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Wapping: How Terrible Thames is part river tour, part anarchic theatre show

Co-written by Terry Deary of Horrible Histories fame, the boat trip departs daily

Terrible Thames lasts 45 minutes and sails from Tower Bridge to Parliament and back

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REVIEW

There’s real depth to Terrible Thames.

I’m not just talking about the part of this touring play that deals with Julius Caesar crossing the river with an elephant when the whole body of water was much wider and shallower.

I’m referring to the sheer displaced tonnage of gruesome facts and aquatic curiosities that Horrible Histories author Terry Deary and Birmingham Stage Company actor manager Neal Foster have filled this 45-minute show with.

The former is well known for celebrating the brutal and shocking as a way to engage minds young and old in the study of the past.

The latter has long been a partner in bringing his written works to the stage.

But this collaboration – running every day over the summer holidays – is truly something different, seating its audience on the top deck of a boat and taking them on a cruise through the landmarks its inspired by.

Passengers take to the top deck of Silver Sockeye – part of Woods Silver Fleet – for a trip up the river to the Houses Of Parliament before heading back to Wapping and returning to base at Tower Quay Pier.

The show itself rests on the premise of a long-suffering teacher taking an excitable and enthusiastic student on a trip up the Thames as a treat for winning the school history prize.

The twist in the tale, of course, is that the teenager knows far more about London and the river’s horrific history than the teacher – thanks, it seems, to a suspiciously high number of informative relations who have all played their parts in the city’s story over the years.

From the audience’s point of view, it’s a hectic barrage of information. Dozens of anecdotes and morsels bubble up to the surface as the two performers coordinate their material with the passing sights. 

The show takes place on the top deck of a boat

We learn about executions, plague, fire, suicide and even a boating disaster, in all their gory details as London slips by.

Perfectly timed sound effects provide aural punctuation as the actors dice and slice imaginary victims to the obvious delight of both adults and children.

And while there’s an inevitable focus on the violent and terrifying, there’s a lot more to this show than just blood and guts.

For example, Cleopatra’s needle is revealed to be nothing to do with its namesake but rather an obelisk carved in the time of Thutmose III.

Similarly, we also learn that Waterloo Bridge was largely built by women during the war in the 1940s and that Vikings led by King Olaf of Norway (probably) pulled down a wooden iteration of London Bridge using cables and longships to help beat the Danes who had taken control of the city.

The flow of information is thicker than the Thames would have been during the big stink and even printing these spoilers doesn’t make a dent in the overall experience. 

It’s a trip that works on many levels. For the kids there’s poo, songs, rude words and an irreverent youngster showing up his teacher. 

The show takes place on board Silver Sockeye, part of Woods Silver Fleet

For adults there are plenty of political references and opportunities to groan in a knowing way at the odd heavy handed pun.

For the tourists it’s a breathtaking barrage of information and tales that would never find their way into scripts for more staid, serious tours.

Then – crucially, for Londoners – there’s such a wealth of stories that there’s almost certainly going to be several tales they haven’t heard before – a new way to see the river that for so long provided the lifeblood of the capital and remains its twisting backbone.

It’s also a testament to the writers that they haven’t tried to shy away from anything. 

In addition to the gore and heads on spikes, there’s a poignant reminder that so much of London’s wealth and prosperity rests on Britain’s enthusiastic, mercenary appetite for the slave trade with slavers compensated for their losses when abolition eventually arrived.

All in all, this is a truly refreshing way to see the city with fresh eyes – oh, and there’s a good old shanty to round things off. 

  • Tickets for Terrible Thames start at £25 for adults and £15 for children aged 3-15. Babies and toddlers go free. Shows take place daily over summer 2023 and tickets can be booked here
James plays the role of Billy The Student in Terrible Thames

CREWING THE SCENERYJames Elliott, Billy The Student

“I really enjoyed Horrible Histories – the books and the TV shows – as a kid, so I was buzzing when I got an audition for Terrible Thames in 2021,” said James, who plays boisterous 13-year-old Billy in the production.

“They asked me to film an interactive horror tour around a London flat, so all my housemates helped out and we ended up with a really funny video that got me the job and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Having attended Stagecoach, James went on to attend drama school in Guildford, graduating into an acting world ravaged by Covid.

