Pix & notes: The Thames

The characters in both my historical mystery series often find themselves on or near the Thames, the great river that runs through London. My Professor Moriarty rows for exercise. He’s a memberthames-map of the London Athletic Club (founded in 1863.) I’ve had him rowing from the Stamford Bridge to Putney and back, about 4 miles. Rowing is good for thinking, one would think, and can be a solitary sport, which is why I chose it for him. He rowed for Cambridge too.

The Thames was the major metropolitan thoroughfare for my Elizabethans. I have them walking a lot, because I can’t deal with horses, narratively speaking. Horses are people in themselves, requiring names, appearances, and personalities. Then you have the grooms, stable boys, and someone to hold the beasts when you reach your destination. All these people expect tips and need  names. Many paragraphs squandered just to get across town! So, no horses. Besides, most of the places they go — courts, palaces, theaters, prisons — are near the river.

Where’s that wherry?

When my Elizabethans venture any farther from Gray’s Inn than Westminster (or strike northeast into the City), they take a wherry.wherry I find one reference in my google results saying you might pay 3 pence for the trip. Presumably that would depend on how far you were going and how many people you were with. The standard craft could hold 5 passengers and two oarsmen.

Wherries were manned by members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Lightermen moved goods on and off lighters — flat-bottomed barges.

John Taylor was a wherryman who wrote poetry, some of which has survived. Someday I must drag this man into a book. Francis would not appreciate a wherryman spouting poetry at him as he journeyed up or down the river. Not sure I would either. Imagine a cab driver regaling you with his latest oeuvre on the way home from the airport. But go read one of Taylor’s poems and decide for yourself.

Up a winding river

oxfordThe river begins in Gloucester at a place called Thames Head. I’ve never been there. I have been to Oxford, for a short visit. I took this picture outside the Oxford University Physic Garden, which I now learn is on the River Cherwell, not the Thames, although the Thames is also more canal-like at this stage. If you hopped into one of these boats and headed downstream, you would eventually find yourself in London.

The Thames is 250 miles long; not as long as the Severn, but wholly within England. (The Severn runs through Wales as well.) It’s a tidal river, meaning the sea pushes in at high tides and rushes out at low ones. The difference between high and low is 23 feet! The river is tidal all the way up to Teddington, which is west of Richmond Palace and east of Hampton Court. This map shows train stations, not vanished palaces, unfortunately.

If I were a wherryman, I would charge more to row into the rush of an incoming tide. Such things were probably regulated, this being an essential service. Although they weren’t very good at enforcing their many regulations.

On the Agas map, I count seven places labeled ‘Kay’ (quay) or W (wharf) on the north bank east of London Bridge. There are ten to the west, not counting private palaces like the Savoy or Bayard’s Castle, which have their own piers, quays, or wharfs. (I fail to grasp the difference between these things.) The ones on the map are public wherry-landings, I think. You can walk down and flag your boat, like hailing a cab. You always have to get off at London Bridge and walk over to the other side to catch another wherry. It was very dangerous to “shoot the bridge”  — navigate between the narrowly-spaced piers. Nobody would do this.

London Bridge was the only bridge over the Thames below Kingston-upon-Thames until 1729.  It’s about 13 miles by car on the A3, which is not at all what I wanted to know when I tried to google up the distance. There’s a definite bias toward utility and against curiosity on the Internet; have y’all noticed that?

Using the Thames Path Distance Calculator, I get roughly 29.3 miles. That’s a heckuva hike! I would have to stop twice along the way, making it a three-day walk. A sturdy young lad in Bacon’s day could do it in two, but of course he wouldn’t. He’d take the direct road, or beg his master for money for a wherry.

The river is tidal for most of that distance, so if the tide was going out and you were rowing downstream, you could make the journey in, uh… I have no idea. This is the kind of micro-fact that I long to know, but can never figure out. If you know, please write and tell me. Seriously! I spent quality time trying to figure out how far up and downriver Moriarty could row in his scull in thirty minutes or so, and I would love to know how long it takes Francis Bacon to get from Westminster to Blackfriars, for example, under different tidal conditions.

London Bridge to Kingston-upon-Thames
29.3 miles walking along the Thames Path.

There are now 32 bridges between the Tower and Kingston Upon Thames, including railway-only bridges. Only 16 of them had been built by the time of my first Moriarty book (1885.) Here are the Tower Bridge (1894) and the Richmond Bridge (1777), photos taken by me in the new millennium.



Pix & notes: Richmond Palace

The fifth book in my Francis Bacon mystery series, Let Slip the Dogs, takes place at Richmond Palace. Alas, the palace is long gone, so I had to rely on history books and re-creations.

“Richmond was the most orderly and most logical of buildings, and both in its plan and elevations was the perfect expression of the Tudor conception of a community household.” (Dunlop, see below.)

