The Thames is still a mystery to many Londoners, kept at arm's-length by its concrete banks and uncertainty over tides and permission. But a growing army of Londoners are reclaiming their connection with the foreshore and helping to protect it, through volunteering with waterways charity Thames21. Together, they remove over 200 tonnes of waste from the Thames a year, and collect crucial data on the river's health.
38-year old Lina Allu is one Londoner who knows the Thames well. Through volunteering with Thames21's Thames River Watch citizen science programme, she now gets down to the river regularly to collect valuable data.
"People don’t really know about the riverbank," says Allu, "It feels restricted and a bit dangerous. But it doesn't need to be, if you look at a tide timetable. Once the tide's out the riverbank is very long and actually very accessible — but you don't know it until you’re there. And it's lovely, littered with relics of the past like clay pipes, porcelain fragments, animal bones, bits of oyster shells. I take my kids now and they love it."
"You discover new places"
Allu, who has a background in marketing, is one of Thames21's citizen science army. The free training takes less than a day and there are regular trainings advertised on the Thames21 events page. She and the other Thames River Watch volunteers contribute vital data which can be used to campaign for change — such as the shock 4,000 plastic bottles found in one day, a statistic which made news around the world. By getting down beside the river, these volunteers escape the pace and noise of the city too, and get a chance to connect with nature.
"What I like about it is that you discover new places," says Allu. "I've been trained to test the river's water quality [using the amount of dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and cloudiness] and I had to find a spot on the Thames to test. Now that I've established that patch, I've found out lots more about it, apart from the fact that I see its health go up and down, which is interesting in itself. I feel like I'm expanding my London story."
Allu is originally from Sweden, and thinks part of the reason the Thames suffers from plastic litter and other pollution is that Londoners don't get enough chances to get close to it. That very much unlike Stockholm, where citizens regularly go swimming in the city's waters.
"In Sweden, we have the right to roam and do what we like in the countryside, but in return everyone looks after it and knows to keep it tidy," says Allu. "So we don’t litter — it's drummed into us. Here in the UK and London, people get out in nature far less. There's no point saying 'don't throw litter' if people aren't able to see the consequences of doing it.
"I really recommend getting involved with Thames21 and Thames River Watch, it's such an eye opener. Everyone enjoys getting mucky and muddy and you get to meet such a wide range of people: young professionals, unemployed people, students, the diversity of people involved is great."
"There's no need to go to the gym"
Daniel Alabede, 51, from Gravesend, is another Thames River Watch volunteer, loving it enough to travel up from Thurrock to Hammersmith on weekends off. Hammersmith is one of four Thames River Watch hub sites — focal points along the Thames where groups come together to collect data on their patch of river.
"There's no need to go to the gym," says Alabede. "Doing citizen science and clean ups by the river keeps you alive, healthy and relaxed. And then we go to the pub afterwards to eat and share a pint."
Alabede got involved with Thames21 at a cleanup on the foreshore in Thurrock, and for him, looking after the river is common sense. "If you buy a house, you look after it because it's where you’re going to live for the rest of your life. Our environment is no different, it's our home. Unfortunately our globalised system doesn’t encourage us to take care of nature and bad behaviour has become the norm."
As a Thames River Watch citizen scientist Alabede travels over two hours each way up to Queen Caroline Drawdock in Hammersmith once a month to find out how the Thames is doing. Together with the other hub members, he lays out a transect on the ground, then counts and analyses the litter found within it — much of it plastic. Once that's done, he and his cohorts clean up the litter they find. "That way," he says "we can see how much litter is coming back to that site over a period of time."
Alabede always leaves feeling uplifted. "I love meeting like-minded people — and they in turn inspire me to learn and do more."
"Never underestimate the power you have to change society"
Reg Hemstock works for HSBC in Canary Wharf. He first got involved through Thames21's Corporate Volunteering programme, which enables businesses to help clean up London rivers. He jokes that somehow, rather than signing up to volunteer in Borneo rainforests through HSBC's community work days he 'accidentally clicked on Bow Locks in east London' — one of Thames21's hub sites. Seven years on, Hemstock has now been accredited to lead his own events through Thames21's free Leading a Waterway Clean-up training — and so he frequently finds himself on the Thames, as well as its many tributaries
"One of the best things about volunteering on the river is the people I meet," says Hemstock. "I feel honoured to be around people with so much enthusiasm and commitment for their area and the environment.
"It's an amazing feeling when people walking past on the riverfront take time to find out what you are doing. It tends to be split; most people really appreciate the work that we do and try to get involved themselves. Whereas some people just think you're on some form of community service and avoid you by walking on the other side."
There are deeper impacts going on than the physical, Hemstock believes. "The piles of rubbish and invasive species removed from rivers are the visible achievements that we make, but I truly believe that our greatest success is the experience and the attitude that members of the public leave our events with — that's what makes a real difference. Volunteering has changed my life. Never underestimate the power you have to change society for the better."
In all these ways and more, Londoners are taking back control of their foreshore; cleaning it, learning about it and protecting it. And in the process, they're reconnecting with a secret world, with nature and with all the Londoners who've gone before.
How to get involved
Fancy helping spread the word about how fantastic the Thames is? Thames21 is launching a new training for Londoners wanting to become Thames Ambassadors.
Want to get out of the office? Invite your company to sign up to the Thames21 corporate volunteering programme. Small and large businesses play a key role in providing the last line of defence for the Thames and the wider ocean, by removing hundreds of tonnes of waste from the Thames each year.
Staying safe on the foreshore
The Port of London Authority’s guidance.
Be aware that the Thames rises and fall by over 7m twice a day, and has a fast current. Watch out for uneven ground, sharps, litter and slippery steps.