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 member 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. 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
The 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.
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.