you leave King William-street just at the foot of London-bridge and turn to the
right, you will find your way into a set of narrow and steep streets, few only
of which admit of carriage and horse traffic. The lower stories of the houses
are let out as offices, and the upper as warehouse floors; the pavement is
narrow and the road as bad as broken stones and long neglect can make it; dirty
boys in sailors’ jackets play at leap-frog over the street posts ; legions of
wheel-barrows encumber the broader parts of these thoroughfares; packing-cases
stand at the doors of houses, and cranes and levers peep out from the upper
stories. Such are the streets which lead down to the banks of the Thames. It is
altogether a dusty, filthy, “uncannie” quarter. A few steps through a black,
cornery, nondescript structure of sooty brick and mortar, covered all over with
immense shipping advertisements in all colours, and we stand on the bank of the
river. An entirely new scene is opened before our eyes.
Close to our left the mighty grey arches of London-bridge rise up from the river. We look under them downwards where the last ocean ships are crowded together on their moorings, where the distant masts are lost in the haze, and where ocean-life finds its limits, because the bridges prevent those large ships from passing up the river. We look in an opposite direction along the broad expanse of water, with busy little steamers rushing frantically in every conceivable direction; we look up to the parapet of London-bridge, where, high as it is, we see the heads of the passengers, and the crowded roofs of the omnibuses; we look over to the other bank, where a thousand high chimneys vomit forth their smoke and we behold Southwark, that amiable appendix to the metropolis, which at this day has its six hundred thousand inhabitants; and lastly, we look straight down before our feet where half a dozen steamers, closely packed together, dance up and down on the waves; where steam rushes forth noisily from narrow pipes, where hundreds of men, women, and children, run about in inextricable confusion pushing their way to the shore, to one of the boats, or from one boat to another; where the paddles beat the water and the boys start the machinery by shrill screams, while the mooring barges creak as the ropes are drawn tight. We look and behold this is the Thames. This is the great, living, fabulous, watery high-road in the heart of the British metropolis.
They have abused thee sadly, thou grey Thames, for the filth of thy waters and the fogs which arise from thee. But most unjustly hast thou been abused. At Lechlade where the four rivulets from the Cotswolds join into a river, thy waters are as pure and pellucid as the Alpine streams which spring forth from the glacier. At Lechlade there are no fogs obscuring thy surface; there the air is pure ; there art thou romantic and idyllic, innocent alike of the temptations of the world and the vice and filth of the greatest town. For many, many miles further down to Kew and Richmond thou art beautiful to behold, flowing through the emerald green of the meadows and the deep luscious green of the bush, a mirror for the lordly villas and charming cottages which stud thy banks. But most rapidly dost thou rush forward to thy metamorphosis! Most quickly dost thou expand into a broad, grey, elderly man of business. He who saw thee at Richmond will not know thee again at Westminster; and the travelling stranger who only beheld thee between the bridges of the metropolis has not the faintest idea of thy beauties at Richmond. The grey business atmosphere of London has cast its gloom upon thee, as well as on the stones, the houses, and the human beings that inhabit them.
But, whatever the Thames may lose in romance, it gains in the grandeur and importance of its appearance. Its breadth increases with every step. Navigable to the length of 180 English miles, with a tidal rise to the extent of seventy miles, the Thames takes the largest merchantmen to the immediate vicinity of London-bridge; and as the tide is going out it takes them back, without the help of oars, sails, or steam-tugs. Nature has made the Thames the grandest of all trading rivers; it gave it a larger share of the ocean tides than it ever bestowed on any other river in Europe.
At the Land’s End the tides from the Atlantic are divided into two distinct streams. One rushes up the Channel, and round the North Foreland into the mouth of the Thames; the other beats against the western coasts of England and Scotland, and, taking a southerly direction down the eastern coast, this tide too enters the basin of the Thames. Hence the tides in the Thames are formed of two different ocean-tides; they are equal by day and by night, and so powerful is the rush of the tide from the North Foreland to the metropolis, that it flows at the rate of five miles an hour.
But here is the boat smoking away right at our feet. There is a rush of persons from the shore, and a rush of persons to the shore. We pay two-pence, scramble down a variety of steps and stairs, and jump on board just as they are casting off. There is no whistling or ringing of a bell, no noise whatever We are already steaming it up to the far west.
The bank on our left offers no interesting points on which the eye might dwell with pleasure. Manufactories, breweries and gas-works dispute every inch of ground with the ugliest store-houses imaginable. The sight strikes one as that of a large city in ruins. But on our right we see St. Paul’s rising from an ocean of roofs. The sun, still visible on the horizon, shines on the roof of the cathedral, and shows the gigantic cupola in the most charming light. St. Paul’s ought to be seen from the river by those who would fully understand its grandeur.
We pass through the arches of Blackfriars-bridge and proceed in a line with Fleet-street ; before us the stream is spanned by a number of bridges, so that it seems as if their pillars crossed one another, and as if the nearest bridge bore the next following on its arched back. So strange and astonishing is this sight that we are tempted to mistake it for a Fata Morgana and expect to see it dissolve into thin air.
Seven enormous bridges have been built across the river at very short intervals, and unite the more animated parts of the Borough and Lambeth with London proper. Among these bridges is an iron suspension bridge with a bold double arch; another bridge is composed of iron and stone; and the rest are simply built of massive stones. It is true that only three of these seven bridges are freely open to the public, and that the four others exact a toll. But, for how many years past, have the Germans talked of a stone bridge across the Rhine at Cologne, and another stone bridge across the Danube at Vienna! And as yet neither Cologne nor Vienna have mustered the funds for such undertakings! And in London there are seven bridges within a river-length of a few miles. A little higher up, moreover, is Battersea-bridge, and lower down the river there is the Tunnel, and already have they commenced making a new bridge at Chelsea. The English have a right to pride themselves on the grandeur of the British spirit of enterprise. But the German who comes into this country and beholds its marvels, makes comparisons which sorely vex and trouble his spirit.
We pass the Temple, the Chinese Junk, Somerset-house, the new Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey, but we cannot stop to describe them, for we purpose to reserve them for a special visit on another occasion. Besides our attention is engaged by the general aspect of the river and its banks. Darkness has set in. Steamers with red and green eyes of fire rush past us ; little boats cross in all directions under the very bows of the steamers; fishing-boats with dark brown sails go with the tide in solemn silence; the lights on the bridges and in the streets are reflected in the water. This is the hour at which matter of fact London dons her poetical night-dress.
We pass Lambeth Palace and its ruin-like watch-tower. The boat stops at Vauxhall-bridge. We get off, and walk through some of the streets of Lambeth ; we pass under a railway-bridge, and stand in front of Vauxhall.
Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853