The river Thames is the backdrop for much of the action in my latest novel Jam and Roses. Sometimes, in the novel, it is a soothing and benevolent presence, at other times menacing and dangerous. The Thames is a river that seems to belong to the whole world. But it’s also a local river, and as a child, growing up near Tower Bridge in Bermondsey, the Thames for me was a source of fascination, excitement, but also of terror. The algae covered river stairs, damp and musty; the sucking muddy foreshore when the tide was out; the dangerously inviting moored barges; the scent of cinnamon and ginger from the spice mill; the docks, still bursting with vessels and trade: all spelled adventure. The riverside was our playground, a rare open space amidst the dense Victorian slum terraces, newer council flats, factories, tanneries, furriers, bone yards, vinegar works, breweries, and warehouses. By the river you could experience wide skies and open air. It was a place to breathe, to play, but also to die.
With its treacherous currents, the river was easily accessible from the many passage ways and stairs leading to its banks. ‘Don’t you go near that river!’ was the oft repeated warning, which was of course ignored. As the only girl in the local gang, I would join the boys, as pillion passenger on one of their bicycles as we headed for Butler’s Wharf, where the barges were moored, six deep at the quayside. The boys would engage in a deadly dance, leaping from one barge to the next till they had reached the farthest barge, almost at the middle of the river. One slip would see them dragged under by strong currents, and we whispered the names of those children who had lost their lives there. These vivid childhood memories inspired many of the river scenes in Jam and Roses.
I don’t know exactly when the boys cottoned onto the fact that I was terrified of walking over Tower Bridge. But one of their favourite sports was to lure me onto the bridge, often with the promise of seeing the famous strong man on Tower Hill, escaping from his chains. Once at the centre of the two hundred foot central span, they would hold me pinned to the spot where the two bascules met. The they would wait for a lorry to come along. In those days the suspension was very loose and when a lorry rumbled over the central span the two bascules would bounce like a trampoline and I’d be gripped with terror. The olive green river, one hundred and forty feet below, and clearly visible between the gap, felt entirely too close for comfort!
A story that filled my childhood imagination was one told by my mother about the number 78 double-decker bus which was crossing Tower Bridge just as it started to rise. Normally red lights and a bell alerted pedestrians to vacate the middle section, then the gates would close to traffic and the bridge would be raised. But on this occasion the safety procedures hadn’t worked and the bus driver found himself on a rising bascule with no time to stop or reverse. The north side rises a fraction faster than the south, and realizing that the bus was on the quicker rising north side, the driver hit the accelerator, and the bus jumped the three foot gap between the opening arms. Had the bus been on the south side, it would have smashed into the slower opening north arm, but instead it landed safely on the southern bascule. The bus driver, conductor and all eight passengers, were saved from certain death. The story made a deep impression on me, no doubt because my Mother was herself one of the passengers on that bus!
An artist's impression of the bus jumping Tower Bridge
But a few years ago I made an odd discovery, which throws a strange light onto my lifelong fascination for, and fear of the old river. I’d always assumed the bus incident had taken place during the war, but I found out it actually happened on 30th December 1952, just six months before I was born. So, it seemed I too had been on the bus that jumped Tower Bridge that day – the unseen passenger and the unrecorded survivor.