Its familiar curves and loops were outlined on the stadium floor in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. It provided the stage for the vast flotilla of boats during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant and the final journey of the Olympic flame was made along part of its length. Seven of the bridges that span it were decorated with coloured light and Olympic rings were suspended from its most iconic crossing point. James Bond, accompanied by Her Majesty, flew a helicopter through that same bridge to make an appointment at Stratford. It accommodated the Royal Navy’s largest ship and hosted the most impressive array of tall ships seen in London for many years. Oligarchs and the fabulously wealthy used it to slip into the city in their super yachts while scores of visitors flocked to its waterfronts. Nations set up temporary Olympic clubs along its banks. Fireworks exploded over it. Parties, functions and charity dos overlooked it and certain Olympic sports venues looked all the more impressive for being part of its backdrop. This summer the Thames, the river that divides and defines London, became an integral part of the city’s social and cultural celebrations.
The river, its more central stretch in particular, is normally regarded by Londoners as an irksome barrier and a vehicle choke point. There is an excepted perception that it is a much under used resource good for only expensive riverside apartments, some well located pubs and sightseeing boat trips. The Thames in London lost its role, its working function, when the docks finally closed to commercial shipping over thirty years ago. It has never since re-established its place at the heart of London’s working life. Of course it occasionally becomes the focus of attention during certain events and at festivals and celebrations but for much of the year its expanses of water are often empty and gloomy. It can be a mournful and windswept experience to walk along its banks and look out over its sweeping prospect.
Yet during this summer the Thames was a place transformed. Its wharves and embankments, its bridges and foreshore even its distinctive building line got in on the act. For this brief period the river was London’s showroom, its theatre and its reception room. Like a ribbon of energy, spectacle and colour stretching from Woolwich in the east to Westminster and beyond. It was an emblem to a city that was staging the greatest sporting event in the world and its naturally grand setting held the whole show together. The politicians and public relations people heralded it as a summer like no other and for once that was not overstating it. We are unlikely to see anything on the same scale again. I know memories fade and routine and normality quickly return to erode our sense of wonder but for those who walked by the Thames during these brief weeks will never look upon that river with the same eyes again.