Understanding the names of some of England’s most iconic rivers

Landscape image of a river, plants and trees
The Cray is a chalk stream that rises from springs in Orpington, near Bromley.

Besides the River Thames, London’s most iconic river, there are many other waterways, big and small, that cut through England and form important blue corridors. But how many of those could you name? In an effort to reconnect to the former glory and pristine state of our rivers from centuries ago, we’re exploring the origin of the names of some of the rivers we work with at Thames21.


River Brent

The River Brent cuts north-west London and is one of the longest rivers flowing through the city at 17.9 miles in length. Its name is assumed to be of Celtic origin, associated both with the ancient goddess Brigantia and the word ‘brigant’, which means ‘high’ or ‘elevated’. Some scholars also believe the name designates ‘sacred waters’.

River Cray

The Cray is a chalk stream, rising from springs in Orpington, near Bromley, before joining the River Darent near Dartford. Some believe the name Cray comes from the Saxon word ‘crecca’, which designates a small brook or river, or the Welsh word ‘craie’, meaning ‘fresh water’.

River Ingrebourne

The name Ingrebourne is thought to be derived from the Old English suffix ‘burna’, a type of stream, meaning the river of Inga (a person or people). It rises in Essex, flowing north to south through the London Borough of Havering and joining the River Thames at Rainham.

River Lea

Also spelt ‘Lee’, the River Lea is London’s second largest river. It originates in Bedfordshire, meeting the Thames at Bow Creek. Its name is believed to come from a Celtic root lug which means ‘bright’ or ‘light’. It’s also a derivation of a deity name ‘Lugus’ so River Lea might mean ‘bright river’ or ‘river dedicated to Lugus’.

River Mardyke

Rising in Essex, the River Mardyke is a slow-flowing river that meets the Thames at Purfleet. Derived from Old English, its name means ‘boundary ditch’. In part, it forms the boundary between Barstable and Chafford, in the Essex Hundreds.

River Pang

The Pang is a chalk stream river that originates in the west of Berkshire and joins the Thames at Pangbourne. Its name is thought to be a back-formation from Pangbourne, ‘bourne’ meaning stream, similar to Ingrebourne mentioned above.

River Quaggy

A tributary of the River Ravensbourne, just below, the River Quaggy flows around south-east London in Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham. Its name is thought to come from the words quagmire and quaggy.

River Ravensbourne

The Ravensbourne flows from Keston in Bromley to Deptford, where it meets the Thames. The present spelling of Ravensbourne is believed to be due to folk etymology, meaning ‘boundary stream’, from Old English rand and burna. There’s also a tale that explains how Caesar followed a raven to the source of the river when looking for fresh water.

River Roding

Rising in Essex and flowing through east London, the River Roding forms Barking Creek as it merges into the Thames. The name Roding derives from Hroda, who was an Anglo-Saxon leader who governed the Roding Valley.

River Rom

River Rom, also known as River Beam, is a Thames tributary that serves as a boundary between the London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham and Havering. It’s another example of a back-formation from the name of the town of Romford, located on a river crossing. Romford is thought to come from ‘rum’ and ‘ford’, meaning ‘the wide spacious ford’. Beam is a more recent name that originated from an ancient bridge over the river made of a beam of wood.

River Thames

Although there are some conflicting theories about the origin of the name Thames most specialists seem to believe is derived from the Celtic word ‘Tamesas’, recorded in Latin as ‘Tamesis’, which is believed to have meant dark.

The Cut

The Cut is a curiously named river that rises in Berkshire and meets the Thames at the village of Bray. Its name originates from the artificial diversion eastwards from its original course westwards to the River Loddon.


How many of those rivers have you been to? What’s your favourite one?