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Its catchment area covers a large part of South Eastern and a small part of Western England and the river is fed by 38 named tributaries. With its waters varying from freshwater to almost seawater, the Thames supports a variety of wildlife and has a number of adjoining Sites of Special Scientific Interest, with the largest being in the remaining parts of the North Kent Marshes and covering 5,449 hectares (13,460 acres).recorded in Latin as Tamesis and yielding modern Welsh Tafwys "Thames".

The river's position has put it at the centre of many events in British history, leading to it being described by John Burns as "liquid history".

Two broad canals link the river to other river basins: the Kennet and Avon Canal (Reading to Bath) and the Grand Union Canal (London to the Midlands).

The Thames is the longest river entirely in England, but the River Severn, which is partly in Wales, is the longest river in the United Kingdom.

As the River Churn, sourced at Seven Springs, is 14 miles (23 km) longer than the Thames (from its traditional source at Thames Head to the confluence), the overall length of the Thames measured from Seven Springs, 229 miles (369 km), is greater than the Severn's length 220 miles (350 km).

The Grand Union effectively bypassed the earlier, narrow and winding Oxford Canal which also remains open as a popular scenic recreational route.

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