Flow sweet river flow

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Paul Noble presents lesson ideas for a cross-curicular geography topic.

A river study is a rich source of curriculum-related material that starts with geography and can extend into many areas. The key Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work in geography are unit 6, "Investigating our local area" for infants, and unit 14, "Investigating Rivers" for juniors. This article is a guide to how you might study rivers near your school or as part of studying the geography of other countries.

Starting off

Rivers play an important part in our lives. My local river is the Thames, although you can pick almost any river for your own studies. Once I asked my class where it began and Duncan - with his ever-eager waving hand - replied: "In my back garden." This was the word according to his dad, who was not entirely wrong.

It's never easy to pinpoint where a river begins and if you live close to a spring or small brook (we all do) then you live close to one of a river's birth places. My class study of England's longest river (215 miles, 344 kilometres) was able to begin in Duncan's backyard.


Our early ancestors tended to stay close to rivers to be near fertile land and water. The Thames linked the communities of southern Britain, and when the Romans came they used it as a supply route for their armies fighting the Dobuni in the West, where they established the fortified town of Corinium (Cirencester). This became the second largest Roman town in Britain. At a point where tidal waters allowed large ships to dock, yet afforded safe crossing, the Romans also established Britain's capital city, which, by the end of the 3rd century AD, probably housed more than 50,000 people.

On course

Rivers rise in high ground. The Thames starts 350 feet (106 metres) above (mean) sea level in the Cotswold Hills above Cirencester and is fed by many tributaries, brooks and springs (including Duncan's). It continues to gather water from 13 tributaries on its way to the North Sea. Thirty million years ago it fed the Rhine.

The official source of the Thames lies in a meadow north of the Thames Head pub on the A433 (the best map is the Ordnance Survey's "Explorer 168", pound;6.99). Water rarely appears here; the first visible stretch is at Lydd Well, half a mile away.

The Thames is a lowland river and meanders for most of its length along a shallow valley, except at Goring, near Reading, where it slices between the Chilterns to the north and the Berkshire Downs to the south, due to an Ice Age diversion imposed on the river by glacial action. The Thames becomes more its old self as it nears Cricklade. At Teddington, the seaward-flowing freshwater river meets salt water being forced upstream by the sea's tides.

Here the river's largest locks and the longest weir are based. An average of 1,535,000,000 gallons of water (6,978,110,000 litres) pour over the weir daily and, from a monitoring station, flood warnings are issued when necessary.

Upstream of Teddington the traffic on the water consists of leisure craft, as commercial traffic to Kingston terminated in the 1960s and there is no river trade beyond Wandsworth. In the 18th century, however, Reading received 95 per cent of its goods by river.

Before the Thames expires in the North Sea, it flows through the capital and the Pool of London - once the throbbing heart of Britain and the hub of maritime trade with the Empire and the world. As the Port of London includes Tilbury, sited on the estuary, London remains the UK's largest port.

Leisure and pleasure

The economic importance of Britain's rivers is increasing as part of the leisure industry. The Thames is no exception.

Boating Cricklade, in the Cotswolds, marks the limit to the statutory right of navigation on the Thames, but a canoe and a full river are needed to exercise that right. Most river craft can go no further than Lechlade, Wiltshire. Boat hire is readily available and 19,000 craft are licensed to use the river and its 45 locks. Links to the canal system are: to the Grand Union at Brentford; the Kennet and Avon at Reading, and the Oxford Canal at Oxford (www.katrust.demon.co.uk and www.britishwaterways.co.uk).


The Cotswold Water Park (South Cerney, Gloucestershire www.waterpark.org); Farmoor Reservoir (Oxfordshire); Staines Reservoirs and, of course, the estuary provide excellent environments for watching wildlife. North Meadow, Cricklade, is a National Nature Reserve and home to most of Britain's remaining examples of the Snakes Head Fritillary flower.


You can row or enjoy more esoteric water sports in water parks along the river valley. For a relaxed time many people prefer fishing or watching the Henley Regatta, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race from Putney Bridge to Mortlake, or to go horse-racing at Kempton Park and Windsor.

Walking and cycling

The Thames Path is 213 miles (343km) long. For a general map of the trail visit South East National Trails (www.nationaltrails.gov.ukthamespathframeset.htm). The National Trail Guide: the Thames Path (Aurum Press, The Countryside Agency and Ordnance Survey, pound;12.99) provides help in navigating it. Further information about the path is also available by visiting the National Trails website (www.nationaltrail.co.uk).

Wysis Way links Offa's Dyke Path with the source of the Thames and the Ridgeway - an ancient trackway 85 miles (136km) from Overton near Avebury, Wiltshire - to Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire. Long sections of the river route are accessible to cyclists. From the Thames Barrier to Erith the route sticks to the river bank. A pack of 10 cycle routes on laminated cards is available from Thames Landscape Strategy, Holly Lodge, Richmond Park, Richmond TW10 5HS (Tel: 0208 940 0654).


The Thames runs through some Britain's most beautiful lowland scenery; through the capital city, and through a valley of 11 million people, and it has provided much inspiration for writers and poets.

Sadly, John Gay's (1685-1732) view of the frost fairs that once took place on the river, as portrayed in his poem "Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London", is now denied us: When hoary Thames, with frosted Oziers crown'd Was three long Moons in icy Fetters bound...

Booths sudden hide the Thames, long Streets appear, And num'rous Games proclaim the crowded Fair.

Gone too are Ewan MacColl's cranes (1968) from his song "Sweet Thames Flow Softly": I met my girl at Woolwich Pier Beneath a big crane standing And oh, the love I felt for her It passed all understanding.

Took her sailing on the river, Flow, sweet river, flow London town was mine to give her Sweet Thames, flow softly Made the Thames into a crown Flow sweet river, flow Made a brooch of Silvertown Sweet Thames, flow softly.

The song was recorded on the Riveresque album by the group Weddings Parties Anything (Mushroom pound;17.42).

Useful websitesEnvironment Agencywww.environment-agency.gov.uk Cotswold Water Park www.waterpark.org Thames 21: Adopt-a-River www.thames21.org.ukprojectsadopt-a-river.htmlOrdnance Surveywww.ordnancesurvey.co.uk

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