The Thames washes the southern border of these four counties. They all have low hills and spreading vales; but, whatever there may be of hill and dale, the general slope of the land is towards the river, which is bordered by flowery meads and shady trees.
Leaving Gloucester at Lechlade, where the Leach joins it, the Thames takes its course through a most pleasant green vale, between Berkshire on the south and Oxon and Bucks on the north. The Windrush joins it a few miles below the Leach. Oxford, the city of palaces, with many stately halls and colleges, stands in wide, tree-shaded meadows, where the Cherwell enters the Thames, which is here called the Isis.
The "fruitful Thame," whose course is partly through the fertile Vale of Aylesbury, joins the Thames at a point near to which was fought the battle of Chalgrove Field. It was hardly a battle, only a skirmish of the Civil War, but a .man fell here whose death was a sorrow to the whole English nation, even to the king against whom he was in arms—the noble patriot, John Hampden:—" the loss of Colonel Hampden goeth near the heart of every man that loves the good of his king and country."
Perhaps the prettiest part of the Thames Valley is where the river makes a bend to wind round the southern end of the Chiltern Hills. These hills, part of a long chalk range, run in a north-easterly direction through Bucks and Bedfordshire, generally in a waving line. Sometimes they are clothed with thick woods of beech, now they swell into wide and open downs, and now show their white chalk sides amidst the dark foliage of the beech trees. Oxfordshire is still famous for its beech woods, though much land is now farmed which not very long ago was forest.
Amongst the beeches, at the foot of the Chiltems, upon the bank of the Thames, nestles the pretty town of Henley.
Leaving Henley, the river skirts (Buckinghamshire, another county of beeches, which is said to have got its name from the Saxon buccem, a beech tree. The Thames flows on—
"Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong, without rage; without o'erflowing, full;"—
through deep, shady meadows, with, here and there, a border of forget-me-nots; past Great Marlow, where pins and paper are made; and close by the foot of Woburn Hill.
The beauty of the river becomes more striking as it takes its course through the trees of Windsor Forest, with the stately castle crowning the hill on the Berkshire side, and the buildings, stately also, of Eton College rising from among trees on the other. This is an old oollege, founded by Henry VI. for the education of twenty-five "poor and indigent boys." Some seventy "King's Scholars" are still taught at Eton; but besides these there are from 900 to 1000 other scholars, the sons of the most noble and wealthy persons in the country. Round the college buildings are gardens, and large and beautiful playing fields.
"Unmuddled by commerce, but flowing free and pure, amid the greenest meadows, scattered villas, and trees overhanging its clear waters, and adding to its glad aspect the richness of their beauty," the Thames continues its course. At Staines it is joined by the Golne. The chief beauties of the river are on the Surrey side now; Middlesex has, however, the grand front of Hampton Court Palace, Bushey Park, and Twickenham, where the poet Pope lived.
"Bushey is laid out with a fine sheet of water, and with splendid rows of horse-chestnut trees on each side of the public road which runs through it to Teddington and Twickenham. It is a very pleasant drive through this park, especially when the chestnuts are in full blossom.
"A visit to Hampton Court is one of the bravest pleasures that a happy party of friends can promise themselves." We do not see this stately palace, which outshone all the king's houses, at its best. Much of Hampton Court, as it was built by the proud cardinal, has been pulled down and replaced by less stately building. Here had Wolsey full room for the thousand persons, servants and gentleman attendants, who waited upon him. Here he kept great state, and entertained king and court with musio and feasting, shows, and other delights. When his fall was approaching, he presented his Hampton Court Palace, one of the finest in Europe, to the king.
The village of Teddington, Tide-end-Town, marks the spot to which the tide is felt, nineteen miles above London Bridge.
Onward still flows the river, towards great London town; past Brentford, where the Brent joins it, and where the old palace of Sion House stands on its northern bank; round Chelsea, really a part of London; under Hammersmith Suspension Bridge, the first of the twelve great passenger bridges which cross the Thames within London. This of Hammersmith, and the granite bridges of London and Waterloo, are among the finest anywhere. Five railway bridges also cross the Thames in London.
Perhaps the finest view of London is to be had from Westminster Bridge. There is the hoary Abbey close by; beyond it, we get glimpses of green parks and stately palaces; the magnificent Parliament Houses, and, on the Surrey side, St Thomas's great hospital. Towards the east is the round dome of St. Paul's in the distance; while beyond, and about, and stretching out of sight everywhere, are the endless buildings of London, a sea of human habitations. A forest of masts, belonging to vessels trading to every part of the world, throngs the river itself.
Large vessels come up to London Bridge, sixty-four miles from the sea, where the river is about twelve feet deep at low water; it gradually increases in depth as it nears the sea, and vessels of the largest size get as far as Deptford.
"There is no other example in the world, with, perhaps, the exception of the Amazon, of a river being navigable for large sea-going vessels through so great a part of its course; its depth of water, the far advance of the tide, and no mud-bar at its mouth," are among the causes why the Thames, but a small river after all, is renowned as one
"Whose ample breast displays unfurl'd
The ensigns of the assembled world."
East of the City, in the Tower Hamlets in Middlesex, and along the Essex and Kent banks, most of the people are engaged in sea-faring business. The land lies low and is very flat, and the water is kept out by walls and banks. The river-side houses in the Tower Hamlets and.in Lambeth are, however, frequently flooded during high tides.
Not far from Purfleet in Essex, is Tilbury Fort, a place of brave memories; for it was here the men of England gathered to meet the great Spanish armada, should it ever get nigh English ground, which it did not; the Queen's "sea dogs" and the storms of heaven prevented that. "It was a pleasant sight," says an old writer, "to behold the soldiers as they marched towards Tilbury, their cheerful countenances, courageous words and gestures, dancing and leaping wheresoever they came; when rumours of their foes' approach and of coming battles reached them, they were joyful at such news, as if lusty giants were to run a race." Then down came Queen Elizabeth and spoke to them the words of a brave queen to her brave people:—"I know I have the bodie of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king—and of a king of England too! and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm, . . . . not doubting, but by your obedience to my general, your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and my people." And this, after she had declared she had come down "resolved, in the midst of heat and battaille, to live or die amongst you all."
"In the early times of our history, the natural aspect of the Thames below London, and for some distance above it, was widely different from what it is at present. Where smooth pastures now form the banks, with grazing cattle, busy towns, and villages enlivening the landscape, the stream once spread without restraint, covering the surface with shallow and stagnant waters. Under the early Flantagenet kings, embankments were made at the cost of the citizens, to keep in the vagrant flood, extending to the distance of nearly forty miles."
The Victoria Thames embankment of our own day has rescued a broad and beautiful river-side walk for the citizens from the oozy margin of the river.
We have no room to speak of all the ships which come to do their business upon the Thames from every part of the world; nor of the endless river-craft, the steamers and barges; nor of the 3000 vessels which are employed in carrying coal from the northern coal-field for the use of the monster city: these things alone would fill a book.