Life of a river: evocative photographs frame the Thames as an artery of culture and ritual

Southend-on-Sea, Essex: in the Thames estuary, the ‘Big Sunday’ Pentecostal group from London gather to perform a mass baptism of everyone in the group.

 

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints
By Daniel Milroy Maher
Photographs By Chloe Dewe Mathews
Published 19 May 2021, 14:59 BST, Updated 28 May 2021, 10:06 BST

The UK’s second longest river is today a gravitation point for diverse practises – joined across the miles by the waters themselves.

IN 1929, after hearing a comparison made between the Mississippi River and the River Thames by a visiting American congressman, English politician and trade unionist John Burns proudly retorted: “The Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history.”

It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that the idea of other rivers being equal to or even greater than the Thames has been scoffed at. Given the great many things that have occurred in its waters and along its banks – events that have shaped Britain and the world – it comes as no surprise that some may balk at such a weighing up.

(Related: Southeast Asia's most critical river is entering uncharted waters.)

But, like all great rivers, the Thames was once only a tributary. 30 million years ago it ran into the ancestral Rhine, was substantially larger and flowed along a very different course. It wasn’t until 3,000 years ago that it took the form we now know, running 215 miles from its source in rural Gloucestershire to its mouth in Essex.

Oxford: on May Day morning, Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers gather. The horns are a replica of an original pair made in 1700, which are only brought out for ceremony for special events, such as the funeral of a dancer. 

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints

Southwark, London: A full-moon ritual to celebrate the birth of goddess Isis, conducted in front of the Tate Modern, on the Thames South Bank.

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints

Richmond, South-West London: Hindus from Dollis Hill, North London, immerse Ganesh Murti in the river. The Thames is considered a sacred river by Hindus, with links to the Ganges.

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints

The literal and metaphorical connectedness of the world’s rivers and oceans is a concept that carries much weight in spiritual circles. In Hinduism, for example, it is believed that all rivers are holy, and they play a crucial part in Hindu practices of prayer, purification and blessing. Traditionally, these ceremonies would have taken place closer to the religion’s home along the sacred Ganges, but modern day diasporic Hindus make use of whatever water source is available to them. For those residing in and around London, the Thames is that source and it is duly used as a surrogate for the Ganges.

Space for reflection

This was a realisation that resonated with British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews, who spent five years photographing the Thames for her project, Thames Log. Following on from a photographic series concerning the Caspian region, she wondered at the differences between those countries and Britain in how we relate to and perceive our natural resources. “I remember witnessing people in Russia repeatedly immersing themselves in the icy water during Epiphany, and struggling to recall rituals like that happening in Britain,” says Dewe Mathews. “This prompted me to begin Thames Log as a way to explore our own relationship with water.” 

(Related: pictures reveal the world's most polluted river.)

Though the freezing plunges of Epiphany bear little resemblance to activities that take place along the Thames, Dewe Mathews found that religion could still be a connecting factor between bodies of water that are geographically very distant from one another. “After photographing a Hindu ceremony on the river in Richmond, I came to understand that the Thames was not being treated as a lesser version of the Ganges, but as equally sacred and part of the same thing. I was fascinated by this transportive quality of water and how, by just being in and around it, you could feel connected to other places.”

Southend-on-Sea, Essex: Day trippers from East London perform Islamic evening prayer, Maghrib, at the edge of the Thames estuary,

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints

Grays, Essex: a man reads the Sunday paper in a quiet spot near Tilbury docks.

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints

Oxford: at the University's St. John's College, a ceremonial boat burning in Canterbury Quadrangle to celebrate the women's rowing team victory in the Summer VIII race.

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints

Dewe Mathews’ own connection with the water began at an early age while she was growing up near Hammersmith Bridge. Crossing the river every day on the way to school, she felt drawn to it. “I’ve always been attracted to water, whether it’s a river, a stream or the sea, which I swim in every day,” she explains. “Even though it’s a public space, there’s often a very personal, intimate relationship with water. I think being near it allows space for thought, reflection and imagination.”

Hard edges, soft water

Despite fond memories of the Thames from her childhood, Dewe Mathews now laments the transformation of certain sections of it, such as the neighbourhoods between Putney and Vauxhall that have been flattened to make way for glitzy, expensive apartments. “The worst part is that so many of them are actually empty,” she says. “I have spent a lot of time going up and down those areas at twilight and wondering why there are no lights on inside.”

Lechlade, Gloucestershire: Druid Chris Parks in a self-built coracle which he used to row the Thames from source to sea in 2010. He called the mission a 'Pilgrimage for Peace.' 

