In Book 4 of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-6), as the main character the flowery lady Florimell languishes in a dungeon, the River Thames, old and bearded as he traditionally is, gets married to the lovely young River Medway:
a solemne feast was there
To all the Sea-gods and their fruitfull seede,
In honour of the spousalls, which then were
Betwixt the Medway and the Thames agreed.
Long had the Thames (as we in records reed)
Before that day her wooed to his bed;
But the proud Nymph would for no worldly meed,
Nor no entreatie to his loue be led;
Till now at last relenting, she to him was wed.
When we were looking for the site of the Thames and Medway’s wedding in the modern world, we found the precise location in Kent, along the Thames and Medway canal. A stone obelisk, almost completely illegible, marks the point at which these rivers meet.
The canal is green and stagnant: a stale marriage, its shape determined by the convenience of the railway. No-one really used the canal as a hub of trade or transport, they use the railway instead. The canal was abandoned in 1934, and now padlocked gates, intricate dungeons, partition off May blossoms, old man’s beard, and chintzy purslane from the rest of the world. In the middle, reeds, sets of tall dark poles with dirty cottony beards wrapped round them, stand like totems to the bearded Father Thames that no-one has replaced in a while. Every Tuesday, people walk along the banks, clearing up the coffee cups, bottles, and cigarette packets that are all along the bank. They want it to be as good as new.