Originally published on The Illuminated River.
Ray Davies has a lot to answer for! The Thames Estuary is world famous – but much misunderstood. We see it on TV most evenings as the setting for Parliament; we sang about Old Father Thames in school, and it has inspired artists and writers for centuries, yet it is probably the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset that has set the tone for its public image. In fact, the Thames is not a “dirty old river” – far from it. This is now the cleanest urban estuary in Europe. True, by the 1950s it was officially biologically dead. A century before that, the great stink from the Thames drove Parliament to consider leaving Westminster and prompted the development of Joseph Bazalgette’s pioneering sewage disposal system. Now, there are more than 120 different species of fish in the estuary, including super-sensitive salmon and smelt. Cormorants and harbour porpoises hunt beside the House of Commons, but still the overwhelming public image is of a murky, brown and lifeless tidal waterway. In 2017 the Thames Estuary Partnership was determined to try and change that image through the making of a film, and I was asked to present The Living Thames.
The Thames Estuary Partnership (TEP) was established 20 years ago as an independent charity, supported initially by the Environment Agency and English Nature (now Natural England) and hosted by University College London. I have been TEP’s Honorary President almost from the beginning. The aim of those early sponsors was for TEP to act as an honest broker of creative partnerships between the estuary’s many stakeholders. The value of the idea was recognised immediately by large and small organisations alike, from the Port of London Authority (PLA) and industrial users such as the marine dredging companies, shipping lines and water companies at one extreme, to local angling societies, bird watchers and rowing clubs at the other. The spectacular recovery of the tidal Thames has been achieved through the investment of time, knowledge and money by a great many different players, and the film aims to illustrate that complexity of contributions whilst bringing the truth about the modern “living Thames” to many more people.
We were extremely lucky from the start. A very skilled and enthusiastic independent film producer, Dorothy Leiper, was passionate about the importance of the film, and we were also blessed by Sir David Attenborough’s willingness to introduce it. Sir David lives in Richmond and believes passionately in the Thames as London’s natural lifeblood.
The structure of the film is simple. I take a journey from Teddington Weir, at the very top of the tidal Thames, all the way down to the salt marsh and mud flats of Essex and Kent and the cockle beds of Maplin Sands. On that journey I meet many different stakeholders. There are pollution experts from the Environment Agency, commercial river traffic planners from the PLA, ecologists from the Zoological Society of London and the Institute of Fisheries Management. There are also historians and archaeologists, and professionals from major conservation charities such as the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts.
To complement the work of all those professionals, there is a whole variety of passionate volunteers who devote their time and energy to particular aspects of the Thames. Some take a general interest, through foreshore litter picking or citizen science campaigns to monitor fish fry or migratory birds.
One very important characteristic of the Tidal Thames is its constant state of change. This is true with every tide of course, but it is also true of major new initiatives which impact on the river. The “super sewer“ is one example. This £4.5 billion Thames Tideway Tunnel will take the polluting stormwater and sewage which still pollutes the river several times each year and capture it in a 20km long pipe beneath the bed of the river. With advice from fisheries specialists, the engineering structures are being refined to serve as safe havens for the many millions of fish fry that migrate up the river on the rising tide.
There is spectacular change above the surface too, with the Illuminated River Foundation transforming the capital’s view of the many ancient and modern river crossings. This world-class project is another example of innovative and integrated thinking. The lighting technology itself is “cutting edge” with LED lighting reducing energy consumption by more than half. Ecologically, the tidal Thames is an important dark corridor through the capital, of vital importance for migrating fish, moths and night flying birds.
While the former lighting on the bridges ran until dawn, Illuminated River has successfully persuaded the bridge owners to allow a new scheme that is switched off at 2am as an encouragement to others to do the same, where light spillage is greatly reduced or removed entirely.
The Living Thames took two years to complete. The film was financed entirely by donations from TEP supporters and benefitted from the generosity of all the many individuals that were met along the way. TEP entered The Living Thames for the 2019 UK Charity Film Awards, and to our amazement and delight – it won! The film has also won major awards in film festivals worldwide, including top prizes in Madrid, at the UK Latitude festival, in Milan and in the particularly prestigious Independent Film Awards.
It is available to view at the click of a mouse anywhere in the world. For more details of the film and the Thames Estuary Partnership go to: https://www.thamesestuarypartnership.org/the-living-thames