Guests for the River Thames

Emily Leach
Education Officer and Thames Curator

Hello, my name is Emily Leach and I work at the River and Rowing Museum (RRM) in Henley on Thames, England. The RRM is the only museum in Britain that is devoted to the story of a river - the river Thames. The museum has two other permanent galleries which are about the sport of rowing and the town of Henley, but the river Thames is the common thread that unites the museum's themes and is the central subject of the museum.

A museum is primarily about preserving and interpreting a collection of objects and my job is to establish the Thames collection and to set up the education programme. The RRM is a brand new museum, which opened to the public last summer, on 30th August 1998. For the last four years, since starting work in Henley, I have been searching out items for the museum collection and working with the exhibition designers to plan the presentation of such an internationally well known river. We aim to present how the river has been effected and changed by the actions of man and in turn how people have been effected by the river.

Nearly twenty years ago I trained and worked as a teacher, I wanted to help others find out about people and places in history and about their own surroundings. I have always found the artefacts and things that people use a fascinating way to discover how people lived in the past. Real things help us to feel close to people who lived hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago. A pair of shoes, a cooking pot or a piece of jewellery can bring the past to life. I have always been fascinated by the fact that in some ways people from the past thought and felt just like us and in other ways they were totally different.

Since I have been working at the River and Rowing Museum I have discovered lots of things that I did not know before about how people lived in the Thames catchment. For example two and half thousand years ago the river Thames was a very sacred place and people probably travelled from all over southern Britain to place their most precious possessions in the river. These are called votive offerings. We know this because thousands (yes thousands) of ancient flint tools, swords and daggers have been found in the Thames, especially in the upper reaches in London.

I have also discovered that almost all the water that we use in the Thames catchment (supplied to about 14 million people) comes from this one river. I found out that earlier this century the river in London was so dirty that it was pronounced dead, because nothing could live in it. Now the Thames is one of the cleanest urban rivers in the world.

I have discovered some beautiful and fascinating artefacts which can tell us about what life in the Thames valley was once like. We have a boat made out of a complete tree trunk called a log boat. It is 1500 years old and was made by the Anglo- Saxons out of an oak tree. It is about 7 metres long and 1 metre wide. It was propelled by being poled liked a punt or paddled like a canoe. The Thames has been a very important highway through southern England for centuries and as a lowland meandering river it has been changed or managed by people in order to control its levels and route. The Thames was so important to our economy that there have been laws governing its use since 1065 and the first appointed body to oversee it was created in 1620. The direct successor to that commission is the Thames Region Environment Agency. There have been locks (or ways for boats to pass by obstructions) on the Thames for at least 800 years. Today the locks are managed by the Environment Agency. We have lock keepers letters which tell us about life at the locks in the 19th century.

We have geological specimens (in fact stones from someone's garden) that tell us how the path of the Thames has moved across the landscape through the action of erosion and sedimentation for millions of years.

I think the best way to understand ourselves is to study our past. In this way we can appreciate why we need to take care of ourselves and our environment for future generations.

Simon Read
An enthusiast for Sustainable Development

Hi, my name is Simon Read, a long standing friend of Emily's and by chance Regional Environment Protection Manager for the Thames Region of the Environment Agency. The Agency is the government funded agency for regulating, managing, monitoring and understanding the environment and the processes that affect it, for England and Wales, part of the United Kingdom. The work of the Agency is best understood by pointing your web browser at, where we have an extensive web site with many pages of interesting facts and data. The Thames region of the Agency covers the whole of the river basin for the river Thames, which is an area of approximately 12,860 sq. km, has about 12 million people living within its boundaries, includes 217 km of navigable river and has an average annual rainfall of 688 mm/year. My responsibilities do not extend to all the agency's responsibilities in the region so I've agreed to assist Emily search out the answers to questions which my colleagues working in the region will be able to answer in more detail.

One important challenge for us in the Thames Region is to manage many important aspects of the River Thames itself. London, the capital city of England is located within the region and depends on the river Thames for a large part of its drinking water supply. The quality of the water in the river has to be maintained by strict regulation of discharges to the river, which is one important aspect of the Agency's work in the region. We also regulate the volumes of water taken out (abstracted) by the regional water company Thames Water which they treat to produce drinking water. You will be interested in Thames Water's web site at which has a lot of interesting facts and good links to other important water related sites. For a virtual slideshow of views of the river Thames point your browser at
thames/ slideshow.html
. A good educational resource is a CD-ROM about the river Thames. More details can be found at

One other important role that we have in the Thames Region is Flood Defence, including the operation of the Thames Flood Defence Barrier, which some people say is the eighth wonder of the world! You can see pictures of the Thames Flood Control Barrier by pointing your web browser at the "Thames Barrier" hot-link on the "Our Services" page of the Agency's web site.

I've had a keen interest in the environment and its importance to all our lives since my childhood when I used to spend time with my father who was a water diviner (dowser), a drinking water well digger and land drainage contractor, living in West Dorset, in South West England. I also have a keen interest in honey bees and bumblebees and for 15 years kept twenty honey bee colonies on the Hampshire Downlands near to where I live. Alas, pressure of work means that I no longer keep bees, but hope to again in the future.

My present interest is to encourage my friends Carol and Ken, who live close by and who are currently building the ultimate in sustainable houses, using clay dug from their fields, cow dung produced on their smallholding and locally grown straw, to build walls made from what we in England know as "cob". The roof timbers are to be made from tree branches grown on their land. When completed the house will also be fitted with a composting toilet, eliminating the need for any other form of sewage treatment, a grey water system to allow sustainable reuse and management of waste water and a sustainable energy system.

I also have a keen interest in the use of "web" based information systems and when time permits will be building my own web home page which I plan to be a reference site for specialist interests such as sustainable lifestyles.

I hope you enjoy visiting the web sites mentioned here.

Click here to learn more about
the River Thames

Center for Global Environmental Education
Hamline University Graduate School of Education
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Phone: 651-523-2480 Fax: 651-523-2987
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