As part of our series on the unusual ferry crossings in the British Isles, below we take a look at the lesser known routes, and even defunct crossings, on the River Thames and in the London area.
The River Thames, the longest British river entirely within the bounds of England, has existed for 58 million years, though for most of that time it drained off the eastern edge of England into the North Sea. It was an Ice Age about 5000,000 years ago that blocked that drainage of the river and diverted it to its present course. Crossing points over the Thames can be seen now as the bridges that replaced the original fords and ferry routes. There has also been innumerable travel routes up and down the Thames, making it a point of discussion whether a boat going from one side of the river to the other is a ferry boat or a river boat, depending on how far upstream or downstream the terminus is from the starting point of the trip. Also, when towpaths for horses that pulled boats up and down the river switched from one riverbank to the other side, a ferry had to carry the animals and their drivers across. For our purposes, a route is considered a ferry across the Thames if you can see the other side from where you start.
The Thames, measuring in at this moment in geological history at a length of 346 kilometres (215 miles), has its headwaters in the hills of the English West Midlands, with some drainage from the mountains of Wales contributing to the flow as well. The Thames flows through Oxford, Windsor and Richmond before reaching London. The stretch of the river flowing through London is, of course, the most crossed, now by bridges and long ago by ferry routes. London Bridge, Staines Bridge and Swinford Bridge are sites of some of the oldest ferry routes in England across the Thames. Upstream, most ferry crossings were set up for pedestrians and livestock.
The Thames is a liquid highway, as much a part of British history as it is a geographical feature. People and goods and armies and navies have moved up and down its length and across its width. Ferries have always been there as an integral part of Britain’s history as well.