If you’ve been out and about in Greenwich this September, you may have spotted unusual gatherings of people along the river, or heard music coming from unexpected places. This month marks the 21st annual celebration of the River Thames. Known as Totally Thames, the festival spans the whole of September and encompases activities taking place on, beneath and along the river, writes Holly O’Mahony…

The festival was established back in 1997 by Adrian Evans, who remains its Director today. Now in its 21st edition, the festival has operated under three different guises over the years. Between 1997 – 2013, it was known simply as the Thames Festival and was just a weekend-long affair along the South Bank and Bankside. “It was like a party by the river,” recalls Adrian. The festival started drawing in numbers of around three quarters of a million, making it London’s second biggest annual event after Notting Hill Carnival.  “As we gained more partnerships, sponsorship and funding we were able to expand and the festival grew incrementally into the month-long event it is today.” In 2014, the festival was rebranded at Totally Thames and today, the month-long programme runs along the 42-mile stretch of the Thames, and incorporates the work of artists, local communities and organisations with a passion for the river.

“Back in 1997 the South Bank was a completely different environment,” remembers Adrian. “The Oxo Tower had just opened, but it was before the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge and the redevelopment of Borough Market. People had no reason to circulate there.” What about the Southbank Centre, built in 1951? “It was like an airport waiting lounge back in the 90s,” laughs Adrian. “Now there are pop-up bars and cafés all over the place but at that time there wasn’t any of that.” Adrian recalls that at the time, the Thames, despite running across the city, was a hugely underused and underappreciated natural asset. “There was no love for the river. People considered it polluted and foul. So the idea for the festival was to create an event that celebrated the Thames and attracted people to it.”

Today, Adrian and the team behind Totally Thames collaborate with a number of organisations and invite the public to submit their work, or ideas they have for the festival. “We invite people in to talk to us, then we work out whether their ideas can be realised,” says Adrian, pointing out that part of the job is curating a programme that represents the river in its different aspects. This means ensuring the line-up includes items that explore the archaeology of the Thames foreshore as well as events which delve into the river’s secrets and those which celebrate it through art, spoken word, music and literature. “Once you look at the programme from the perspective of the river it becomes a bit easier to consider the diversity of the work we’re showing.”

Judging by the line-up of Totally Thames events in Greenwich alone, it looks like the team have achieved this balance of events. Over the next few weeks in Greenwich, the festival is hosting a talk on the Whitebait trade; a site-specific audio walk through the Woolwich Foot Tunnel – in which audiences are invited to consider the concept of water and memory; an artist-led riverwalk to Crossness Pumping Station; and a night of Choral Evensong in the Chapel at the Old Royal Naval College.

One of the festival’s challenges, Adrian explains, is understanding the quirks and dangers of the environment of the river. “It’s vibrant and unnerving. It transports people but it also claims lives. To understand it has been a journey for me.” On a more practical level, Adrian and the team at the Thames Festival Trust, who manage the festival, must consider the public licensing and permissions needed to run each event, as well as how to run them safely. “It’s about trying to connect people visually with the river in a way that’s genuine and not hazardous,” he says.

Each year, a fundamental part of the festival is exploring a secret or little referenced aspect of the Thames. This year, the focus is on the Doggett’s Coat and Badge – the oldest rowing race in the world, held annually on the Thames since 1715. “People know about Henley and the university races [Oxford versus Cambridge University], but far less people know about Doggett’s,” says Adrian. “It’s a working men’s race, the outcome of which is more important for people working on the river than winning a gold medal at the Olympics.” Now in its 304th year, Doggett’s was held on September 4, with the race taking place between London Bridge to Cadogan Pier. “We’re doing a film as well as other events around [the race] too,” says Adrian.

Another exciting addition to Totally Thames this year is its new partnership with the city of Kolkata in India. Parts of India’s Durga Puja festival are celebrated on the banks of the Ganges. An exhibition about the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata is being shown as part of Totally Thames.

The key purpose of the festival, Adrian explains, is giving people an opportunity to re-evaluate the significance of the river to them and to the future of us all. “It’s not just about a physical piece of landscape, it’s about water and why it’s important to us; why we should value it and be sensitive to it,” Adrian explains. “Climate Change and rising water levels is of consequence to us and the way we live, but we also can’t ignore the poverty of water in many places. Connecting to the river helps us connect to those bigger subjects.”

Totally Thames is taking place at venues and locations along the River Thames from 1 – 30 September. See the festival’s website for specific events, admission fees and timings. www.totallythames.org/