n 1802, William Wordsworth composed a sonnet on Westminster Bridge that opens “Earth has not any thing to show more fair” and carries on oohing and aahing for the next 13 lines. This while the Thames was an open sewer in which, as scientist Michael Faraday later wrote, “the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface”. No such soft-focus sentimentalising for Crampton, whose book expresses a more precise love. Where other writers argue the Thames made London, she looks at how men and women have made the river... In a book about how people live around the Thames, Crampton is intriguingly light on her own biography. Early on, she mentions how at 17 she was diagnosed with a blood cancer, and fitted A-level essays in with sessions of chemo. Just a few weeks after starting at Oxford, the illness came back... In these days of publishers treating almost any non-fiction subject as an excuse for authorial memoir, such reticence is at first disarming. Yet this is also a personal book, as when Crampton moves on from discussing the smell of the estuary to a memory of how one hospital cancer unit “had such a powerful odour of saline, plastic, strong tea and gentle concern”. The further the author journeys down the river the more she lets her winning idiosyncrasies show, and the greater the reading pleasure. The result is a tender yet argumentative book dressed in a beautiful jacket that someone will panic-buy at Christmas for an in-law who will crack it open expecting fond cliches about The Wind in the Willows only to alight on an ode to mud, in all its varieties
The book is particularly strong on how political decisions (made further upstream) have negatively affected the area. The Thames was once an open sewer, but the “Great Stink” of 1858 forced politicians to act to prevent effluent being pumped into the water. But this merely meant sewage was dumped further downstream instead, in the estuary.
Yet Crampton also writes beautifully of the area’s charms. Her first-hand knowledge of navigating the river gives the book a descriptive power that brings the whole area superbly to life.
Crampton mixes history with memoir, giving snapshots of her own love affair with the Thames alongside snippets of literary, political, ecological and social history relating to the river... She writes movingly, sometimes with flecks of nostalgia or melancholy, but ultimately her book is a rallying call for greater appreciation of the maligned and overlooked.
Caroline Crampton is a child of the estuary, and the book is her praise-hymn to the muddy, marshy far reaches of a river that is often seen only as a backdrop to the great buildings of Oxford and London. Her parents, arriving on a sailboat from South Africa, arrived at St Katharine Docks in London and stayed, before moving back to the mouth of the river, to Kent. As a toddler, Crampton swung in a hammock in the boat’s cabin while her mother cooked. As a teenager, she had her tantrums on deck, on weekend sailing trips. She raged “against my parents’ obsession with sailing to nowhere”...These historical lessons are instructive – a captivating section features Margaret Ursula Jones, an archaeologist who fetched treasures from the mud of Mucking, Essex – but I warm too to Crampton’s more personal history. Before taking up a place at Oxford, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the white blood cells. She does not give much detail about her illness, but the brevity of her account does not diminish its force. Oxford was on the river, and the river mattered.
Crampton, a journalist and former editor at the New Statesman, was born on the Thames Estuary to parents who had sailed there from South Africa in the early 1980s. This debut grew out of her connection with the river, and she hauls in a fascinating array of stories as she journeys its banks, from the Anglo-Saxon treasures and the ghosts of the drowned, to abandoned warehouses and the Victorian pumping stations that deal with the capital's waste. From its Gloucestershire source to the North Sea, it's also a salutary reminder that the Thames is not just London's river.