“There was nothing much going on, so I spent a lot of time sitting on my thumbs for the first year before this role came along,” he said.

“The Thames is such a gorgeous place in the summer with the light shining off the water – it’s really magical. I really like that Billy gets to do a couple of songs during the show.

“There’s one about poo, which the kids really love, so I direct it at the adults who don’t quite know where to look, which is also good fun.

“Of course there are lots of other cruises and history tours on the river, but there’s nothing else like this. It’s fun, fast-paced and super informative – a show that’s great for kids and adults.

“It’s a play while also being a tour – audiences will learn about so many things from Execution Dock in Wapping all the way up to Parliament, two miles up the river.

“The reaction I’ve had from family and friends is that they’ve learnt so much about London from going on the trip.”

Jake plays the role of The Teacher in Terrible Thames

CAST OFFJake Addley, The Teacher

Playing the role of The Teacher, Jake Addley is a member of the current rotating cast of Terrible Thames.

Essentially the more sensible and serious of the two characters, whose pomposity is constantly pricked by his exuberant student.

Jake said: “I started off as a child actor, appearing in Shakespeare plays and pantomimes from about the age of 10 at an arts centre in Bracknell.

“Then I got an opportunity to attend the Brit School when I was 16 and my career went from there. I wanted to be a dancer for a long time, so I was in a contemporary dance group.

“From the age of 18, I was appearing professionally.

“About two years ago I was performing in another show and got asked if I wanted to audition for Terrible Thames – I did so and got the part.

“Having the river as your set is amazing, especially if it’s a nice sunny day – cruising up and down between all these iconic buildings and historic monuments.

“However, because the tide goes in and out the speed of the boat up and down stream can change completely so as performers we have to alter what we’re doing depending on that.

“Performing with James is great because initially I was coming into it new whereas he’s an old hand – when we’re chopping and changing things he’s a real pro.

“My favourite fact on the tour is that the Ministry Of Defence building still has Henry VIII’s wine cellar underneath it, which I had no idea about.

“I’m also embarrassed to say that before I got this role, I had no idea Cleopatra’s Needle was on the Thames, despite living in London.”

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Tower Hill: How the Tower Of London is set to fill its moat with a wildflower meadow

Transformation will be open to the public with access to the plants via pathways or a giant slide

A Yeoman Warder enjoys the flowers during a trial for Superbloom in 2021
A Yeoman Warder enjoys the flowers during a trial for Superbloom in 2021

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They say never work with children or animals, but what about plants? It is an equally anxious experience according to Rhiannon Goddard, project director of Superbloom at the Tower Of London’s moat

The project will see the space, created in the 13th century to keep people out of the Tower, welcome visitors later this year.

The moat is being transformed into a wildflower meadow to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and a team of 100 people have been working since November to preserve the architecture of the site and prepare it for new wildlife.

The sowing of 20 million seeds is now underway and due to be completed in mid-April. Rhiannon said it would then be a waiting game to see if they bloom as planned.

“You have no idea what’s happening beneath the earth and just have to wait and pray that Mother Nature does her thing,” said the 46-year-old, who is head of public engagement projects at Historic Royal Palaces (HRP).

The aim is to create a vibrant sea of flowers, including ​​poppies, sunflowers, gypsophila, cornflowers and cosmos, which will evolve from June to September and attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies and seed-eating birds.

The public will be able to enter the moat via a giant slide or walkway and experience the garden up close throughout the summer. 

It is the first stage of a permanent transformation of the space into a new landscape aimed at attracting wildlife and creating a permanent Jubilee legacy.

Historic Royal Palaces head of public engagement Rhiannon Goddard
Historic Royal Palaces head of public engagement Rhiannon Goddard

“We are really excited about that because the Tower isn’t a biodiverse space at the moment,” said Rhiannon.

“We really want to be able to create something that is quite special in the heart of the city that everyone will be able to enjoy.

“We are hoping to attract lots of bees, bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies because they are all pollinators.

“During last summer’s trial beds, we were amazed to see how many arrived just for a tiny little plot.

“So we really hope to up the biodiversity from that really low-value grassland we had before to a high-value habitat.”

