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 how two iconic rivers: the Seine and the Thames, play a role in holding the memory of their respective cities and 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. Sometimes, though, it is not just observing beauty that gives us meaning, it is understanding a location more deeply and how we, too, we are a part of it.

I think of the glistening Seine, back in September last year, as 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 shone down on me. I enjoyed the sunlight on my face as it filtered through the trees, the shadows shielding me from an overwhelming heat. I was wondering why nobody else was sitting where I was? Perhaps I had stumbled on a place where people came to relieve themselves, or where the rats came to escape the daytime city crowds. I didn’t care, I sat and ate my sandwich. You see, the river was helping me - it didn’t care who I was. I felt like I had truly arrived 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 remember how my partner and I 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 in September, and it is still the lock screen image on my phone. When I press my finger on it, it plays back a glimpse of the flowing water, 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 2nd May 2020, I walked across the Thames at Battersea Bridge. As I reached halfway I stared deeply into the tidal waves, doing my best not to bump into the barrier, distractedly. I felt lost for a moment. This past year has felt like I’m in a silence that I do not understand. I’m a wave crashing about as the river carries on regardless, and all the while I do not hear the chaos going on outside. In that moment on the bridge, I thought to myself, “at least I have 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, reminding me of the first time I walked along the Thames’ 'beachfront'. It was in Deptford, where Henry VIII had his dockyard and where its beams still stand today. 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 never touch or dip our toes into. In it, lays 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 ventured 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.

Over the past 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 am seeing these two cities from significantly different angles and I’m fighting an internal conflict all the while - orienting myself, deciding where I belong, and at which stage in life I am in. As I struggled to find my place in Paris, I noticed I was observing the city's beauty at a distance. I understood from my experience of 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 into your plores.

What I’m learning is that a critical aspect needed to make that deep connection is a sense of ‘creating’ within a place. Before we create within a city we are just observers, tourists. Creation doesn’t have to be a work of art. It can be 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; living things and also inanimate buildings and streets. What’s important is that what you’ve created is open for others to observe. It can be offered to the Thames for all to see, a fragment among the 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 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 is comforting to know that we are 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 had deeply rooted me in London. I took comfort in this feeling, 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 have been offered up into this river. These fragments give it a saline smoothness, gently rippling. The Thames 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 this river, 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. To take a moment to remind ourselves of all those that have contributed before us and all those who will continue to contribute in the years to come. The photograph I took of the Thames at Battersea feels a world away from the photograph I took of the Seine. The visuals might be similar, the architecture and the colours even, but the emotions feel very different indeed.

Grant Waters, Co-founder of Tranquil City.