23 April 1592
My English tutor, Thomas Watson, calls it a growling, hungry, leviathan that will swallow a man the moment he sets his boots down in Thames Street. And yet, in some ways, ’tis not so different from Venice with regard to the river Thames—which runs through the city from east to west. I wonder if the citizens revere the river in the same way that Venetians revere their canals.
“Londoners rely on its currents to transport them to and fro throughout the city,” Watson says, as if hearing my thoughts. “And to many other places besides.”
“Your gondolas are not so narrow as ours,” I say. “I also notice they lack the curved prow and stern as our boats and they are moved along with oars rather than a pole.”
“True,” Watson says. “And they are called wherries, not gondolas, and their captains are known as boatmen or watermen. Some have more than one boatman, which makes for speedy travel, and these men must be highly skilled to ply their trade—serving no less than a two-year apprenticeship before they are allowed to solo. This is a great comfort to the citizens of the town as London Bridge is the only foot bridge that spans across the river.”
I watch the continual flow of wherries crossing from one side to the other as other craft traverse up and down the length of the river and it seems like utter chaos.
Even so, Watson says the watermen are so skilled there are few mishaps.
“Moreover, the public wherries are considerably more comfortable than the common gondola because of the soft embroidered cushions on the seats. Ample room to stretch out your legs. Most are covered for protection from the rain.
And best of all, there is no haggling over the fare. It is a penny to cross from one bank side to the other. All other fares are fixed depending on distance and whether you are going with or against the tide.”
Excerpt from Shakespeare’s Apprentice, a novel written by Richard La Rosa.