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The reborn River Thames

Sinclair McKay -

A royal barge, glittering with gold, sails down the Thames in a dazzling flotilla of 1,000 ships, while on the banks of the river, the air is filled with the rich melodic peals of old church bells and the evening sky blazes with fireworks… These, of course, are the plans being drawn up for next year’s Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty. But they would have sounded extremely familiar to the first Queen Elizabeth, too. She was quite an expert when it came to turning the river into grand theatre.

The idea of this Thames pageant, an “avenue of sail”, is not only an inspiring echo of earlier historical spectacle, it confirms the fact that the Thames – not so long ago a filthy, technically “dead” river – has now been miraculously restored to life in every sense. When the Queen makes this voyage from Putney to Greenwich in 2012 she will be sailing on waters that ripple with vivid history and surprising new vitality.

. . .The notion of grand celebratory royal processions on the Thames began with Henry VIII and continued with Elizabeth I. In the 16th century, jostling on these waters, under the windows of grand Thames-side houses belonging to the gentry, there would be boats festooned with cloths of gold, rich tapestries and flags with tiny bells sewn in so that when they blew in the wind there were hundreds of little chimes. These were extraordinary displays of beauty and power.

Today, says McKay, "This is one of the greatest urban waterfronts in the world".

But it is also, upstream, a river which Edmund Spencer knew -

When I (whom sullen care,

Through discontent of my long fruitless stay

In prince's court, and expectation vain

Of idle hopes, which still do fly away

Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain),

Walk'd forth to ease my pain

Along the shore of silver-streaming Thames;

Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems,

Was painted all with variable flowers,

And all the meads adorn'd with dainty gems

Fit to deck maidens' bowers,

And crown their paramours,

Against the bridal day, which is not long:

Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.

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