Sweet Thames, run softly

Spring 1977. A tiny tutorial room in an ordinary Scottish secondary school, in a small North East market town.  A dozen or so final year students, taking Certificate of Sixth Year Studies English (now the 'Advanced Higher' qualification).  All of us being challenged by our first encounter with 'The Waste Land', by T. S. Eliot.  For me, as the poem unfolded with each lesson, it was a sense of opening up to a new world.  We weren't taught to a national lesson plan or detailed marking scheme, as sadly seems to be the case nowadays.  We were simply led to a love of literature, to trust our personal response.  Every spring I remember that sense of discovery.  But I hadn't realised how deeply 'The Waste Land' had sunk into my being until we were in London recently.  We stayed in a hotel near the Thames, crossed and re-crossed bridges over the Thames, walked along the Embankment, and took a boat from Westminster to Greenwich.  And throughout, the river images from 'The Waste Land' came unbidden into my mind.

The first two photographs are my daughter's.  There are no rainbows in 'The Waste Land', but they show another face of the river so I had to include them.  I have to confess a technology fail - they were taken on an iPhone, which doesn't seem to like transferring to larger format photos.

Back to my own camera for this shot down river to the London Eye.  We were having breakfast over the river, in a little cafe at Lambeth Pier which juts out over the water.  

We took a slow tourist boat down to Greenwich.  We could have taken one of the fast Thames Clippers, which are used by commuters, but we wanted to take in the detail of the passing riverbanks.  And there were so many details. I was so fascinated that I forgot to take photos.  We passed the mouths of small rivers trickling down narrow creeks, of disused locks; shingle beaches and patches of sand; Shakespearean pubs; a floating police station. So many different faces of the river.  I thought I spotted the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr, whose walls 'hold inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold'. 

Tower Bridge, below, seems to be supported by the pinnacle of the Shard, London's newest tallest building.  Of course I looked for Eliot's crowd flowing over it.


One of the many surprises for me was the number of working boats on the river.  I could imagine myself on Eliot's Thames of 1922.

The river sweats 
Oil and tar 
The barges drift 
With the turning tide 
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar. 
The barges wash 
Drifting logs 
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

Even at the time I was aware that our teaching in English that year was something extraordinary.  Nearly 40 years on the fact that one of the highlights for me of a family trip to London was to experience anew a poem first encountered in that small, bare tutorial room is a tribute to a gifted teacher.  Thank you, Sandy Gibb.


  1. Sad to hear your educational system has gone the way of ours as well...When I went through our school system, they taught us how to think...now it's all about passing the test...

    1. We do have a new curriculum coming in, aspirationally called 'Curriculum for Excellence'. Yes, that's the official name. Since my children are out of school now I don't have first hand experience of it. If I had a third child I would strongly consider the International Baccalaureate, which my children's school is now offering. http://www.gwc.org.uk/our-school/senior-school/curriculum/the-international-baccalaureate-diploma-programme/

  2. A lovely post, Linda! I've never done a boat along the Thames but now I think I must.

    1. There are several companies to choose from, and several speeds of journey. We had an informative commentary on our journey. It was quite breezy out on the river - I imagine that on hot summer days it would be a great way to cool off in the middle of the city.

  3. Very picturesque post. I've never read the poem you mentioned. I have taken that boat ride down the Thames. It's definitely an experience. Another friend of mine posted some shots she did in Trafalgar Square. That and this post have made me homesick for London today. I hope to return. I really enjoyed the three months I spent there as an exchange student.

  4. "The Eye" - always reminds me of Sherlock, which reminds me of Benedict Cumberbatch. 8-)

    I wish we had a real pub around here... Long Island has everything except a real honest-to-goodness pub. Near my house, of course.


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