaceTiming – and daily calls had become a daily occurrence. I was worried the incredible view might upset him – he used to be a regular walker – but I took the risk and showed him what I was seeing. “That’s a high elevation,” he said. I was gobsmacked. Spontaneous comments may be less tricky than considered prose.

Hartslock

I’m now sitting writing this next to my dad, who is poorly and back in James Cook hospital with pneumonia. I’ve just recounted the recent FaceTime journey we took together last month from Teddington to Kew, with me cycling along the towpath as I held out my phone so Dad could watch the Thames in its glorious twilight hour. I can see it meant as much to him as it meant to me. Thank you, Father Thames.

Grays Beach riverside park
Shot of river from roof of pub

Boat Race Day

I’ve never watched the Boat Race in real life, so I breathed a sigh of relief when, on the day, I spotted my brilliant colleague Tom Jenkins working there. So I relaxed, safe in the knowledge that he’d file phenomenal photos of the crucial moments. I ended up in the attic of the Waterman’s Arms trying to catch something decent of the final stretch.

Oxford University rowers
Rowers boarding boat
Cameras
Oxford University rowers carry boat

Thank goodness I also hung around the Putney club houses – like a sort of “rowing groupie” – for a couple of days before the race. On my first day, I was standing at 7.30am on a jetty as I watched a boat leave the shore with a sinking feeling that I was supposed to be on it.

Claire Balding and BBC OB team
Parents in boat

I’d like to say a special thank-you to the lovely parents of Oxford cox Jack Tottem, who I eventually had the good fortune to share a boat with and who very kindly helped to caption my photos.

Bertie Winter raising money
Whiskered gentleman in longcoat and boater
Family seated on grass

  • I met this family on Boat Race day. For the last 20 years they have always cheered at the milepost. It’s an important family tradition for them, standing in rain, hail or sunshine. The grandfather has been watching the Boat Race since 1970, the year he met his wife.

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