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Walking the Thames with Tony Robinson. Photo/Getty Images

Tony Robinson walks through the history of the Thames

Tony Robinson is lured by beauty and complexity along the 346km length of the Thames.

He’s done 20 series of Time Team, he’s traversed Britain from coast to coast and via its ancient tracks, he’s poked around Egypt, Australia and New Zealand, but Walking the Thames with Tony Robinson (Living, Sky 017, Sunday, 8.30pm) is the one that has had the most impact.

“Better ratings than I’ve had for ages and ages,” says Robinson.

“It was a breakout series. I’m not saying this just because you’re about to see the show.”

Over four episodes, Robinson walks from the source of one of the world’s most famous rivers to the sea, a journey of 346km. There is pleasure and commerce in equal measure, from luxury boats to cargo ships. There are crayfish catchers, young rowers, a palace, an ancient garden, a fish market and a sewage plant. There’s even a tiny electricity generator.

“It’s a good story,” says Robinson, of which Britons, and Londoners in particular, are unaware. Perhaps that explains the UK viewing figures.

“People are so fascinated by the notion of this river, by the complexity of all the things that people do up and down it and the way that, even now, people are inventing new things to do. And the fact that it’s got all this history.”

Tony Robinson. Photo/Supplied

Among the many surprises is the mighty river’s remarkably prosaic beginnings in a field in Gloucestershire. There is a stone marking the spot, but “there’s nothing there”.

It makes sense, he says, as “watercourses throughout the world are changing as the demand for water grows. The main source of the Thames is a good mile from the one that’s marked in the ordinance survey map.”

Robinson can trace his own London roots back 300 years. Some of his ancestors lived on the River Lea, a Thames tributary, and “that was how they would get into the city”.

Along the journey, he became fascinated with “how it all holds together – the fact that it was so complex”.

Having a ride in the gold-leaf-covered Queen’s Barge wasn’t too shabby, either, although he did a terrible job of coxing the young England rowers at Henley.

The Thames, says Robinson, is experiencing a rebirth, thanks in part to a multimillion pound effort to clean it and its tributaries.

“The River Lea was called the rainbow river, because you never knew what colour it was going to be the next day. Now, at the end of the Thames, there are seals, which is just wonderful.”

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.