Mar 26th, 2019

Sweet Thames, Run Softly

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Walking from the Source to Oxford

for BBC Countryfile Magazine

In summer, it starts as a shallow furrow in the grass. Not yet a stream, much less a river, its course doodles a soft line across the land, little more than a dry groove lined with nettles. For miles, this thin green strip curves past low copses and tucked-away villages, still waterless, biding its time. Then, without warning, the presence of some unseen spring brings to life a slight but palpable waterway. The current is slow, clear and ankle-deep. And away it flows.

The Thames is one of Europe’s great rivers. Churchill called it “the golden thread in our nation’s history”. For many, it’s synonymous with London, where its wide brown waters provide a focal point amid the rush and pomp of the city. It backdrops the Houses of Parliament, surges past the Square Mile and gives Tower Bridge its reason for being. It is a river of heritage, trade and power. But I’m standing some 175 miles upstream, in a windblown field in Gloucestershire, and can’t even discern the presence of H2O, let alone St Paul’s.

I’m spending four days walking the earliest sections of the Thames Path, the National Trail that leads from the Cotswolds to the capital. I’ll be following the fledgling Thames from its source as far as Oxford, shadowing the river as it loops through rural parts of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. It’s an on-foot journey of around 55 miles. The majority of the trail runs parallel to the river itself, along the edges of quiet water meadows. Out here, congestion translates as a view with more than one cow in it.

But back, for now, to that Gloucestershire field, home to the river’s source and the official start of my walk. This is Trewsbury Mead, otherwise known as Thames Head, where the grass is long, the hawthorn bushes are unruly and there’s not so much as a trickle of groundwater to be seen. It’s only a mile or so from Kemble railway station.

Near the trailhead I spy two deer – one buck, one doe – who eye me cautiously then skitter into the trees, caramel coats gleaming. And under a large ash at the field’s northern edge I find what I’m looking for, a pale, timeworn marker inscribed as follows: “This stone was placed here to mark the source of the River Thames.”

The claim, however, is contentious. Some hold the true source to be 11 miles further north at Seven Springs, a spot both higher in elevation and further from the estuary. In 1937 the matter was even raised in parliament, though to little effect. The official argument is that the stream emanating from Seven Springs has always been named the River Churn, and should therefore be seen as a tributary of the Thames, rather than its source.

Interestingly, were the Thames to be measured from Seven Springs, those extra miles would make it the longest river in the UK, an honour currently held by the Severn. I don’t suppose Old Father Thames, whose statue I find reclining at St John’s Lock midway along my walk, would concern himself with such trivialities. What’s beyond any doubt is that the Thames Path itself begins at Thames Head. It’s a bright August day and 55 miles stretch ahead of me. I have a river course to follow.

There are few things more pleasant, in my experience, than walking a National Trail. They tend to be reassuringly well signed (how many thousand acorn-adorned fingerposts must dot the British landscape?) and carry too a kind of tacit guarantee of quality. As a walker, you know to expect good things. I’ve completed two in the past hiking solo, and although I’m not, on this occasion, covering the trail’s full length, I still feel I’m being ushered into familiar arms.

By its nature, the Thames Path is an almost consistently flat walk. The drop in altitude between the source stone and Oxford is just 40 metres or so. The views throughout are deep, rural and largely untroubled by hills. But forget notions of monotony. In its evolution from soggy ditch to handsome river, the Thames reveals radically different sides to its character. On my first afternoon I’m walking next to a shady, overgrown watercourse, its slim channel twice lit up – thrillingly – by the blue blaze of a kingfisher. By my fourth, I’m watching fairground-lettered narrowboats ease past 40-strong flocks of greylag geese.

The route is a sedative one, a world of wheat fields, willows and church spires. On the second half of my walk in particular, once the river is broad enough to welcome boats and has a defined towpath, there’s hour after hour of gentle meandering through open water meadows. The banks are often heavy with sloe-covered blackthorns and pink, sharp-scented profusions of Himalayan Balsam. For almost a full day, I pass only bankside fishermen. “Perch – loads of them,” one of them smiles, when I ask what he’s catching. “I’m staying a while,” he adds, readjusting his chair.

There are times when the intrusions of modern life are inevitable – electricity pylons, or the high-pitched rumble of bypass traffic – but the joy of a walk like this is that it transports you from the digital age. The trail leads me past the mouths of tributaries with deep-rooted names – Windrush, Leach, Evenlode – where vivid blue damselflies busy the reeds and thistledown plays on the wind. On the Thames Path, wildflowers trump wi-fi.

I pass through little villages like Ashton Keynes and Castle Eaton, with their stone cottages and hand-made “hedgehog crossing” signs, and spend hours following the route as it wends among the ivy-wrapped trunks and reclaimed gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park, its large lakes alive with mallards and grebes.

The birdlife is prolific across all four days. There are swallows and house martins, wrens and sedge warblers, kestrels and buzzards. I lose count of the number of herons I inadvertently startle from the riverside. On each occasion they flap silently, regally, away from the water and back out across the land, their great grey wings beating in slow time.

My journey along the path even takes in two different National Natural Reserves, namely North Meadow, one of Europe’s finest remaining ancient lowland hay meadows (and excellent for snake’s head fritillaries in the spring), and Chimney Meadow, which I find peppered with butterflies: red admirals, brimstones and common blues.

The walk to Oxford falls broadly into two halves. Before Lechlade, the Thames is wild, narrow and quiet, a squiggling detail on the map. From Lechlade it becomes navigable, which means locks, weirs and gaily coloured pleasure-craft. It now has presence, breadth and authority – it defines the landscape.

The locks themselves are unfailingly charming (typical scene: neatly painted steps, lock-keeper tending to camellias, Radio 2 burbling softly from the lock-side hut) and have had eventful pasts. Huge quantities of salt, cheese, wool and Taynton Stone – a high-quality Cotswold limestone – would all have been transported along this stretch of the Thames on heavily laden barges, destined for sale in Oxford or London.

Aside from the aforementioned villages, the route passes through only a handful of other settlements. I split the walk with overnight stops in the towns of Cricklade and Lechlade, as well as tiny Newbridge, covering between 11 and 17 miles a day. It becomes a deeply agreeable, unhurried routine: long days on the trail, then evenings to mull them over in the pub.

Places of historical interest stud the route. Lechlade is a prominent example. The town’s fine church was partly commissioned by Catherine of Aragon (who once held the manor of Lechlade, and renamed the church St Lawrence’s, after a Spanish saint) and also inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1815 poem “A Summer Evening Churchyard”. Elsewhere, William Morris’ serene Kelmscott Manor sits just off the path.

Further downstream I pass what are reputed to be the two oldest Thames bridges of all. Radcot Bridge is a three-arched span of Taynton Stone dating back to the 1200s, and the similarly attractive Newbridge is only a few decades older. Both have been the site of conflict, during the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War respectively.

At times, landowners’ rights or other considerations mean the path steers away from the river itself, sometimes for hours at a stretch, but these sections are generally pleasant in their own right. And thankfully, a previously unpleasant mile-long slog along the A361 just before Lechlade has now been altered to create an attractive off-road route.

All told, it’s a genuinely soul-lifting few days. In a lonely, golden meadow not far from Newbridge, I meet a 50-something walker heading the other way. We stop and talk, watching the river slide by. “I’ve come from London,” she says, beaming. “Twelve days so far.” We spend a few minutes sharing stories on wildlife and pubs, then continue, she towards the source, I downstream among the rushes, stepping minute by minute closer to the spires of Oxford.

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