Druids, mudlarkers and teenage drinkers – photographing the many lives of the Thames

Eve Watling
·2-min read
<p>Pagan river ritual 23/06/2013, 6.30pm Oxford 3 varies 51°45’07.2”N 1°14’34.6”W fine</p> (© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints)

Pagan river ritual 23/06/2013, 6.30pm Oxford 3 varies 51°45’07.2”N 1°14’34.6”W fine

(© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints)

“We’ve lost our connection to water,” Chloe Dewe Mathews says in the introduction to Thames Log, her new photobook. Watching pedestrians stream over London Bridge without a glance downwards you might agree. But Dewe Mathews’ photographs, which document life along the length of the river, prove that the Thames nonetheless retains a powerful magnetism. From pagan offerings left at the river source, to mass baptisms, all the way along towards the teenage drinkers in Southend-on-Sea, the Thames still serves as a conduit for spiritual and social connection.

Dewe Mathews surveyed the river, all 215 miles from the Cotswolds to Essex, over several years. With an almost anthropological eye, she noted the date, time and co-ordinates of each place she photographed. This approach, inspired by the ship fanatics at Tilbury who keep a log of every vessel that passes, sometimes contrasts with scenes of pastoral worship. In Lechlade, we see a young Druid in a coracle made of bark and twigs, surrounded by cascading willow trees. He had recently made a pilgrimage of “peace up the river”; the image is serenely timeless. “41’17.6”N 1°42’17.2”W,” notes Dewe Mathews in the caption. “No tide, fair.”

First sight of water 05/09/2011, noon Kemble 4 n/a 51°40'46.3
First sight of water 05/09/2011, noon Kemble 4 n/a 51°40'46.3
Ceremonial boat burning 25/05/2013, 5pm Oxford approx. 50 annual 51°45’22.1”N 1°15’28.6”W clear, sunny© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Ceremonial boat burning 25/05/2013, 5pm Oxford approx. 50 annual 51°45’22.1”N 1°15’28.6”W clear, sunny© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Morris dancing on May Day morning 01/05/2013, 8.15am Oxford approx. 80 annual 51°45’21.5”N 1°15’33.0”W sunny© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Morris dancing on May Day morning 01/05/2013, 8.15am Oxford approx. 80 annual 51°45’21.5”N 1°15’33.0”W sunny© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Ganesh Visarjan 27/09/2015, 6.15pm Richmond approx. 95 annual 51°26’55.4”N 0°18’21.9”W fair© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Ganesh Visarjan 27/09/2015, 6.15pm Richmond approx. 95 annual 51°26’55.4”N 0°18’21.9”W fair© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Fishing 09/02/16, 3.30pm Walton-on-Thames 1 n/a - Overcast© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Fishing 09/02/16, 3.30pm Walton-on-Thames 1 n/a - Overcast© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints

For centuries, the Thames linked England to the rest of the world, and it now draws in traditions with roots in faraway places. In Richmond, Ganesh Visarjan is celebrated in a riot of orange flags, culminating in a statue of the Hindu god being submerged in the river’s waters. Downstream on London Bridge, priests from Southwark Cathedral toss a wooden cross into the water to symbolise the baptism of Christ.

Mudlarking 10/01/2015, 10am Southbank 2 varies 51°30’31.4”N 0°06’26.3”W mostly cloudy© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Mudlarking 10/01/2015, 10am Southbank 2 varies 51°30’31.4”N 0°06’26.3”W mostly cloudy© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Blessing of the river 08/01/2012, 1.30pm London Bridge approx. 120 annual 51°30’29.1”N 0°05’15.3”W overcast© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Blessing of the river 08/01/2012, 1.30pm London Bridge approx. 120 annual 51°30’29.1”N 0°05’15.3”W overcast© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Girls drinking 08/05/2012, 6.15pm Southend-on-Sea 3 varies 51°31’56.3”N 0°42’52.5”E fine© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Girls drinking 08/05/2012, 6.15pm Southend-on-Sea 3 varies 51°31’56.3”N 0°42’52.5”E fine© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints

Dewe Mathews, a graduate of the Ruskin School of Art, is known for her long, pilgrimage-style studies –for her 2010 project Caspian, she walked the border of the Caspian Sea photographing daily life. The approach gives her work a zoomed-out perspective while retaining granular human detail.

Mass baptism 23/08/2013, 3.30 pm Southend-on-Sea approx. 180 biannually 51°31’54.6”N 0°43’32.7”E overcast© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Mass baptism 23/08/2013, 3.30 pm Southend-on-Sea approx. 180 biannually 51°31’54.6”N 0°43’32.7”E overcast© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Scattering of ashes 23/08/2015, 9am Southend-on-Sea 5 varies 51°30’53.7”N 0°43’17.5”E sunny spells© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints
Scattering of ashes 23/08/2015, 9am Southend-on-Sea 5 varies 51°30’53.7”N 0°43’17.5”E sunny spells© Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints

Thames Log shows us how life still teems around the river – fishers, swimmers, mudlarkers and rowers – and how the Thames even becomes a passage to the beyond when ashes are tossed into the grey waters to be swept out to the North Sea. People have lived on the banks of the Thames since Neolithic times, and the river now provides water for millions of people. We may have lost our conscious connection to water, but Dewe Mathews shows us that it flows just beneath the surface.

‘Thames Log’ by Chloe Dewe Mathews, published by Loose Joints & Martin Parr Foundation, is available now