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints

“I wanted to capture alternative activity and other ways of meaningfully connecting with the environment.”

Chloe Dewe Mathews

Coming to appreciate the river as an antidote to urban expansion was another impetus for Thames Log. Dewe Mathews began to see the river as an “untameable natural resource that, in contrast to its surroundings, is constantly being replenished”. She noticed how the free-flowing water and shifting river bed were in juxtaposition with the concrete pavements and rigid glass buildings nearby.

(Read: this river is a legal person. How will it use its voice?)

But even the unconstrained nature of the river felt regulated in some way as it surged through the city. It seemed bound by practical engagement. “At the start, I assumed that the only activity on the river was that which I saw – rowers going up and down, occasional leisure boats, party boats. I wanted to capture alternative activity and other ways of meaningfully connecting with the environment.”

Rituals of the river

This desire led Dewe Mathews away from London and from the more familiar parts of the Thames. She began tracing its journey from source to mouth, choosing spots along its path to search for new ways of relating to the river. She ventured out on foot and by bicycle, train, and boat, in order to see it from different perspectives. “It was quite a patchwork of trips. In each mode of travel, you encounter and notice different details,” she explains. She also looked for artist residencies that would allow her to spend as much time on the Thames as possible, and eventually found two – one at METAL in Southend-on-Sea and one at St John’s College in Oxford.

In the latter, she encountered an activity steeped in tradition: The burning of a boat in one of the university’s colleges, following the historical rowing race that takes place there every year. “That was exciting. It felt quite shocking to see a burning boat within this extraordinary symbol of the British institution,” she recalls. Elsewhere in Oxford, she photographed other long-standing traditions, such as Morris dancing on May Morning, an ancient spring festival that has been taking place in the city for over 500 years, and a riverside Pagan ritual, performed around a goblet of red wine and other sacred objects.

Both of these customs seek to connect people with the environment through worship and thanksgiving and the river plays a central role in the displays. In one, it becomes a means by which to celebrate the changing seasons, and in the other it becomes a spiritual conduit. Meanwhile, further upstream, it acts as a pathway for pilgrimage for a Druid rowing his self-built coracle from source to mouth in the name of peace.

Following this journey to its destination leads to Essex, where the Thames meets with the North Sea. Here, Dewe Mathews witnessed secular and non-secular engagement with the river. A photograph of a man reading his sunday paper in Grays perhaps exemplifies a simpler relationship with water – one of rest and respite.

Red Sands, Thames Estuary. The structures are an example of Maunsell Sea Forts, built during the Second World War, in this case to protect the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich. The forts have since fallen into disrepair, with local volunteers attempting restoration.   

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy Loose Joints

In others taken in Southend-on-Sea, we see a couple performing their evening Maghrib prayer in front of the sandy banks during low-tide, while just a stone's throw away and shot only moments earlier, a group of teenage girls chat and drink in front of the transformed landscape. A year later, an African Pentecostal church performs a mass baptism in the shallows, and three years later ashes are scattered from the nearby pier that runs out into the sea. 

A cultural source

“I've always been interested in the fact that the river represents different things for different people,” says Dewe Mathews, and this is clear from her photographs. In some, we can see the water is a space for reflection and relaxation, while in others it is used for sport or transport. Some activities are quiet and solitary, while others appear to totally transform the section of river that they take place in, filling it with bodies and bright colours and disturbing the flow of the water.

But, just as soon as they begin, they are over, and the river returns to its natural state. “I love that about these fleeting events– if you miss them, then you'd never know that something had happened there. Sometimes there's a trace left behind, and sometimes there's not.”

The idea of Thames Log being a study of contemporary ritual, “whether that's a mass baptism or a mass movement of people from one side of the river to the other during the morning's commute,” translates into the book of the project. In it, images are captioned with co-ordinates, weather, and – if the photograph contains an event or gathering – the frequency with which it happens, as well as the number of attendees.

The photographs show the myriad ways in which people relate to the Thames, how they live their lives around it, and the purposes it can serve for different communities. They also demonstrate that many of our rituals remain unchanged after hundreds – and sometimes even thousands – of years. As Dewe Mathews explains: “I realise, looking back over my photographs, that I was instinctively drawn to riverside activities that were rooted in historical events but had a contemporary resonance.” This notion is evident throughout the series, and the photographs serve as a reminder that many before us have shared equally important relationships with the river.

Thames Log by Chloe Dewe Mathews (pb. Loose Joints & the Martin Parr Foundation) is available now. An exhibition of photographs from the book opens at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol from 20 May.

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