Totally Thames Festival

If the River Thames could talk, what stories it would tell. Chosen by the Romans in 50AD as the ideal spot for a settlement, the river has served as a lifeline to the capital – originally called Londinium – ever since. Over the centuries, the Thames has found itself at the centre of many of the country’s most historic moments, from the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 (on an island near Windsor) to the transportation of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace and Guy Fawkes to the Tower of London by boat. Handel’s Water Music was first performed on George I’s barge, pilots used the river to navigate during the Blitz, and Claude Monet was so enamoured by the Thames, he painted it three times.

‘To walk along the River Thames is to gaze on 2,000 years of liquid history,’ says Adrian Evans, Director of Totally Thames, the world’s biggest river-based celebration, which returns to the capital this month. ‘For a long time, it had only one crossing, London Bridge. Most of the bridges you see now were added in Victorian times’. The most famous of these is, of course, Tower Bridge with is distinctive bascule design that allows ships to pass through when it’s raised. Even Westminster Bridge has its charms, painted to match the green leather benches in the House of Commons.

If you find yourself a little chilly one night, remember it could be worse: between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Thames sometimes froze over, prompting Londoners to throw Frost Fairs on the ice. ‘The last one, in 1814, had an elephant dancing under Blackfriars Bridge,’ reveals Evans. By the mid-19th century, the Thames was so busy and polluted that it forced Parliament to abandon sittings due to the smell, also known as the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858. A state-of-the-art sewer system followed to clean up the water, which is still used to today.

Take a walk along the River Thames now and you’ll encounter historic buildings, including palaces and monasteries, side-by-side with modern landmarks such as the London Eye, Tate Modern, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and O2 Arena (originally called the Millennium Dome). The South Bank teems with theatres, galleries, food markets, attractions and restaurants, while on the Thames itself, you can enjoy river buses, cruises and high-octane activities, such as a speedboat tour of London.

What better time to explore this majestic waterway than during the Totally Thames Festival, which sees the 42-mile stretch of river come alive with arts and culture events? This year’s celebration features over 150 events with something for everyone from large-scale art installations to river races and regattas. ‘Our major art commission this year is Floating Dreams by Ik-Joong Kang, one of South Korea’s most important artists,’ says Evans. ‘It is based on the memories of people, now in their 80s and 90s, who were displaced by the Korean War. The millions currently on the move from war torn areas gives particular poignancy to Ik-Joong’s remarkable floating island of dreams.’

Other highlights include Light up the Ladies Bridge (23-24 Sep)and The Singing Bridge (9-25 Sep) – two free events exploring the history of Waterloo Bridge, which was predominately rebuilt by a female workforce during the Second World War. While over at the Brunel Museum’s remarkable Sinking Shaft underground performance space, theatregoers can see Mooring (1-9 Sep)– a play about riverside homelessness, inspired by true events.

At Tower Bridge, last year’s sell-out Bascule Chamber Concerts (24-25 Sep) return, with composer Iain Chambers and the award-winning Juice Vocal Ensemble and Ben See Group. Descend into the bridge’s subterranean space and listen to classic and contemporary music while surrounded by the landmark’s extraordinary Victorian engineering. Meanwhile, thrill-seekers should check out the fastest growing watersport in the world during the first ever Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) Relay Race on the river (1-25 Sep). Who needs dancing elephants with this tide of entertainment on the Thames?

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