A tale of two rivers: the Seine and the Thames

Guest post from Grant Waters, Co-founder of Tranquil City

Illuminated River invited Grant Waters, Co-founder of Tranquil City, to reflect on his relationship with the Thames and to share his thoughts on how we can discover a sense of urban calm by spending time by the river. In his blog, Grant explores the role of two iconic rivers, the Seine and the Thames, in holding the memory of their respective cities and he reminds us that "if we stand still ourselves, the river will carry on creating regardless".

Tranquil City is an organisation exploring our relationship with tranquillity in the urban environment to promote health, wellbeing and balance. Their interactive map, Tranquil Pavement London, uses noise, air quality and other environmental quality data to highlight areas that have the potential to be tranquil.

Image: Tranquil City.

A tale of two rivers

Beautiful places make us stop and take notice. But sometimes it’s not just observing beauty that gives us meaning, it’s understanding where we are and how we are a part of it.

I think of the glistening Seine, back in September last year when I was sitting on the hard cobblestones at the point where the river splits in two. I was facing south, so that the afternoon sun would shine down on me. I enjoyed the sunlight on my face as it filtered through the trees, the shadows making it not an overwhelming heat. I was wondering why nobody else was sitting here, contemplating if it was a place where people came to relieve themselves, or where the rats came to escape the crowds during the daytime. I didn’t care, I sat and ate my sandwich. The river was helping me. It didn’t care who I was. I felt like I was truly in Paris for the first time in six months since I moved there. In those six months, Notre Dame burned. When I think of Notre Dame, I think about the fact that me and my partner didn’t take a photo in front of it when we arrived back in January, for fear of looking like tourists, keeping face. “It’s not going anywhere,” we said. I took a photo of the Seine that day, it’s still the lock screen image on my phone. When I press my finger on it, it plays back the water flowing, white crystal reflections appearing and disappearing for a brief few seconds. It takes me back to that moment.

September 1st, 2019. Square Barye, on the banks of the Seine, Paris, France.

Image: Grant Waters.

On May 2nd 2020, I walked across the Thames at Battersea Bridge. As I made it over halfway I stared deeply into the waves, doing my best to not bump into the barrier. I felt lost for a moment. This past year has felt like I’m in a silence that I don’t understand. I’m a wave crashing against both sides as the river carries on regardless, but I don’t hear the chaos going on outside. In that moment on the bridge I thought to myself, “at least I’ve made it back to where I belong”. As we walked my friend noticed that the tide had gone out and people were walking along the foreshore, and I remembered the first time I walked along the Thames’ “beachfront”. It was in Deptford, where Henry VIII had his dockyard and its beams still stood there. I made imprints in the sand as I treaded. It felt like I was leaving my own footsteps behind those who came before. The Thames is a river that we always observe at a distance, but do not touch or dip our toes into. In it lies the remains of years past and in my mind, this is why it is so grey and opaque. It took me eight years of living in London before I went down the steps to the foreshore. When I think back to that moment, it felt like I had earned it. That moment is a photo in my mind.

May 2nd, 2020. Walking over Battersea Bridge, London, as the Thames reveals the foreshore at low-tide.

Image: Grant Waters.

This last year I’ve felt torn between these two rivers, one whose beauty I am still learning to see and the other whose waters are deep in the pores of me. I’m seeing these two cities at significantly different angles and I’m fighting an internal conflict of deciding which stage in life I am in. I was observing Paris’ beauty at a distance as I couldn’t seem to find my place in the city. I didn’t feel like I deserved my place in it. I understood from my experience moving to London that this rooting takes a significant amount of time, not just a few months. It takes wandering the streets, feeling lost, discovering places by accident, it takes walking without a map, it takes knowing people in each corner of the city, it takes absorbing the history of a place.

But what I’m learning is that one critical aspect needed to make that deep connection is ‘creating’ within a place. Before we create within a city aren’t we just observers or tourists? Creation doesn’t have to be works of art, it’s giving kindness to a passer by, it’s tending to a local garden, building a career, raising a family. Creation is living a life in the context of a place, interconnecting with others, both living things and inanimate buildings and streets. What’s important is that what you’ve created is open for others to observe. It’s thrown into the Thames for all to see, for it to be one of those many fragments that makes the river so grey and opaque.

I like the idea that there is no creativity from one person or entity alone, that as we create within a place we are feeding off of the flesh of a city, it’s blood, it’s secrets, the creativity that came before. There is something about watching a river flow that can calm us down. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgement that if we stand still ourselves, the river will carry on creating regardless. It will keep the city living. It’s comforting to know that we’re not as important as we think we are sometimes.

When I looked out at the Thames from Battersea Bridge that day, I thought of the fact that what I had created myself had deeply rooted me in London. I took comfort in that, it felt like a sense of home. Now when I look at the Thames, this focal point of the city, I think of all the people, ideas, the thoughts, memories, pains, blood and tears that were thrown into this river. These fragments give it a saline smoothness, gently rippling. It flows under the bridges, pumping like blood from a beating heart, giving life and animation to each part of the city as it passes. When I stare into it, it gives me a sense of perspective. It places me as a tiny grain of sand on the foreshore, that someone will tread on one day and come to the same realisation.

Illuminated River artwork on Cannon Street Railway Bridge.

Image: James Newton.

The Illuminated River project gracefully lights up the Thames bridges and helps us all take a moment to take note of what we’ve created in this city ourselves, as well as all to those that have contributed before us and will in the years to come. The photo I took of the Thames feels a world away from the one I took of the Seine. The visuals might be similar, the architecture and colours, but the emotions feel very different indeed.

Grant Waters, Co-founder of Tranquil City.

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