River Thames | History, Map, & Facts (2024)

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river, England, United Kingdom

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Also known as: River Isis, Tamesa, Tamesis

Written by

Michael John Hebbert Professor of Town Planning, Victoria University of Manchester, England. Coeditor of The London Government Handbook and others; author of London: More by Fortune than Design.

Michael John Hebbert

Fact-checked by

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica Encyclopaedia Britannica's editors oversee subject areas in which they have extensive knowledge, whether from years of experience gained by working on that content or via study for an advanced degree. They write new content and verify and edit content received from contributors.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Last Updated: Article History

Ancient:
Tamesis or Tamesa
Also called (in Oxford, England):
River Isis

See all related content →

Recent News

June 29, 2024, 2:07 AM ET (AP)

Japanese emperor reconnects with the River Thames in state visit meant to bolster ties with UK

River Thames, chief river of southern England. Rising in the Cotswold Hills, its basin covers an area of approximately 5,500 square miles (14,250 square km). The traditional source at Thames Head, which is dry for much of the year, is marked by a stone in a field 356 feet (108.5 metres) above sea level and 3 miles (5 km) southwest of the town of Cirencester. Some think a tributary, the River Churn, has a better claim to being the source; it rises near the village of Seven Springs (700 feet [213 metres] above sea level), just south of Cheltenham.

Physical features

The Thames is some 205 miles (330 km) long, running 140 miles (226 km) from the source to the tidal waters limit—i.e., from Thames Head to Teddington Lock—and, as an estuary, a further 65 miles (104 km) from there to The Nore sandbank, which marks the transition from estuary to open sea. Its basin, which receives an annual average precipitation of 27 inches (688 mm), has a complex structure. In its upper course the river drains a broadly triangular area defined by the chalk escarpment of the Chiltern Hills and the Berkshire Downs to the east and south, the Cotswolds to the west, and the Northamptonshire uplands to the north. At Goring Gap it cuts through the chalk escarpment and then drains the land lying north of the dip slope of the North Downs. Its last great tributary, the River Medway, drains much of the low-lying Weald area of Kent and Sussex to the south of London.

Flowing through gently rolling lowlands, the distinctive character of the Thames is pastoral and undramatic. Its average fall between Lechlade and London is less than 20 inches per mile (32 cm per km). The tides and surges of the sea, moreover, have a profound effect on the water level of the river’s lower course. This tidal influence begins to be felt intermittently, for some three hours during a high tide, at Teddington in the west suburbs of London. The transition from freshwater to estuarine reaches occurs closer to central London, around Battersea. At London Bridge, in the heart of the metropolis, the river rises 22 feet (7 metres) on the spring tides and 18 feet (5.5 metres) on the neap tides.

Britannica QuizWater and its Varying Forms

The average flow at the upper limit of the tideway, at Teddington, is 1,856 cubic feet (53 cubic metres) per second, rising to 4,640 cubic feet (130 cubic metres) per second after winter rain. In extreme floods (e.g., March 1947) the discharge at Teddington Weir may be as much as 20,900 cubic feet (590 cubic metres) per second. Reputedly, an average of 31,310 cubic feet (887 cubic metres) per second passed over it one day after heavy storms in 1894. The river in spate can upset tidal flows for some distance below Teddington, overpowering the incoming tide and causing the stream to run seaward continuously for days on end. Conversely, high spring tides can overtop the weir and affect the river flow as far as 2 miles (3.2 km) upstream of Teddington. The catastrophic potential of tidal surges for London’s underground infrastructure, buildings, and population prompted the construction of the Thames Barrier at Silvertown (completed 1982) and extensive complementary flood defenses along the entire tideway.

River Thames | History, Map, & Facts (2024)

FAQs

Where does the River Thames start and finish? ›

The Thames is one of the most iconic rivers in the world and is 346 km long. It is the longest river entirely in England and the second longest in the UK. Its source is at Thames Head, near Kemble in the Cotswolds and its mouth is the Thames Estuary at Southend-on-Sea where it meets the North Sea.

Why is the River Thames so famous? ›

Not only is the Thames the only river in Europe to have a national trail following its entire length, it also winds its way through three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and offers you the chance to see all of London's most iconic landmarks from a completely unique vantage point.

How deep is the water in the River Thames? ›

Why was the River Thames biologically dead? ›

Measurements taken during the 1950s showed that dissolved oxygen (DO) levels in the Thames were at just 5 per cent saturation: the rough equivalent of 0.5 mg/l. That meant the river could only support a few aquatic invertebrate species like midges and fly larvae.

Why is Thames called Thames? ›

The word brown in the context of the River Thames reoccurs a lot, in fact the word Thames comes from its ancient name Tamesis which means dark.

Who owns the River Thames? ›

The Crown Estate – ownership of The River Thames.

What animals live in the River Thames? ›

All the animals spotted in the River Thames
  • European eels.
  • Short snouted Seahorse.
  • Harbour and Grey seals.
  • Tope and Starry Smoothhound sharks.
  • Oysters.
  • 125 different species of fish.
  • Northern Bottlenose Whale.
  • Dolphins.
May 4, 2024

Does the Thames run to the ocean? ›

It starts in Gloucestershire

The Thames runs through nine different counties (including Greater London) and ends at the Thames Estuary which leads into the North Sea.

Why can't you swim in the River Thames? ›

The water beneath can be very shallow and there are hidden dangers. Your body can also go into shock on contact with cold water. Alcohol or drugs are a lethal co*cktail when swimming.

Do they still pump sewage into the Thames? ›

Thames Water: raw sewage dumped in the River Thames more than 1,900 hours in 2024 so far. Thames Water has pumped human waste into the Greater London area of the River Thames for a staggering 1,914 hours since the start of 2024 – equivalent to 79 days.

What is the mystery of the River Thames? ›

The Thames has been a site of pagan ritual, sacred rites and popular celebrations since ancient times. Ghosts, dreams and strange stories gather on its bridges and lurk within its tunnels, tributaries and sewers. Dastardly deeds and death occur on the bank and in its docks.

Do fish swim in the Thames? ›

Although it may be hard to spot through the thick silt, mud and sand, the River Thames is home to some 125 different species of fish.

Can you still walk under the Thames? ›

The Royal Borough has two foot tunnels at Greenwich and Woolwich which are used by 1.5 million people a year to cross underneath the river Thames. From Woolwich, you can use the foot tunnel to walk to North Woolwich on the north of the river. The walk takes around 15 minutes.

Is the Thames river fresh or saltwater? ›

As the Thames is tidal, its waters are 'brackish' – a mixture of fresh and saltwater. Drinking untreated Thames river water is unsafe, although historically it has been used for many domestic and industrial purposes including cooking, brewing and generating power.

How old is River Thames? ›

The story of the River Thames goes back to over 30 million years ago when the river was once a tributary of the River Rhine because Britain was not an island. During the Great Ice Age 10,000 years ago the Thames changed its course and pushed through the Chiltern Hills at a place we now call The Goring Gap.

How fast is the River Thames? ›

Under 'ideal' conditions the water flows at almost 8 knots (10 mph) in places.” This is fast… There are a number of small beaches accessible at low tide along the central London Thames.

How tall is the Thames? ›

River Thames
• elevation214 m (702 ft)
MouthThames Estuary, North Sea
• locationSouthend-on-Sea, Essex, UK
• coordinates51°30′00″N 00°36′36″E
52 more rows

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