From Julius Caesar to the Millennium Wheel—a look at London’s history with its storied river ever in the foreground.
To say this is a brisk book is to understate the speed of its current. Many chapters—all aptly and generously illustrated—comprise fewer than 10 pages, and most summarize situations that other writers have found sufficient to fill sturdy volumes of cultural and riverine history, some of which appear in the bibliography. Weightman has a different agenda, however: He wishes to introduce us to the richness of his subject by offering slivers with the certain knowledge that the curious will proceed to the local library for more sizeable slices. The author, who demonstrated that ice is nice in his previous work (The Frozen Water Trade, 2003), sketches the history of the earliest settlements along the river (the Romans were looking for a crossing, not a site for a city), narrates the stories of London’s many bridges (some of which, indeed, fell down), offers us snippets about the Great Fire and the infrequent frost fairs held on the frozen surface, tells the tales of some significant sites along the river, most notably St. Paul’s and the Tower. He examines the cloacal function of the river through most of its history and notes that in the 1830s Londoners who drank city water were essentially consuming their own sewage. Although pollution prevented fish from living in the waters, clean-up activities over the past half-century have worked so well that some 120 species now swim by Parliament each day. Weightman offers snapshots, as well, of the Cambridge-Oxford rowing race, of early tunneling under the river, of the arrival of the railroads. Most eerily, he ends with a discussion of the dangers of catastrophic flooding, a threat that most Londoners ignore.
A very appealing snack that whets the appetite for more substantial courses.