From the beginning

Henry VII

The Tudor monarchs needed a lot of palaces. They built a strong, central government, centered around the monarch. All power descended from the throne. Sure, there were still a few odd dukes or overweening earls out there running their own fiefdoms, but little by little, the Tudors cut their heads off or otherwise reined them in.

With everybody dangling in the monarch’s train all the time, the palace gets dirty, the privies fill up, and all the comestibles in the area get eaten. When that happens, you’ve got to pack up and move on down the river — or up. So they had many palaces along the Thames, from Greenwich to Richmond.

There was a manor house at Sheen, as Richmond was originally called, from the time of Edward I (1239-1307). Richard II made Sheen his primary residence, until his beloved Anne of Bohemia died and he had the place pulled down in his grief. Henry V (not a Tudor, a Plantagenet) started rebuilding it, calling it Sheen Palace, a terrible name. It sounds like a palace well-polished with Acme Palace Polisher.

In 1497, the place burned down. Henry VII (the first Tudor king) rebuilt it. He named it Richmond Palace after the title he inherited from his father, the Earl of Richmond, thus neatly separating it from past associations. Bordering on the magnificent Richmond Park, it was a favorite hunting retreat until the Commonwealth demolished it, selling off the parts. Philistines.

First impressions

Here is the only decent image of the palace as it was. This is an engraving made in 1765 by James Basire, “From an ancient Drawing in the Possession of the Earl of Cardigan, Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariorum, (at the expense of the Society of Antiquaries) London, MDCCLXV.” (Wikipedia.)

When you write mysteries, you study this sort of picture intently, wondering what’s inside those windows and how hard it would be to push someone out. I don’t do that in this book, but it’s always an option. I just think it would be kind of hard to get away with, as a murder method.

I also think it’s a little odd to have windows opening onto the lawn leading right down to the river. That seems very insecure to me. What’s in those rooms? Guards? Or meeting rooms? They must have a few of those, since the Privy Council traveled with the monarch and met every day.

That cone-shaped roof covers the giant kitchen. The crenelatted structure to its right is the Great Hall. See the high, arched windows? Queen Elizabeth dined in private, but she liked for everyone else to eat together in the hall. Now that would’ve been something! Many courtiers brought their own cooks, who had to jostle for working space in the great kitchen. Must have been a semi-controlled madhouse, worthy of its own story, which I have not (yet) written.

A bend in the river

Let’s get oriented. Richmond is southwest of London, more west than South. These days, Richmond is a very posh suburb with lots of chi-chi clothing shops and a pretzel place in the train station that’s worth checking out. The river walk is lined with outdoor cafes and is a lovely, lovely popular place to spend an evening. My book of walking tours has a dandy 5-mile walk that begins and ends in cafe land. I’ll do another post about Richmond Park soon.

So here’s the long view of Richmond. Note the sinuous shape of the Thames in this stretch of river.

See where it curves up again on the right edge? That’s going to take a sharper turn to the north, go past Westminster, and swing on around east again. Richmond, as we can see, is both north and south of the river — and east. There were no bridges down in here Bacon’s day; only London Bridge with its many tall houses far downstream. Most of your traffic in this zone was by boat. There were regular ferries at places like Twickenham.

You can see the vast green expanse of Richmond Park to the south. The green blob in the north is Kew Gardens, a fabulous retreat I’ve blogged about already. Wherry on up river (down on the map, confusingly) past Kingston upon Thames and you’ll take a sharp turn to the left/west, swing north again, and find yourself at Hampton Court Palace surrounded by more sumptuous greenery. That’s how it works. First you have centuries of overweening noblepersons pushing struggling cottagers off the best land; then you have a big world war and a major economic restructuring, and all these parks become, er, parks. Public parks, if you can afford to shlep yourself down here.

Richmond Green, standing in the street in front of the old gatehouse, I think.

Details and dimensions

Ian Dunlop (reference below) used many sources to reveal the contours of England’s lost palaces, including an anonymous description written in Henry VII’s reign and Francis Bacon’s biography of that same king. Bacon would have spent many days at Richmond Palace, and perhaps some nights. He had his own small lodge at Twickenham right across the river, so he could have commuted. I put him in a small, undistinguished chamber at the palace for narrative convenience. (I would have had to make a character out of one of those wherrymen.)

But it’s possible he would have insisted on a chamber in the palace along with the other courtiers. I figure it’s like staying at the hotel where the conference is being held, rather than at a cheaper place down the road. You want to be where the action is.

Narrow winding stairs, perhaps like the ones in these slender towers. Run up and down one of these in a late period farthingale! I double-dare ya!

Dunlop says the palace covered some 10 acres. By comparison, Richmond Green, across which I have walked, is 20 acres. Most of what we see in the engraving is a complex structure called the Privy Lodgings. There were 14 of those bulb-domed towers, each topped with a gilded weather vane flying a gold & azure banner. In between the towers were three-story buildings, all built of brightly colored stone, all with lots of diamond-paned windows. It must have looked like a fairy palace. It was obviously not built for defense, which must have been part of the point Henry VII was making.

