The Thames is 215 miles from source to sea, and for centuries writers of all kinds have been inspired by it, returning to its banks again and again to explore what it can tell us about memory, history and landscape. It’s one of the most written-about parts of Britain – there’s something irresistible about the river that makes it a perfect background to all kinds of storytelling.

My introduction to this wealth of river writing began at the end: I grew up sailing on the Thames estuary – the muddy, sometimes smelly, coastal area downstream from London where the famous river finally joins the North Sea. My parents arrived here after sailing thousands of miles from South Africa in a boat they had built themselves. By the time I was born a few years later, the estuary had ceased to be just a point of entry for them. It was home.

When I began work on my book about this area, The Way to the Sea, I discovered the estuary hasn’t always been a popular subject for those writing about the river – it inspired only a fraction of the thousands of titles about the Thames with something to say about the places I know. In my own writing, I’ve always tried to think about the Thames as one long, living piece of landscape, with no one part missed out, and for that reason I gravitate towards books that do the same. Here are 10 of the best:

1. Thames: Sacred River by Peter Ackroyd
The nearest thing there is to a comprehensive modern biography of the river, packed with fascinating titbits about its literary, artistic and religious connections down the ages. It’s particularly good on the upper reaches of the Thames before it gets to London, where medieval monasteries used to stand at every bend and pilgrims would pass by on their way to the great shrine at Canterbury.

2. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome
This comic novel from 1889 is a classic for a reason. It captured the moment when commercial shipping traffic vanished on the upper Thames and it became a place for leisure, where Jerome, his two friends and their dog Montmorency could splash about and submerge the stresses of London life in the glories of the river. Such was this book’s runaway popularity that Jerome’s publisher once commented: “I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them.”

3. The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner
A deceptively simple love story I could reread endlessly. It was first published in 1929, but is set in 1873 out on the Essex marshes, where the Thames merges with the sea. Sukey Bond is a lowly orphan, in service on a remote farm where she meets and falls in love with Eric Seaborn, a simple lad known as a “holy fool”. When they are forcibly parted, Sukey heads upriver to seek out Queen Victoria, who she feels is the one person who will understand their plight.

4. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
This one needs no introduction – the charms of “messing about in boats” with Ratty and Mole are very well known indeed. But it wasn’t until I started researching my own book that I realised how much it has to say about the river and the 19th-century expansion of London that changed the surrounding countryside forever. I also love Grahame’s image of the Thames as “a babbling procession of the best stories in the world”. That’s how I like to think of it, too.

Boats in the dawn mist upriver at Abingdon-on-Thames, part of the stretch where Three Men in a Boat is set.
Boats in the dawn mist upriver at Abingdon-on-Thames, part of the stretch where Three Men in a Boat is set. Photograph: Stuart Black/Alamy

5. The House by the Thames by Gillian Tindall
This biography of a single house that sits just by the south side of the Millennium Bridge is fascinating for what it shows about the transition of inner London from dirty and crime-ridden to expensive, glassed-in corporate playground. I particularly like how famous people such as Christopher Wren and Catherine of Aragon are just background characters in this book – the real star is the house and all that it represents about the river and the city.

6. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Hoo peninsula, a spur of land between the Thames and its final tributary the Medway, is not a place that has appeared much in classic fiction. But it’s in a graveyard near the Hoo’s highest point that young Pip meets the convict Magwitch, who has just escaped from a prison hulk and is fleeing his jailers through the Thames marshes. I first read this scene as a teenager and I still find it chilling. Pip is terrified, but little knows that this chance meeting will change the course of his life.

7. Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames by Caitlin Davies
This book is a delightful compendium of watery facts and documents the changing physical relationship we have with the river. Swimming in the Thames has been a popular pastime for centuries, despite its often murky and polluted waters. Organised races have been going on that long, too – in 1791 the winner of an eight-guinea wager swim from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge “expired” after celebrating too hard on the gin, and in 1880 a dog named Now Then beat a man in a 10-mile swim upriver from the Isle of Sheppey.

8. The Mirror of the Sea by Joseph Conrad
Before he was a novelist, Conrad spent nearly two decades in the merchant navy, and after retiring he published this selection of autobiographical essays about his time on the high seas. I love it for his accounts of sailing in and out of the Thames in the late 19th century, and for his descriptions of riverside life in London, where smaller wharves were still in use alongside the big docks in east London. The ships in the centre of the city looked like “a flock of swans kept in the flooded backyard of grim tenement houses”, he wrote.

9. News from Nowhere by William Morris
I’ve read this strange story so many times and I still can’t decide what it is: my best approximation is part science fiction, part utopian treatise, part romance of the river. Its protagonist, William Guest, falls asleep in the late 19th century and wakes in the future. He finds that a revolution has occurred and society has been refashioned along communist lines. He rows up the Thames with a group of comrades to see this new world, a journey that mirrors one the Morris family took between their two Thames-side residences, one in London at Hammersmith and one at Kelmscott in Gloucestershire.

10. Wide Open by Nicola Barker
This novel from 1998 is precious to me because it’s set on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary, and accurately represents it as the very peculiar place I knew as a child. Barker fills this marshy island with drifters and eccentrics, characters who find themselves out of place and dislocated from the “real life” upriver. Her writing is full of surprises, from nudists to wild boars to unexploded bombs, but the landscape of the river’s edge is a constant presence.

The Way to the Sea: The Forgotten Histories of the Thames Estuary by Caroline Crampton is published by Granta Books. To order a copy, go to Free UK p&p on orders over £15.


Caroline Crampton

The GuardianTramp

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