Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The Thames

Illustrated by Henry George Hine.


O, could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing, full.
Strong without rage, withoutDenham’s Cooper’s Hill.

I love the River Thames, notwithstanding all its metropolitan impurities; but it is most to be admired when it assumes the character of a rural river, reflecting many beautiful objects on its banks, and sparkling as it gently flows between verdant meadows. Here we may see in summer cattle cooling themselves in the shallows—always a pleasing sight. Sometimes, for want of a bridge, cows may be seen leaving a farmyard, morning and evening, and swimming across the river to their pastures on the opposite side, which they are taught to do from their calf-hood, and returning regularly to be milked. Then, among the rural sights, are to be seen numerous swallows flying or skimming over the surface of the stream. Here and there a beauteous kingfisher darts into it and emerges with a small fish in its beak, settling on some decayed branch of a tree to feed on it. A heron is now and then disturbed from its solitary watchings for a stray eel or frog, and takes its silent flight to some other locality. The soft and pleasing song of the willow-wren is heard in the small aits or islands as we pass along the river, while the lark carols sweetly in the upper regions of the sky. But the great interest to be derived from passing along the river is to be found in the many historical associations connected with its banks.

We have Runnymede at the foot of St. George’s Hill—

Where England’s antient Barons, clad in arms,
And stern with conquest, from their tyrant king,
Then render’d tame, did challenge and secure
The Charter of her freedom.

In the village of Chertsey the celebrated Abraham Cowley, one of my favourite poets, passed his latter life. The former part of it he had spent in supporting the Royal cause during the Civil Wars as far as he was able. When the country became settled he retired, at the age of forty, to his village, from whence nothing could again draw him into the bustle of the world. He had always Virgil’s Georgics in his hands, which enlivened his favourite pursuits of husbandry and poetry.

Ingenious Cowley! courtly, though retired:
Though stretch’d at ease in Chertsey’s silent bowers,
Not unemploy’d, but finding rich amends
For a lost world in solitude and verse.

Near Chertsey, or rather lower down the river, we have the Cowey Stakes, the place where Julius Cæsar is supposed to have crossed the Thames in his march out of Kent. This part of the river takes its name from the stakes which the natives drove into it in order to stop the progress of the Romans. Some of these stakes still remain. Further on we come to Walton Bridge—part of which recently fell in. Before this took place it had a most singular appearance, and was one of the most beautiful and curious structures of the kind, perhaps, in Europe. It consisted of one vast arch, larger than the Rialto at Venice, and of two smaller ones. It was constructed of timber, and in so artificial a manner that any decayed piece could easily be taken out without endangering the rest. At each end are several small stone arches to carry off the overflowing of the river. The whole is a very fine object of its kind, and, in some points of view, both the bridge and the river form picturesque and beautiful scenes. Here may generally be seen numerous swans, some with their long necks feeding on weeds at the bottom of the river, and others resting listlessly with one of their feet turned on their backs.

The woods of Oatlands Park are seen to advantage from the bridge. At that place the good and amiable Duchess of York resided for many years.

At Hampton we come to the villa built by David Garrick; and here the river is adorned by a classic temple he erected on its banks dedicated to the genius of Shakspeare. In this villa Dr. Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and other members of the Literary Club often assembled.

Alexander Pope on the Thames.png

We will not pause to mention the many historical facts connected with Hampton Court; but proceeding down the river, on the banks of which are many villages, and villa after villa unfold themselves to the eye. One of these was Pope’s, with its little lawn, but, alas! no longer with its two weeping willows hanging over the river. It is a pleasing object, and, from the recollections it cannot fail to excite, will always be considered an interesting one. Some little anecdotes of the poet may still be collected at Twickenham, and I have heard from three different persons, one of whom was the late Mr. Rogers, that they had spoken to the old waterman, who for many years rowed Pope on the Thames. He was in the habit of having his sedan-chair lifted into the punt. If the weather was fine, he let down the glasses; if cold, he pulled them up. He would sometimes say to the waterman (this is his own account), “John, I am going to repeat some verses to you; take care and remember them the next time I go out.” When that time came, Pope would say: “John, where are the verses I told you of?”—“I have forgotten them, sir.”—“John, you are a blockhead—I must write them down for you.” John said that no one thought of saying, when speaking of him, Mr. Pope, but he was always called Mr. Alexander. In one of his poems, he, with considerable bitterness, attacks a Mr. Secretary Johnson, a neighbour of his, residing at a villa on the banks of the Thames, now called Orleans House, and refers with considerable spite to his “Dog and Bitch.” No commentator on Pope’s works has ever been able to discover what was meant by a reference to these animals. I have, however, been the means of making the discovery. On each side of the lawn of Orleans House there are walls covered with ivy. In the centre of each wall the ivy appeared much raised above the rest. A friend, residing near, at my request examined these portions of the walls, and, concealed in the raised ivy, he discovered on one wall a dog carved in stone, and on the other a stone bitch.[1] Now it is certain that when John punted the poet up and down the river, he could readily see these animals, and thence his satire.

On leaving Twickenham Reach, the closing scene is formed into a good river view. A point of land shoots out into the river, and on the left is adorned with lofty trees. On the right Lord Dysart’s park extends far into the landscape, and beyond it Richmond Hill rises into the distance. But amongst the numerous villas in this neighbourhood, Lady Suffolk’s, now General Peel’s, makes the best appearance from the river. It stands in a woody recess, with a fine lawn descending to the water. It has many historical associations.

We now come to Richmond, and here we quit our notice of the Thames, for it is full of impurities; like the Lake of Avernus, even swallows avoid it, and are never seen skimming over its polluted surface.

Edward Jesse.

  1. Pope alludes to these figures in his “Imitations of Spenser:”

    Such place hath Deptford, navy-building town,
    Woolwich and Wapping, smelling strong of pitch;
    Such Lambeth, envy of each band and gown,
    And Twickenham such, which fairer scenes enrich;
    Grots, statues, urns, and Jo——n’s dog and bitch,
    Ne village is without on either side
    All up the silver Thames, or all adown,
    Ne Richmond’s self from whose tall front are eyed
    Vales, spires, meandering streams, and Windsor’s towery pride.

    The Jo——n mentioned in the fifth line was Mr. Secretary Johnson, an official of some public note in the reign of Queen Anne.