Twelve rooms on each floor, I read. Of what? I ask. There’s no floor plan and that “Privy Lodgings” looks like a multi-building area with probably alleys running between micro-courts, necessary to let in light. I pretty much stayed out it. Somewhere in there, probably facing the Middle Court, were the Queen’s actual chambers: the Presence Chamber, the Privy Chamber where she spent most of the day with her favorites, and the Privy Bedchamber. I imagined these to be laid out much like its contemporary, Fontainebleu, which I visited in May and will blog about soon.

That Middle Court was a treat, in its day. In the center there was a fountain with lions and red dragons and goodly beasts in the upper part, in the middle branches of red roses and other flowers with water running out, and clear pure water into the cistern at the bottom. A good place to stand around in your fancy clothes and gossip, I should think, noticing who is noticing you from the windows of the Privy Chamber above.

The gatehouse is all that’s left. Following this fellow, we walk from Richmond Green into what used to be the Great Court. It’s a square of buildings now, as then, but full of parked cars and thus not much fun to photograph.

The Great Hall, where everyone had their meals and where plays must have been performed in the winter, was 100 ft x 40 ft. Must have had a magnificent hammerbeam ceiling. Outside the hall, past that cone-headed kitchen, we find a confused parcel of buildings, constructed mostly of brick and timber. Flesh larders, fish larders, pastry, and plummery (a place for preserving fruit?), poultry house, scalding house, wood yard, coal house, and at a discreet distance,” ‘a large House of office.’ This is what they called a group toilet. There would have been pipes or a ditch taking the effluent to the river, one assumes.

They got their drinking water from springs in New Park – the White Conduit – and Richmond Town Fields – the Red Conduit. Some of this clean water ran into the fancy fountain in the Middle Court. Servants must have gotten water for their masters to wash their faces there, early in the morning.

Nothing anywhere tells me how many people lived in the palace when the Queen was there. But I find a note about food supplies. Each officer has a cook to look after his food in the Queen’s Kitchens. 18 kitchens, each crowded, a veritable hell.  80-100 sheep consumed every day, 12 head of cattle, a dozen and a half calves, in addition to what’s hunted – rabbits, birds, wild boar, venison.

Pass through the gate leaving the Middle Court and enter the Great Court, 78 feet x 180 ft, paved, surrounded by a range of two-storied buildings for Gentlemen and Grooms of the Privy Chamber and Gentlemen of the Bedchamber.

Officers: Cup-Bearer, Carver, Sewer, Grooms of the Privy Chamber, Spicery, and Chandlery, the Confectioner, the Housekeeper, the Porter, the Chaplains, the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber…. These lodged in the outer quadrangle, aka the Wardrobe Court. Two-story houses which lay between privy chambers and the outer gate, insulating the royal family. I put the Gentlewomen of the Privy Chambers out here, and stuck poor Francis Bacon at the top of an addition to the gatehouse.


Some smart folks at the University of Southern California created a re-creation of Richmond Palace as part of a study of Power and Politics of Architecture in Tudor England. Dashed interesting stuff, what? I relied on their drawing for moving my people around. One small point: the row of buildings on the right side of the Great Court look one-storied in their plan, but Dunlop said two. So I made them two.

They have a three-dimensional version here. Have I mentioned lately how much I love scholars? We would be so much poorer, intellectually and imaginatively, without them. Let’s keep those actual facts flowing, folks, and preserve the institutions that make the work possible.

See the orchards near the river on the top left? I love orchards. We had cherry trees, probably some of them espaliered against those warm brick walls. Undoubtedly also pears, apples, peaches, gooseberries, raspberries, and plums. Coming toward us, at the bottom left of the plan, is the big formal garden through which we stroll, morning and evening, in our colorful raiment. Level, symmetrical, neat, loaded with symbolism — that’s what Tudors liked in a garden! Leave the wildness out there in the wilderness.

But they would have fantastic beasts of carved and painted wood on pillars dotted about. I’m afraid those things are just long gone. But I can close with one from a recreation at Hampton Court, courtesy of Culture 24.nti_HRP_Garden_03.JPG



Duncan, Andrew. 2002. Favourite London Walks: 50 Classic Routes Exploring London’s Heritage. London: New Holland. [NB: This book is printed on coated stock, so it is heavy! I copy the walks I mean to take and just carry the featherweight sheets of printer paper.]

Dunlop, Ian. 1962. Palaces and Progresses of Elizabeth I. London: Jonathan Cape.

Montague-Smith, Patrick, and Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd. 1981. The Country Life Book of Royal Palaces, Castles & Homes, Including Vanished Palaces and Historic Houses with Royal Connections. Country Life Books.

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