THE THAMES FLOWS east through London towards the world and its uncertainties. In the west it draws back to an Arcadian ideal of the countryside, the landscapes of which have existed more for leisure, prestige and aesthetic enjoyment than for growing food.
An inkling of this starts west of Putney Bridge, with the rowing clubs and tree-lined towpath, nowadays overrun by panting fitness fanatics. But Hammersmith Bridge marks a more definite change in the river’s character, with parkland and elegant houses running intermittently along both sides from there all the way to Hampton Court and beyond. It also has some significance in drama and literature as a gateway between worlds.
The time-travelling narrator in William Morris’s utopian fantasy from 1890, News from Nowhere, finds himself in the future just upstream from Hammersmith Bridge:
The soap-works remained by the river off Fulham Palace Road until demolition in the 1970s. Hammersmith Bridge appears in Philip Marlow’s dreams in The Singing Detective by Dennis Potter, as well as Pennies from Heaven, with one of the characters contemplating throwing herself off it. A mansion flat overlooking the bridge from the Castelnau side was used for some of the filming too.
A. P. Herbert was an early twentieth-century writer and satirist who emerges from his Thames novel The Water Gypsies as a laid-back liberal patrician. It’s an outlook which is still in keeping today with political attitudes among many middle-class people in south-west London, distinct from the conservatism of the stucco belt of Chelsea and Kensington, and the left-leaning intellectualism of Islington and Hampstead. This picture from the Life magazine archive shows him at the wheel of his boat, accompanied by a diffident-looking young sailor.
The Water Gypsies begins in the shadow of Hammersmith Bridge, where Jane Bell lives with her sister on a sprit-sail barge. Jane is young, pretty and lithe, goes swimming in the river to the alarm of the police and can handle the barge under sail as well as any man. Herbert perhaps intends her to be symbolic of the river, a Daughter Thames in place of a Father Thames, but is astute enough not to overdo it – The Water Gypsies is foremost a romantic comedy. She acts as a foil for the up-to-date pretensions of two of her suitors, and in choosing the canal bargeman Fred as her husband near the end, raises an Arcadian ideal above modernity.
Industry certainly wasn’t absent from the river around Hammersmith. Barges and tugs begin their working day in this passage:
The tide was rising again, and one of the first tugs came through Hammersmith Bridge. A man called a greeting from the tug to a watchman at the boat-houses [. . .] The tug went lazily past them, with a lazy chunk-chunk of the engine and a lazy swish at the bows, till at last the green narrowed too and was gone.
The mud, the reeds, had disappeared, and the water was lapping against the wall. There were two green eyes passing now, and all down the river the tugs were hooting to warn the wharves at which they were to call. The busy hour of the river was beginning.
A journey in the barge to Brentford reveals a new world to Jane, that of canal barges and the people living and working on them:
Nothing survives of the warehouses and wharves at Brentford, although by the mouth of the Grand Union Canal there are extensive boatyards with a sparse workforce:
Jane eventually takes to the canal way of life:
Their motion was as gentle as the coming of sleep; their blunt, round prows did not divide the water, but caress it; there was no sound but the ripple along the shore and the slow clip-clop of Beauty’s feet, and these said ‘Peace’, and brought peace to Jane’s soul. [. . .]
Two boats meet at a lock, and while they are waiting there are a few bold, laughing moments between the son of one and the daughter of another. Sometimes beside the lock an old inn hides among the trees, and there will be boats tied up for the night. The men stable their horses and go into the public bar for old and mild and a noisy game of dominoes; the mothers go too, or stay in the boat with their babies; all night they sleep under the lock, where there is always the music of water, whether it be a murmurous trickle or the swollen roar of a full ‘pound’ cascading over the gates. And at five o’clock they rise up and travel on through many locks to sleep again to the music of a lock.
Herbert knew from observation that such a life was not one of leisure, but he has Jane conclude that it is still a good one, as she takes stock on the eve of her honeymoon in a quiet reach of the canal near Ealing: