Caroline Crampton is very well known to this blog, mostly as the creator of the wonderful crime fiction podcast Shedunnit – see various references on the blog here, or go to the Shedunnit website here: it’s a great podcast and highly recommended. The fact that I have been a guest on it more than once does not, of course, affect my objective judgement. (As if all that was not enough, she also introduced me to THE most fascinating fact linking Noel Streatfeild, and Posy Fossil, with the film The Red Shoes. Read all about it...)
So when I found out that Caroline – whom I also know as a friend - was writing a book, I might have thought it would be about Golden Age crime fiction. Well, that may be coming one day, but this one is completely different, showing what a multi-talented woman she is.
The Way to the Sea is a book about the Thames, the river that flows across England, through London and out to the North Sea. The subtitle is The Forgotten Histories of the Thames Estuary. Caroline explains how her whole life and history are tied up in the river, after her parents sailed to London from South Africa, and lived on their boat in St Katharine’s Dock before settling into a house. Caroline has obviously been on boats all her life, and writes tremendously well about that. She travels the length of the river: part of it walking, and then joining those lovely-sounding parents to sail from London to the estuary. It is enthralling.
Writing about the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books, I said ‘I am a child of the city, and sailing would have seemed as unlikely as flying in my childhood, but I loved every word of this whole series’, and the same applies here. I am horrified at the idea of the sailing, but the descriptions are wonderful. And I think perhaps because I grew up in a port city based on an iconic river (Liverpool, the Mersey) I can empathize with that feeling for arrivals and departures, and the romance of a place tied to the sea. And also the world of docks and dockers, close to my own family – all of this features in the book.
During her journey she looks at history, literature, art, biography and practicalities. The story changes a lot as it goes on. I loved the section on Oxford – and of course she features that iconic Oxford book, Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night (all over the blog).
Then as she moves closer to London, we get Jerome K Jerome and Three Men in a Boat, also much featured round here, and a detailed description of a picture we used then: Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon, by Edward John Gregory, which is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery near Liverpool.
(and h/t forever to Deborah Machin Pearson, who suggested picture and book back in the early days of the blog, when I wasn’t even sure anyone was reading – she was encouraging and made suggestions. My true friend).
There’s Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, so very much set on the banks of the Thames. And Caroline glances at all those weekend cottages, the Maidenhead weekenders on the river, a feature of many a crime story in the 1930s. Off the couples (legit or not) would go. Who would come back, who would be drowned in the Thames? Who would have a mysterious maid who could not be tracked? Endless opportunities. This Christopher Bush book, The Case of the Tudor Queen, can stand in for all of them.
And there is a lovely quote from Henry James: ‘If the river is the busiest suburb of London it is also by far the prettiest.’
I loved all that, and then when she described walking along the embankment in London, I enjoyed that too: some bits I knew very very well, and have often walked myself, others were less familiar, but I still could picture them.
So this was all marvellous, but then it became, if anything, even more fascinating when she went outside the range of my knowledge, and sailed along the Thames describing the various fascinating and terrifying aspects of life there. The poverty, the dying industries, the beauty and the awe-inspiring nature of the landscape. Great Expectations is possibly my favourite Charles Dickens book, and she looks at that, and the adventures of the runaway Magwitch on the Marshes, and poor terrified Pip. She explains the reality of the prison hulks there, and shows us the churchyard assumed to be the one Dickens described.
There is more, much more. The description of Dead Man’s Island nearly gave me nightmares, with the bones, the bodies and the coffins. Look it up at your peril – I quite regret finding the brief clip on Youtube showing film of the place. I’m not linking to it: at your own risk google Adam Curtis, Dead Man’s Island. You might also find an article titled ‘Dead Man’s Island: Six Things You Wanted to know’. May I say: no you didn’t.
But apart from that I have nothing but applause for this marvellous book, which is also beautifully presented, with a stunning cover and lovely hand-drawn maps enabling you to follow the journey.
I thought of using some of the excellent illos in the book, but by this time I was becoming obsessed by the Thames, the Estuary, the flood defences, the role in wartime, the history – and I had a sudden inspiration to see what I could find at the Imperial War Museum, with their wonderful collection of photos. And so I chose four photos not directly connected to the book but which I thought were fascinating, atmospheric, full of history, and very much in the spirit of the book.
Top two illos are, evidently, the cover of the book and Boulter’s Lock by Edward John Gregory, Lady Lever Art Gallery. Then in the order in which they appear:
Summer fashions on the River Thames during the Henley Regatta, 4th July 1934.
Photo by Edward G Malandine
An unidentified flying boat on the River Thames – photographer unknown, date unknown, but obviously pre-WW2, and tremendously atmospheric I thought.
The representatives of shipping companies passing down the Thames in the naval pageant, 4th August 1919.© IWM (Q 20474)
"1940, Thames estuary boom defence, defending the Port of london, the naval harbours of Chatham and Sheerness. Heavy tides in the estuary as well as constant air attacks necessitate frequent check ups on the condition of the boom defences. The 3" high-angle gun that guards the gate ship of the estuary boom defence. Spikes and anti-boats baulks are seen behind."
Darwall, R H (Lt). © IWM (A 2027)