Planning for the project started three years ago with landscape architects Grant Associates, with Professor Nigel Dunnett from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture brought in to create the special seed mixes.

But a lot of work had to be done before they could be sown.

“The moat is a really historic place and has only been grassed over since 1845,” said Rhiannon.

“There is a lot of archaeology there so as custodians of this wonderful place we had to be really mindful of what had happened in the past.

“There used to be a more grand entrance in the west called Lion Towers, which is just ruins now and a lot of the foundations are under the moat.

“There was another tower in the north that got bombed in the Second World War and the foundations are under that as well.”

Soil delivered to the Tower, ready for Superbloom
Soil delivered to the Tower, ready for Superbloom

Items such as a lion’s skull and the skeletons of a Medieval woman and child have previously been found at the Tower and archaeological trial pits were dug to make sure nothing unexpected would be disturbed.

“There are lots of things that we have unearthed in the moat over the years and we know there’s a lot more,” said Rhiannon.

“This time we have found lots of medieval coins, which will go into our collection and possibly be displayed in the future.

“We also put in 2.4 km of new drainage as part of this project and wherever we have dug we have had archaeologists watching every move in case something was uncovered.

“Obviously I didn’t want to find anything amazing down there because it would have really delayed us.”

Once digging was completed, 10,000 metric tonnes of subsoil and topsoil was brought in to create the best conditions possible for the seeds.

“I have never learned so much about the composition of soil,” said the Stratford resident.

“It’s absolutely astounding to me the lengths you can go to to make sure your blooms will come up perfectly, by controlling the nitrogen levels and fertility of the soil.

“They actually have to be quite low for these sorts of hardy annuals.”

The soil, recycled from a sand and gravel quarry near Sevenoaks in Kent, was carefully mixed with compost and finely grained before being transported to the tower.

“The logistics of getting that amount of soil into the moat and making sure it all came in a timely fashion has been the biggest challenge,” said Rhinannon.

A special conveyor belt was constructed so it could be loaded at a compound on Tower Hill and then tipped onto dumper trucks waiting below.

It was then spread across the 14,000 sq metre moat to create a terrain designed to have movement and flow.

An artist's impression of the slide into the moat
An artist’s impression of the slide into the moat

The space was then divided into grids so the seeds from Sheffield-based social enterprise Green Estate could be sown over three weeks from the end of March.

“We have had to think hard about that too,” said Rhiannon. “We don’t want to start at one end and finish at the other, because we want it all to bloom simultaneously.

“It is designed to look nice in June, right through to September, so the garden will gradually get higher and higher and always look fresh.

“It will be very colourful and change quite dramatically as the season goes on, with different waves of flowers coming through. There will be something new to look at every couple of weeks.”

The flowers are expected to start blooming by the end of May, just before the Jubilee celebrations on June 2-5. Rhiannon said she would be on tenterhooks until then.

“We have temporary irrigation on standby in case we have a very dry spring, but hopefully the seeds should just do their thing,” she said. 

“I think I’m going to become quite obsessed with the weather forecast over the next few months and we will all have our fingers crossed hoping it is kind to us.

“I can’t wait to stand down there and see some flowers rather than just the soil because it will be such a relief that we have managed to pull it off.”

It is the biggest project the Stratford resident has worked on for HRP and includes the rebuilding of a permanent ramp at the start of the moat to make it fully accessible to wheelchair users. 

There will also be quiet mornings for families with autistic children as well as visually described tours.

All visitors will be able to move amongst the flowers on a compacted gravel pathway with volunteers on hand to answer questions, with a plant identifier app being developed for the event.

Tickets will have timed slots with a maximum of 750 people allowed down to the garden every 30 minutes.

Rhiannon said: “The moat is surprisingly large once you get down there, but we are working with local businesses and transport to make sure it is a really lovely experience and not overcrowded. 

“We want everyone to enjoy the tranquillity and beauty of the garden.”

Adult tickets for Superbloom start at £12 and do not include entry to the Tower.

Pathways laid out as Superbloom works continue
Pathways laid out as Superbloom works continue

Read more: Faraday Prep School offers supported place to Year 2 or 3 pupil

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