Blessing of the River Thames

The brooding, norovirus-infested waves lap gently against the thick muddy banks. As the winter sun dips in the sky, electric lights shine colourfully across the surface of the water. Young couples, wrapped up in their fur lined jackets, walk hand in hand down the north and south bank paths. ‘The Thames is liquid history,’ said politician and trade unionist, John Burns. It is a river that bleeds tales of sordid crimes and heroic acts. It carries the burden of London’s survival both past and present; without it, the city we know and love would cease to exist. It breathes life into the capital yet sadly also takes lives away. 


‘It is a bit of an unspoken story of London,’ the very Reverend Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark, tells me. The perilous, bitter waters claim around thirty to fifty lives a year, around ninety percent of which are attributed to suicides; many are not reported in the press as to avoid encouraging others to follow down the same tragic path.


Each January, Andrew is part of the Blessing of the River Thames ceremony- a procession from Southwark Cathedral which meets the parish of St Magnus the Martyr on London Bridge. ‘It gives us the opportunity to remember the darker side of the river,’ Andrew says. A wooden cross is thrown over the bridge and into the water as a symbol of God’s blessing; it is a sign of prayer to everyone who uses the Thames, and acknowledges how the water gives life to the city.


Although the ceremony only began around two decades ago, the community formed around the two parishes dates back to when London Bridge was the city’s very own Ponte Vecchio; brimming with chapels and shops and houses. Up until the seventeenth century, London Bridge was an indispensable part of the city, as it was the only way to cross the river (and stay dry) from the disreputable south to the wealthier north side.

At night, the bridge, gates would be locked, shutting out travellers from the continent who arrived after dark. The south was known as a menagerie of the bedraggled, a breeding ground of impropriety.

At night, the bridge, gates would be locked, shutting out travellers from the continent who arrived after dark. The south was known as a menagerie of the bedraggled, a breeding ground of impropriety. The north, home to the prosperous City of London, was a sprawling metropolis, a major centre for banking, international trade and commerce by the sixteenth century. ‘People from the north bank who thought themselves grand would come over to Southwark to do their dirty business,’ Andrew informs me. London Bridge was the vital link between the two sides, playing a central role in interlacing the discordant elements of the city. Thus the bridge remains a symbolic and meaningful feature in the Blessing of the River Thames service.


Since 1252 when a polar bear was gifted to King Henry III and would go swimming  in the Thames, there has been an everlasting cascade of grisly and bizarre events happening along the two hundred or so miles of the meandering river. It is a formidable entity; a source of vitality – of which the Blessing of the River Thames service duly respects. Theprocession is one filled with banners, incense and full robes; an impressive sea of red and gold elegantly makes its way to the waterside. Members of the public gawk and stare, gathering around to watch. ‘There was once a driver coming along besides us who was so fascinated with what we were doing, he bumped into the back of the car in front of him,’ Andrew says, stifling a laugh. ‘It’s meant to be fun for people, it adds to the importance of it all. After all, religion is a spectacle.’

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